Chief David Valentin has been accused of letting MET “act with impunity.”
Officers in an exclusive Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) unit who share gang-like skull tattoos have been the subject to complaints of alleged misconduct both off and on duty but faced no discipline, according to police records and a source within the department. Five officers in the Major Enforcement Team (MET), which operates much like a police SWAT unit, were accused of verbally harassing two teenage girls and groping one of them on the buttocks in 2020 at a Culichi Town restaurant according to police records, police bodycam footage, and a source.
In a 2021 incident, Santa Ana City Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez reported seeing an off-duty MET officer and another man holding a struggling woman in a parking lot in downtown Santa Ana, groping her breasts and telling her, “chill,” and “shut up,” according to police reports. Other witnesses said they only saw the off-duty MET officer holding his wife back from an intoxicated woman who was trying to fight her outside the Copper Door restaurant.
In a separate instance, earlier this year, a Santa Ana police officer sent an email to City of Santa Ana human resources manager Jason Motsik, City Manager Kristine Ridge, and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, alleging he had been harassed. He claimed Chief David Valentin, who set up the MET unit, and a founding member of the MET unit had targeted him for criticizing the chief.
In all three cases, SAPD concluded no wrongdoing had occurred, and no officers were disciplined, according to police records and the source.
SAPD initially refused to release records of these incidents in response to a Public Records Act request. After this reporter filed a lawsuit against the city for refusing to produce the records, Santa Ana released police body camera footage, 911 call audio, and written reports on the incidents, as required by the law.
SAPD spokesperson Maria Lopez did not respond to a request for comment on the MET officers’ behavior or the police department’s investigations of these incidents. She stated, “In regards to your questions, the Public Records Act does not require the City or Department to respond to questions, however, if I can assist you in locating a record that is not exempt, please feel free to contact me.”
MET Officers Share Matching Black Skull Tattoos with Ace of Spades
Most officers in the MET unit have matching black tattoos on their forearms, calves, and upper arms, the source said. The tattoo displays “040’s” above a skull with an ace of spades on its forehead and the word MET below the skull. The number 040 is a reference to MET’s police radio code. Historically, the ace of spades playing card was a token of death used in the Vietnam war by American soldiers. US soldiers would drop ace of spades cards, which were mass produced for the Army, on dead Vietnamese soldiers. Los Angeles County Sheriff gang “Jump Out Boys” also use the ace of spades in their paraphernalia.
Most members of the MET group also carry challenge coin–like tokens, according to the source. A challenge coin is a small token or coin with an organization’s name or slogan on it, typically given to members as a sign of recognition or status within an organization. The token is adorned on one side with an ace of spades decorated with a skull and number “31,” a reference to SAPD’s Orange County radio reference number. On the other side, the token reads “MET” and “ODERINT DUM METUANT.” The phrase is Latin for “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”
A photograph of a group of MET officers shows one of the MET officers, Travis Johnson, flashing his fingers to spell out the number 31.
New California Law Attempts to Address Police Gangs
A new law authored by state assemblymember Mike Gipson attempts to update the penal code to address the long-standing problem of law enforcement members forming their own violent gangs. It was supported by Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who has promoted alleged deputy gang members. Section 13670 now defines a police gang as “a group of peace officers within a law enforcement agency who:
“May identify themselves by a name and may be associated with an identifying symbol, including, but not limited to, matching tattoos, [and] … who engage in a pattern of on-duty behavior that intentionally violates the law or fundamental principles of professional policing, including, but not limited to,
- excluding, harassing, or discriminating against any individual based on a protected category under federal or state antidiscrimination laws,
- engaging in or promoting conduct that violates the rights of other employees or members of the public, violating agency policy,
- the persistent practice of unlawful detention or use of excessive force in circumstances where it is known to be unjustified,
- falsifying police reports,
- fabricating or destroying evidence,
- targeting persons for enforcement based solely on protected characteristics of those persons,
- unauthorized use of alcohol or drugs on duty,
- unlawful or unauthorized protection of other members from disciplinary actions,
- and retaliation against other officers who threaten or interfere with the activities of the group.”
If an officer fits the description of a police gang member, they “must hold those officers accountable through proportionate disciplinary measures when misconduct is proven,” according to the penal code.
The law only applies to on-duty conduct by police gangs, and would not apply to the actions by the MET officers when they were off duty.
MET Unit Includes Officers from Disbanded SWAT Team
The MET team was created by Chief David Valentin on January 6, 2020, and currently has 11 members. It included Sergeant Oscar Lizardi and now-retired MET Detective John Rodriguez, both from Strike Force, a SWAT team that operated in Santa Ana between 2005 and 2013.
Rodriguez and Lizardi, both handpicked by Valentin at MET’s inception, were tasked with selecting the rest of the MET team, according to the source. Officially, joining the MET team includes a normal testing process like any other department promotion. The source says instead current MET members contact officers directly as a form of endorsement before testing into the unit.
“They know who they want to be part of the team,” they said.
