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Police Oversight Established in Santa Ana

The Santa Ana City Council voted to establish a resident-led commission to review police misconduct.

The front half of a black and white Santa Ana police car in the foreground with individuals wearing police uniforms and sunglasses in the background.
SAPD at their staging area prior to a scheduled protest in downtown Santa Ana. SOURCE: Ben Camacho

Fifty-seven years ago, just one month after the Watts rebellion, Black community members in Santa Ana demanded the all-white city council establish oversight of the all-white Santa Ana Police Department. This past Tuesday, after input from the community and civic organizations, the Santa Ana council cast a final vote in favor of establishing a police oversight commission.

The committee will have the power to review complaints and lawsuits alleging police misconduct. The oversight director, acting as head of the commission, will have the power to subpoena witnesses and investigate the issues.

Efforts to push for oversight restarted in 2017 after the city settled two police shooting cases for upward of $6 million combined. One of these cases involved now-retired Major Enforcement Team (MET) Detective John Rodriguez shooting Jason Hallstrom in the back twice, according to records obtained via a public records request. The other case involved Detective Christopher Shynn shooting and killing Ernesto Canepa, who had a BB gun in the back seat of his parked car.

In the months leading up to the final vote, ACLU SoCal and Chispa OC submitted a model ordinance that was responsive to community outreach efforts such as community forums. The city attorney reviewed and modified the draft. The coalition then wrote a letter to the city in which they highlighted issues with the changes. The coalition also met with different members of the council, including the mayor, to address the concerns.

“The original draft ordinance that we managed to accomplish with the city was a robust commission with investigative and auditory powers. The primary function of oversight is so that police don’t investigate themselves only. With the new commission, residents on the commission will work with the oversight director that will conduct those investigations into the most serious uses of force and misconduct,” said Jennifer Rojas from the ACLU.

Ultimately, a version of the draft that includes the city attorney’s own language and community input was passed.

“Both powers did pass,” said Rojas, “but the big obstacle for us is the city charter. The commission will not be able to impose discipline upon the officers who committed misconduct. It’s because of the charter, the SAPOA contract and the Peace Officers Bill of Rights. It is the strongest that it could be under these circumstances.” SAPOA is the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

But an anonymous source within the Santa Ana Police Department said, “Understanding that transparency is necessary, it’s never easy to be judged by someone who has no understanding of your job. Officers need to feel supported by legislators when lawfully carrying out their duties, and it isn’t there with many of these more progressive cities and states.”

This comes at a moment when SAPD has been publicly infighting for some time.

SAPD Infighting

Soon after the sitting council was elected in 2020, an anonymous source within the police department leaked information to multiple parties. Included in this leak were details on the Culichi Town Incident, Chief David Valentin’s alleged misogyny, MET incidents, a comparison of MET to the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) detail of LAPD’s own Rampart scandal, and the chief’s alleged lack of oversight.

Since then, the SAPOA and former officer(s) have filed at least three lawsuits against the chief, the department, and the city.

Sources within the department said that soon after Valentin was dismissed as a party on one of these cases, he touted his innocence at a roll call meeting, failing to acknowledge that he was still a subject of the lawsuit because he is a city official. In the most recent lawsuit, former officer and former administrative manager Rita Ramirez alleges retaliation by Valentin after showing “disloyalty” toward the “gang leader.” In an alleged request by Valentin in 2018, he asked Ramirez to “gather evidence” of former deputy chief Jim Schnabl doing something “wrong” while at a conference. Ramirez alleges that “Valentin made this request by asking: ‘Are you down for this?’”

In an alleged 2020 incident, after meetings with Gerry Serrano, the president of the SAPOA, Ramirez was told by Commander Jose Gonzalez and then-Commander Robert Rodriguez to “pick a camp.” The lawsuit states that “It was well known that Valentin viewed Serrano as the leader of the other ‘camp.’”

“The City of Santa Ana and Police Chief David Valentin adamantly deny any wrongdoing and look forward to aggressively defending this false and frivolous claim based on actual facts and evidence,” said an SAPD statement in response to the lawsuit.

According to Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez, “Internal fighting between the officers affects residents in the effectiveness and camaraderie of these officers who took an oath to protect our community. Lawsuits, starting websites, social media blogs detailing alleged corruption and coverups; ultimately, the people that suffer are the residents.”

Oversight: Looking Ahead and What Can Happen

One day after the council adopted the ordinance, SAPD shot and killed someone during a traffic stop similar to the shooting involving former MET Detective John Rodriguez. The killing occurred in front of a DMV with many community members inside.

In response to the shooting, SAPD initially put out an alert on Twitter saying they were “investigating an officer involved shooting” and people should “stay away from the area.” At the same time, officers at the scene put up red tape to restrict movement in the area. The department’s next update did not happen until almost five hours later. This time, SAPD mentioned that “officers located [a] firearm in the vehicle” during the stop. 

Meanwhile, community groups on social media were sharing videos and asking questions amongst themselves about the shooting. At 4:37 AM the following day, SAPD issued a press release on the incident. The press release said that “officers encountered a subject armed with a handgun,” contradicting the earlier statement of a firearm being located inside the vehicle. SAPD did not provide any information as to why the situation escalated to the point of shooting and killing the person.

Five days after the shooting, there is still no critical incident video, despite SAPD saying they would release one.

The oversight commission will be able to investigate and review these types of incidents. But the commission will not be able to review this incident specifically due to the city attorney adding language barring the commission from looking into previous incidents. The commission will be able to begin work once the council has appointed members and the city manager hires the oversight director.

“It shows in these moments where life and death decisions have to be made. We need to have a unified front. It’s hard to have justice when the department that is charged with that is fighting each other,” said Hernandez.