Callous Prank at Santa Ana Police Department Reveals Culture of Harassment
A fake BOLO bulletin made light of the tragic killing of Brandon Lopez. The department has called it mere “musings” and refuses to disclose who is responsible.
Santa Ana police officers created a satirical “be on the lookout” (BOLO) bulletin referencing the 2021 killing of Brandon Lopez in an apparent effort to troll fellow SAPD officer Nelson Menendez. The BOLO, recently leaked to Knock LA, was posted in SAPD’s patrol roll call room on October 23, 2021, and stated that Menendez had lied on radio communications about seeing a gun in Lopez’s possession.
According to body-worn camera footage released through a lawsuit, Menendez was merely relaying the observations that officers Kenney Aguilar and Luis Galeana were making about Lopez on the day of the incident, September 28, 2021. Lopez, the cousin of Santa Ana councilmember Johnathan Hernandez, was in fact unarmed: no weapon was located after the shooting.
[The Brandon Lopez incident began when he stole a vehicle and Anaheim police chased him through Tustin, Irvine, and Santa Ana. The chase ended when Lopez crashed in a construction zone on Santa Ana Boulevard and Bristol Street. SAPD then established a perimeter around the crash site, spanning one block in each direction. Lopez remained in his car for over four hours, refusing SAPD’s commands to surrender. Family members repeatedly told SAPD that Lopez was not okay and needed help.
The incident ended with Lopez being shot and killed after SAPD Chief David Valentin and APD Chief Jorge Cisneros agreed that the situation would be handed back to APD, despite the incident taking place in SAPD’s jurisdiction. APD’s official reason for the handoff was that the incident had begun in Anaheim. APD SWAT officers Brett Heitmann, Paul Delgado, Caitlin Panov, and Ken Weber arrived around 9 PM and at 10 PM they shot and killed Lopez.]
It is unclear if it was Aguilar or Galeana who stated “417 right hand” first, which is code for “brandishing a firearm,” but Menendez only repeated the observation.
The SAPD refused to release the BOLO or the digital footprint left on the department’s computer system by whomever created it. The city and the police department have denied multiple public records requests for both, stating that the BOLO is exempt from release because they do not classify it as a public record but as “musings about a colleague’s shortcomings,” according to their record request denial.
Language used on the BOLO points to recently promoted commander Oscar Lizardi, former Major Enforcement Team (MET) detective John Rodriguez, and Corporal Travis Johnson.
The word “bozo” is used in the BOLO; according to an anonymous source within the department, Lizardi, Rodriguez, and Johnson would use that same word to refer to others. The word also appeared on an official MET vehicle’s license plate as part of a prank when someone pasted a fake plate reading “040BOZO” over the real plate. MET’s radio designation is 040, and the number appears on their challenge coins and tattoos, along with an ace of spades, skull, and “ODERINT DUM METUANT,” Latin for “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”
The phrase “full nelson,” which also appeared on the flier, is what Rodriguez would say to others when they were “getting a case put on them or some exaggerated punishment,” according to the source. It is a reference to Menendez’s unsuccessful attempts to be promoted in the department.
Lizardi declined to comment after a brief phone call. Johnson and Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.
In a phone interview, Johnathan Hernandez said, “It shows that there are people who understand exactly what happened that day. For me … it proves what we all know and that’s that he was murdered. The question is, why did they murder him? This BOLO raises even more questions about foul play and raises the point that there was knowledge that Brandon was unarmed. This is a strong indication that police had knowledge that he was unarmed yet they still treated it like a standoff and killed him. This was another case of ‘shoot first and ask questions later.’” Hernandez made it clear that he was speaking as a family member of Lopez and not in his capacity as a city official.
The BOLO has been the subject of an internal affairs investigation, according to sources in the department. But almost a year and a half later, no one has been held accountable.
SAPD did not respond to requests for comment.
The BOLO incident does not exist in a vacuum. It shows the culture within the department right now and how the chief, MET, and command staff maintain a grip on the department, using whatever means they can to silence potential whistleblowers.
The day it was posted, former officers David Guzman and Christopher Cecil found the flier and were the ones who originally alerted Menendez about it. In early 2022, Guzman was placed on leave after a private text message speaking out against Chief Valentin’s decision to demote another officer was leaked to command staff, according to multiple sources. This ultimately ended in his firing, and sources in the department say he has a “target on his back” for attempting to be a whistleblower.
“Anyone who speaks out about the chief’s gang or their misconduct will be targeted for retaliation. The goal is to silence them in any way necessary,” said an anonymous source within the department.
The incident Guzman referred to in his text message was related to officer Anthony Cardenal’s demotion. The department alleged that Cardenal initiated a work slowdown by having a conversation about officer safety with a few patrol officers. This came after a public records disclosure of almost all SAPD officers’ headshot photos.
Cardenal filed a lawsuit against the city in November 2022 alleging retaliation from the chief and command staff and is seeking payment for damages — something that taxpayers would ultimately have to pay for, if he wins.
This lawsuit is one of several from former officers who are alleging retaliation from the chief and/or command staff.
One month prior, Rita Ramirez, the former police administrative manager, filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation from the chief and command staff after she had refused to “pick a camp” in the department.
Initially, Ramirez alleged, she had passed Valentin’s “‘gang-like’ loyalty tests” when she surveilled then acting deputy chief Jim Schnabl on behalf of Valentin. The lawsuit states that Valentin “made this request by asking: ‘Are you down for this?’” The relationship changed when Ramirez met with Santa Ana Police Officers Association president Gerry Serrano, according to the lawsuit. Valentin, Serrano’s “rival,” called Ramirez and said, “You better be careful who you associate with,” the lawsuit alleges. Ramirez was ultimately fired after several other instances of alleged retaliation and harassment by Chief Valentin — whom she refers to as the “gang leader” — and command staff, according to the lawsuit.
The BOLO, retaliation incidents, and lawsuits come at a time when police reform is a prominent issue in the community and the Santa Ana City Council is in the process of finding commissioners to appoint to the city’s Police Oversight Commission. Although the commission was not specifically created for officers to submit complaints about other officers, there is no language in the policy that would prevent officers from doing so, as long as the alleged misconduct falls within the scope of the commission’s powers.
Bulmaro Vicente, policy and political director for the civic organization Chispa, said, “If it falls within the category of complaints it should be good — and having the officer submit an anonymous complaint to the commission makes sense.” Chispa was among the organizations that helped craft the policy that established the oversight commission.
SAPD officers who are aware of the corruption in the department have little faith in the commission, due to the process requiring the chief to ultimately accept any disciplinary recommendations. They also do not see their internal affairs division bringing about any accountability. A source within the department said, “Investigations against [supporters of the chief] do not work because the chief handpicks who will work in internal affairs. The chief only allows investigators who will cover up, lie, [or] look the other way if they are ordered to. Meanwhile those same IA investigators will harshly discipline [and/or] terminate officers not in the chief’s ‘camp’ for something extremely minor in comparison.”
Hernandez stated, “When they kill your family member, it doesn’t just end there. They will make flyers that will kill your soul and the character of the deceased. This BOLO is lawless, reckless, and it is a small look at what is happening inside of this department.”
It also shows that even officers think that the Lopez incident was indeed a murder.