Off-Duty MET Officers Sexually Assault a Child
On August 9, 2020, two 15-year-old girls sat dining with their family at a Culichi Town restaurant in Santa Ana off Bristol Street. Off-duty MET members Sergeant Oscar Lizardi, Jonathan Perez, Dorin Buchanan, Jonathan McKee, and Mark Campi sat together a few tables away, according to the source. They had been invited there by the restaurant owner, who later stated in an interview captured on body-worn camera that the off-duty officers “were having a good time” but were “causing issues.” According to 911 calls made by family members and other police reports, each time one of the girls got up to use the restroom, one of the men would say to one of them, “Hey, I love you.”
The girl’s father got up to tell the officers to stop harassing the girls, and the police officers began to argue. A MET member groped one of the children from behind and said “let’s go” as she got up from her chair, according to her interview after the incident. The family also stated in their interviews that the men identified themselves as police officers, prompting them to dial 911 to report the incident. In the first of several minutes of audio of the calls, a family member reported that the MET officers were “getting away” and were across the street already.
The officers involved in the Culichi Town incident have refused our requests for comment.
The video footage of the responding officers’ bodycams are heavily redacted, but viewing it raises questions about whether they conducted a thorough investigation of their fellow officers. The investigating officers turned off their body cameras when they talked to each other and stood at angles that did not allow their body cameras to record the family’s cell phone footage of the MET members. According to the source and city records, the harassed family was never contacted after the night of the incident and no MET members present were interviewed.
Underchief Robert Rodriguez, who had worked in the old SWAT unit with some of the officers who went on to join MET, played a vital role in protecting the former SWAT, off-duty MET members from investigation when he was the Internal Affairs commander, according to the department source.
The Culichi Town incident has been an open secret within the department since it happened in August of 2020, according to the source. A photograph of the MET officers standing in front of a car with their faces blacked out has been circulated within the department anonymously with the caption “Join our great team” and Culichi Town’s logo below that.
MET Police Officer Allegedly Protected by Chief in Off-Duty Fighting Incident
On May 6, 2021, Santa Ana City Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez reported seeing two men, one of which he recognized as off-duty MET Detective John Rodriguez, holding struggling woman, groping her breasts, and telling her to “chill out” and “shut up” in downtown Santa Ana on 3rd and Broadway, according to a police report. Hernandez, upon confronting the men, called Chief David Valentin and reported what he saw. Simultaneously, Rodriguez recognized Hernandez and left the area. The other man involved, who was not an officer, stayed with Hernandez. According to the anonymous source, Valentin first said that the off-duty detective was retired. Hernandez responded that he knew for a fact that the officer was not retired. The chief then changed his answer to say that the detective was retiring soon.
According to a security guard who witnessed the incident, he also recognized the MET detective saying that he’s “known them for 10 years” and did not see Rodriguez groping the woman.
Chief Valentin has not responded to our requests for comment.
Following the SAPD investigation in the Copper Door incident, Detective Rodriguez was not disciplined in any way.
Former MET Detective John Rodriguez, who was involved in the fighting incident downtown said “wrong number” when we called him for a statement. After sending our questions via text, he said, “I don’t know what you are talking about please stop harassing.”
Santa Ana Police Officer Complained About Harassment by MET Officers and Chief Valentin
An SAPD corporal attempted to alert upper-level city management to alleged malfeasance by MET Sergeant Oscar Lizardi. In an email sent to City of Santa Ana management, Corporal Anthony Cardenal lays out the targeted harassment of other officers by the chief and MET. Cardenal states that Chief Valentin allows the MET sergeant to “act with impunity” and that “three different officers identified Sergeant Lizardi last summer as having intimidated them on behalf of Chief Valentin.”
The email also says Valentin launched an investigation against an officer who criticized the chief for authorizing the release of almost every SAPD officer’s official headshot photograph in response to a Public Records Act request last year.
“This investigation was framed in a way to make me sound guilty in order to justify Chief Valentin[’s] prior action[s] (which are being investigated by Human Resources), and his decision demoting me,” stated the corporal in his email.
This reporter requested those photographs to identify then MET Detective Rodriguez as one of the officers involved in the fighting incident outside the Copper Door restaurant after Valentin incorrectly claimed to Councilmember Hernandez that Rodriguez was retired at the time of the incident. It is important to note that the politically powerful labor union representing Santa Ana police officers — the Santa Ana Police Officers Association — sued the city, SAPD, and Valentin himself in a failed attempt to block the release of the officers’ official headshots. After the superior court denied the union’s effort to block disclosure of the headshots, the court granted the police union time to appeal, but the union dropped the case.
Rodriguez earned a salary of $384,369, according to records from 2019, until he retired in November 2021.
Two MET officers who were allegedly involved in the Culichi Town incident have also recently retired. Mark Campi has become a US marshall and Dorin Buchanan is a patrol officer after having received a DUI. As more reports emerge about police gangs, legislators struggle to address this special version of state violence. AB958 attempts to address the issue, but the lack of consequence for a chief who handpicks friends to investigate friends demonstrates how departments can skirt around the law. Despite SAPD’s motto — “Community First!” — and mission statement promising the “utmost professionalism and integrity,” the department is choosing to break the law.
The Press Freedom clinic at UC Irvine’s School of Law sued the City of Santa Ana to get many of these police tapes and reports for reporter Ben Camacho. Law students Jenna Cowan and Kristine Kevorkova lead the way on the case. The Press Freedom clinic (“Putting the Bite Back in the Public Records Act”) is part of the school’s Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic.