Having a police oversight commission is one of SanTana’s oldest and most thwarted ideas. A black civil rights group proposed the reform way back in 1965 after the Watts Riots and just a few years before the city’s own tense relations between police and African American residents came undone. Former councilwoman Michele Martinez asked city officials to look into police oversight boards in 2017 and nothing came of it.
In the backdrop of a political feud between the Santa Ana Police Officers Association and council members who voted against $25.6 million in police raises, the issue arose anew. Only this time, councilwoman Ceci Iglesias found herself alone on the dais in hoping to direct the city manager to look into establishing a police oversight commission.
The only comments in support of the Republican’s initiative came from progressive community members. Bulmaro “Boomer” Vicente served two terms on Berkeley’s police review commission before resigning and moving back home to SanTana. He brought his experiences with the Bay Area model to the council.
“It served as a platform to address the distrust between police and residents,” said Vicente, a 2019 Soros Justice Fellow, during public comment. “Coming back to Santa Ana, I’m seeing the lack of accountability of our police. It’s imperative that the city council take action.”
The question of police accountability doesn’t just come in the midst of a political feud. A federal grand jury indicted former SanTana cop Brian Booker in July on serious criminal charges, including allegedly using excessive force and falsifying reports during a 2014 arrest. That same month, the Weekly published video footage showing an apparent sex act taking place in a patrol car in SanTana; the police department launched an internal investigation into the April 10 incident.
None of those recent examples made their way into the public discussion around establishing a police review commission.
“I am for fair law enforcement that treats our community well and I believe most of our department and officers have done that,” said Iglesias. “Oversight is good for anything that we have.”
The councilwoman invoked Anaheim’s Police Review Board, a model that lacks subpoena power and pairs civilian commissioners with the Office of Independent Review, an external auditor. Given that SanTana’s current city manager Kristine Ridge worked for Anaheim at the time it piloted a precursor Public Safety Board, it seemed like a logical model for her to look into.
Even though Iglesias and councilman Juan Villegas paired to oppose the controversial police raises earlier this year, she couldn’t count him as a backer of civilian police oversight.
“I love our police department,” said Villegas. “It’s been very tough to vote no on the raise. They do a lot of work. I wish we could afford it. But moving on to this. It’s this council here that has the power. We have a city attorney to subpoena these folks and we have a good police chief.”
The councilman claimed that police already had several layers of oversight from the Orange County district attorney’s office to the council itself. And while Anaheim remains the sole city in OC with such a board, Villegas argued, SanTana has different issues and doesn’t need one.
When the Weekly published its Blood Orange special report, SanTana actually topped Anaheim in police shooting statistics. Between 2006 and 2016, SanTana cops killed 27 people in officer-involved shootings, three more than Anaheim during that same time span. Even when factoring the incidents per capita, SanTana emerged as the deadlier department. But Anacrime is Anacrime, right?
Council members Jose Solorio and David Penaloza, both funded by the police union in their past election, passed on supporting Iglesias’ initiative. Councilman Vicente Sarmiento didn’t understand the context for the issue arising again and questioned his colleague’s intent. He noted that when Martinez rallied for police oversight, she did so by pointing to costly settlements in police shooting civil suits.
In 2016, two such settlements tallied $6.8 million alone. But the issue of costly settlements hasn’t gone away. In fact, before voting to give police big raises, the city approved $1.7 million to settle a lawsuit prompted by the fatal shooting of Steve Salgado in 2017.
“The intent of this is to have the community have input on what’s happening with our police department,” said Iglesias in answering Sarmiento. “I’m doing it for the community. It’s not to be punitive on our officers.”
Mayor Miguel Pulido unsurprisingly shrugged off the policy push.
“I can’t support what’s being proposed,” he said. “Right now, with the chief, a new contract, a new city manager, technology that we’re incorporating and using, I think we’re on the right path. We need to continue that path and I believe bringing a commission right now to advise us would not serve any productive purpose. My personal direction would be, leave it alone.”
Left by herself, Iglesias’ push for police oversight in SanTana failed as all efforts before it have.
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!