It’s the story that replays itself every few years. 

Police unions are becoming the biggest spenders in Orange County’s municipal and county elections.

Some local leaders from both political parties fear it’s creating an environment where police have the power to elect – or unseat – the very people they’re supposed to answer to. 

With Anaheim’s police union entangled in a City Hall corruption scandal – and Santa Ana’s spending $371,000 in hopes of successfully recalling a City Council member over police salaries for the second time in three years – police union politics are out on full display this year like never before. 

And in Anaheim’s case, under city investigators’ focus. 

A July 31 report by independent investigators – hired by the City of Anaheim in response to an ongoing FBI corruption probe into City Hall – alleged that a powerful network of Disneyland resort interests improperly controlled city policymaking from the shadows.

[Read: A Rare Look At What Happens When Local Police Play Politics]

City-hired investigators – themselves former police officials – tied the police union to forces improperly exerting influence at city hall. Investigators highlighted police union efforts opposing a gas station approval that would have competed with one owned by a political fundraiser for disgraced former mayor Harry Sidhu. 

[Read: Did the Anaheim Police Go to Bat for Disgraced Former Mayor?]

City investigators noted the power that comes from spending heavily on city elections to form a friendly council majority.

One which Disneyland resort interests and the police union could support together.

Edgar Hampton, the police union’s president for much of the time frame that investigators focused on, has denied his organization being part of a shadow government, and discounted the role his organization played in local politics.

But in both Anaheim and Santa Ana, the police unions account for some of the largest political spending on citywide elections.

And in both cities, the result has been massive raises for police officers, despite concerns from some residents that such raises were fiscally irresponsible – forcing Anaheim residents to dip into their general fund reserves in 2020.

At the county, big Sheriff Deputy raises created conditions where critical investments in public health couldn’t be made, an impact largely unnoticed by the public.

Until the pandemic arrived. 

[Read this: OC Grand Jury Issues Scathing Report on County’s Pandemic Response, Plans]

In neighboring Santa Ana – before a police union-backed council majority approved $25 million in officer raises over two and half years in 2019 – voters had just approved a ballot measure in 2018 that made their city’s residents the highest-taxed in all of Orange County. 

Taxes that would go right back toward police salaries. 

Boosts in police salaries also means more money for police union coffers from member dues – monies that often go right back into funding local city campaigns through political action committees – again with the aim of further boosting salary and benefits. 

That kind of leverage can make police unions an imposing force for the elected officials who stand up to them. 

A force that some critics can only describe as political intimidation.

“As long as the public is afraid and wants to be safe, the endorsements from the police and fire will always be massive, and elected officials will do whatever they can to get it and to the detriment of the town,” said Jim Righeimer, a Republican former mayor of Costa Mesa who confronted his local union over raises and spending. 

While in office in the early 2010s, Righeimer and other City Council members from across OC publicly alleged that they were the target of police union intimidation and harassment in attempts to secure favorable labor contracts during negotiations that at the time were underway.

Righeimer said he was followed by private detectives hired by police union officials, who later disavowed the actions of the investigators. He accused the police union of orchestrating a failed effort to arrest him for drunk driving. Lawsuits around the issue swirled for years.

[Read: City Council Members Allege Police Union Bullying]

Righeimer, reflecting on the saga in a Monday phone interview, said his litigious reaction might have been what the union was aiming for. 

“Once I was in litigation, I was barred from voting on their contracts.”

Righeimer said he doesn’t blame officers for wanting better salaries – “I don’t blame people for wanting more money in any job. I think that’s fine.” 

But when police unions use public safety concerns as leverage, Righeimer said you get situations like Santa Ana. 

In 2020, the police union under former president Gerry Serrano funded a successful recall campaign against Cecilia Iglesias, a Republican council member who opposed controversial police salary increases the previous year. 

“They didn’t even need her vote,” Righeimer said. “It was all to make a point.” 

“It was all to make a public showing to all the other council members, that we will destroy you,” Righeimer said. “Instantaneously.”

It speaks to the way police unions in politics can become a bipartisan issue, despite the often divisive political territory of law enforcement reform. 

Serrano – who officially separated from the City of Santa Ana in July and did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday – later mounted the same recall effort against two City Council members, in this case Democrats, who again opposed the police union’s pay raise demands last December.

And one of those recall efforts has successfully forced an election for this year, to decide the fate of Councilmember Jessie Lopez, a Democrat, scheduled for Nov. 14. 

Police union-driven ousters don’t just apply to elected officials. 

Officers can just as easily put pressure on their own chiefs to resign.

In 2017, police chiefs in both Anaheim and Santa Ana stepped down after the police unions under them called for their removal. 

