In a video message, Chief David Valentin confirmed allegations of gang-like activity within the department.
Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin issued a video statement this week attempting to discredit Knock LA’s reporting on gang activity by the Major Enforcement Team (MET) in the Santa Ana Police Department. In the statement, Valentin confirms MET officers share matching tattoos and carry a challenge coin–like token. He also belittles Knock LA, calling it a blog. Chief Valentin’s statement lies by omission. He begins by calling the article, which was based on body-worn camera footage, internal reports, and a knowledgeable source within the department, “baseless” and “misinformation.”
The article focuses on SAPD’s MET unit, which has been the subject of complaints by officers within the department as well as members of the public. Most of the MET members share tattoos of a skull with an ace of spades on its forehead, “31” inside the ace of spades. The number “040” above the skull, and the word “MET” below the skull. Aside from the tattoos, these officers carry challenge coin–like tokens that include the tattoo’s features, except “040,” as well as the Latin phrase, “ODERINT DUM METUANT.” The phrase means “Let them hate, so long as they fear.”
Some of the MET officers were involved in an incident, described by a source within the department as “an open secret,” when they verbally harassed two minors and groped one from behind at a Culichi Town restaurant in August 2020. The family of the minors called the police on the off-duty MET officers, but by the time they arrived, the MET members were gone.
The restaurant owner said in an interview captured on body-worn camera that he had invited the officers to the restaurant and the officers “were having a good time” but were “causing issues.”
Chief Valentin stated that the Culichi Town Incident had not involved any SAPD officers. However, officers responding to the scene of the incident were shown a video captured on cell phone of MET officers at the restaurant. Valentin never mentions this. He also stated that the officers sent to investigate the incident concluded there were no crimes committed. This is all despite the victims and the family stating on bodycam video that the actions did occur.
Valentin said the victim did not describe someone who resembled any officers of the MET unit. Yet, on a responding police officer’s body-worn camera footage, the victim’s father is visibly showing the responding officers cell phone video of an off-duty officer involved. Responding officers actually turn their bodies away from the cell phone in an attempt to prevent their body-worn cameras from seeing the screen.
Valentin further said that the “alleged touching was described as a ‘brief, personal contact in a crowded area.’” However, a video of an interview with the victim shows her stating that the officer grabbed her butt and said “let’s go.”
Chief Valentin claims the department sent officers to interview the family to follow up on the incident two separate times. He stated that “after five months of investigating, no evidence of wrongdoing was found and the investigation was closed.” Knock LA reached out to the family to talk about the incident; they said they were afraid to speak out.
According to Valentin, Internal Affairs investigated the Culichi Town incident. He neglected to mention that, at the time of the incident, current Underchief Robert Rodriguez, who was a part of the old SWAT unit from which the MET team drew members, was the Internal Affairs commander.
According to a source within the department, Rodriguez shielded the off-duty MET officers from a thorough investigation. The source said the investigative questions from Internal Affairs were “very vague” and “didn’t go into a lot of detail.” Officer Andres Gil, who was sent to investigate the situation at the restaurant, was “awarded MET” shortly after he made the incident go away.
In two department rosters provided by the City of Santa Ana — one dated August 18, 2020, 10 days after the Culichi Town Incident, and the other dated June 14, 2021 — Gil’s division assignment had changed from “patrol” to “Metropolitan.” The Metropolitan division includes MET, gang suppression, and court liaison.
Gil is depicted in the photograph with MET at a Las Vegas hangout in April, last month. “No case number taken and the officer’s call notes basically say, ‘the family was drunk and unruly,’” the source says. “That’s a classic move not to take action.”
Chief Valentin describes MET’s actions as a form of comradery. He attributes photos of MET members together to comradery as well, failing to address Corporal Travis Johnson flashing “31” with his fingers, like a gang sign, in one photo.
Knock LA’s reporting on the Santa Ana Police Department has triggered more than just the chief’s statement.
In an email sent by Sergeant Richard Shin to members of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association (SAPOA) on May 5 obtained by Knock LA, Shin outlines his disagreement, in 1,223 words, with the police union’s statement in response to the article. The union’s statement called for “the City, and those with power to do so, to take immediate action.” It has since been deleted off SAPOA’s instagram profile.
Sergeant Shin, who first wrote the message in his work email, then forwarded it to his personal email before sending it to others, while on overtime duty, spoke his mind on this reporter, Knock LA, and his own union president, Gerry Serrano.
“I find the statement appalling, as I’m sure many of you do. It’s incredibly distressing to see our own POA president pushing our paying members off the cliff that he perceives as his enemies,” Shin wrote, “What’s equally astounding is that Gerry is either wittingly or otherwise propping up this hateful gaggle of unabashedly anti-American, pro-‘defund the police’ social justice warriors through our platform.”
Shin sent the email while on-duty, according to SAPD records obtained by Knock LA. Sending emails that contain political speech while on duty is prohibited by SAPD policy 320.5.8 section H. Shin also describes our previous article as the opposite of an “organic, well-founded and objective exposé,” despite the information being taken from public records and a source within the department.
Chief Valentin, Sergeant Shin, and Gerry Serrano all did not respond to our various requests for comment.
Both the chief’s statement and Sergeant Shin’s email show how higher ups in the Santa Ana Police Department react to the lights being turned on and seeing their own calling them out publicly. The SAPOA’s statement and the chief’s statement are at odds — one calling for accountability, the other denying any wrongdoing.
There has been tension between the police union boss and the police chief in Santa Ana for some time already, but these statements show how even within police departments, there can be strong rifts between PDs, police unions, and officers themselves.