In Santa Ana’s case, former chief Carlso Rojas sued the city, claiming he was pushed out by the mayor and police union for whistleblowing.

[Read: Former Santa Ana Police Chief Sues, Claiming He Was Pushed Out By Mayor and Police Union]

In Huntington Beach that same year, the police union took a vote of no confidence in former chief Robert Handy, amidst tension with his officers over efforts to outfit police with body cameras.

At the county level, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) has been a steady player in county supervisor elections spending heavily in local races.

It’s paid off.

Back in 2019, OC supervisors granted a total of $151 million in raises for deputy sheriffs that had a real impact on the county budget – and a continuation of a trend established earlier in the decade.

While spending on sheriff salaries skyrocketed, spending on public health went flat – a trend that had deadly consequences when the 2020 pandemic arrived and the county’s public health system was caught flat-footed.

[Read: OC Moves Millions From Health Agency to Help Cover Sheriff Overruns]

While the AOCDS has backed largely Republican candidates in years past for county supervisor, their recent investments have shifted to Democrats over Republicans. 

In the 2022 election cycle – after scoring $151 Million in raises in 2019 from a GOP-dominated board of supervisors – the union representing OC Sheriff’s deputies spent big money on a Democratic candidate for OC Supervisor, Katrina Foley, over the Republican, Pat Bates.

[Read: Here’s a Twist: OC Sheriff Union is Attacking the Republican and Backing the Democrat in a High-Stakes Race]

Foley won that election.

When back-to-back police shootings of Latinos fueled unrest in Anaheim in 2012, it was the city’s Republican mayor at the time, Tom Tait, recalls becoming a police union political target after he called for independent reviews of the shootings by the U.S. Attorney’s office. 

“I felt that the District Attorney at the time, Tony Rackauckas, didn’t have credibility with the public and independence to investigate, partly because the police unions get very involved with District Attorney races,” Tait said in a Tuesday phone interview.

What followed was a series of attack ads and statements by police union leaders and even Rauckackas himself, accusing Tait of siding with gangs and criminals when outraged residents protested and rioted following the deadly police shootings.

“Everything is a balance, and in Anaheim, it’s always felt way out of balance,” Tait said, adding that the police union certainly isn’t the biggest spender in citywide elections compared to Disney, “but they’re up there.”

This year in Santa Ana, it’s Democrats who now find themselves on the unfavorable side of police union spending, with the Santa Ana Police Officers Association putting more than $371,000 – and racking up $15,000 in debt – on the campaign to recall Councilmember Lopez.

Lopez now finds herself in the same shoes as Iglesias, despite the two sitting on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Iglesias declined to comment for this story on Tuesday, citing her schedule.

“She’s a staunch conservative. But part of her job was to protect taxpayer money and that’s what I believe she was trying to do. And it’s the same movie we’re seeing again in 2023,” Lopez said. “Taxpayer money – is it being used appropriately? They don’t even like that I asked that question.”

That doesn’t mean every police union member is happy with their organization’s political exploits.

Serrano’s helm of the Santa Ana police union ended amidst public legal battles with top City Hall officials – including Police Chief David Valentin – over Serrano’s quest for a pension boost and what officials described as a bid to “burn the city to the ground unless he gets what he wants.” 

After Serrano’s departure, one police union member and public critic of Serrano sent his own letter to union membership.

“Our SAPOA needs to get a bit more involved with our community,” wrote police union member Manuel Delgadillo. “If our SAPOA can spend thousands on recalls, politicians donations, and attorney fees and still give our SAPOA Members children scholarships, we can surely hand out a few to the community we serve.”

Delgadillo shared his letter with Voice of OC. Read it here.

It includes recommendations for a new union leadership direction under Serrano’s replacement, John Kachirisky: “Our association needs to lay low and slowly repair the tarnished image left behind by our former president.”

Though the early signs aren’t good, wrote Delgadillo, who alleged that the union’s executive board under Kachirisky agreed to give Serrano $20,000 out of the union’s “Widows and Orphans” fund following his separation from City Hall. 

Kachirisky – who didn’t respond to requests for comment on Tuesday – defended that decision in his own letter to union membership. But the executive board reneged, according to Delgadillo’s letter, after police union membership “voiced its displeasure.”

“First impressions are very important,” Delgadillo wrote. 

It leaves open the question of how much the police union will continue to spend on Lopez’s recall under Kachirisky’s helm. 

“When a piece of mail comes from the Police Association, it has nothing to do with being safe,” said Righeimer. “It has to do with them getting someone elected who will give them what they want.”

“I’m not saying safety is not on their list, but the top of their list is pay and pension.” 

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