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A Culture of Fear: Santa Ana’s Political Machine

The current recall election is yet another example of how special interest groups — including Santa Ana’s police association — continue to consolidate power in Santa Ana.

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.

The current recall election in Santa Ana, which came about after a majority of Santa Ana city councilmembers rejected the Santa Ana Police Officers Association’s proposal for police officer raises in contract negotiations with the city, is a clear attempt to undermine democracy. It directly places the SAPOA at odds with the voters of wards 1 and 3, who duly elected councilmembers Thai Viet Phan and Jessie Lopez to represent their respective neighborhoods. 

A recall should reflect the power of the people to remove elected officials before their terms expire, not simply empower special interests seeking to consolidate power in Santa Ana. 

The SAPOA is a political machine, headed by Gerry Serrano, that has monopolized power in Santa Ana. It holds enough power over City Hall to take the city budget hostage as a means to raise police salaries. This is just the latest move by a police association that continues to diminish public confidence in local government, such as last year’s unwarranted, meritless litigation to silence City of Santa Ana executive employees.

In that instance, Orange County Superior Court Judge Lon Hurwitz awarded the city $25,087 in attorney fees after granting the city’s motion to dismiss the police association’s lawsuit — on grounds that it was merely a legal tactic to intimidate and harass government officials who, in the words of the city, were “merely doing their jobs or exercising their free speech rights.”

In total, the SAPOA and Serrano have been ordered to pay nearly $67,000 in fees and costs back to the city.

With this recall election, the SAPOA political machine is using tactics from the same political playbook used in 2020 to recall then councilmember Ceci Iglesias over her opposition to police raises that amounted to $25 million. In a successful recall, voters replaced Ceci Iglesias with Nelida Mendoza, the candidate supported by the SAPOA.

In the past, the SAPOA has also supported councilmembers David Penaloza and Phil Bacerra, as well as Mayor Valerie Amezcua.

A photo of two police officers smiling.

Phil Bacerra is pictured with Santa Ana Police Officers Association President Gerry Serrano. (Photo: Instagram | Knock LA)

Special interest groups are not new to Santa Ana politics. This year, the Apartment Association of Orange County, a group of OC landlords, filed a lawsuit against Santa Ana in an attempt to overturn the city’s rent control ordinance. Beyond litigation, the association launched a campaign to gather signatures to have voters repeal the ordinance and misled Santa Ana residents along the way. 

Santa Ana activists have persisted to organize tenants and provide testimonies to the city council to pass rent control. In 1985, tenants declared a rent strike in the struggle to protect the rights of undocumented working families. In 2021, Councilmembers Jessie Lopez and Thai Viet Phan, alongside a council majority, voted to enact the city’s historic rent control ordinance.

Now, Gerry Serrano, the SAPOA, and Tim Rush, a local historian who is chair of the recall committee, are back with recent attempts to recall two women of color on the Santa Ana City Council. This recall would be costly for Santa Ana taxpayers. In an unsuccessful attempt to remove Governor Gavin Newsom, California taxpayers paid over $200 million to cover state and local government office costs. With a gloomy fiscal forecast on the rise, the city’s priorities should be defined by the community’s demands for investments in people and not special interests.

A photo of a 1997 plaque dedicated to the Santa Ana police department.

The 1997 dedication plaque to the Santa Ana police department, led by chief of police Paul M. Walters. (Photo: Ray Diaz)

The recall campaign mirrors the power struggle between the police association, the city, and rank-and-file officers that dates back to the firing of former chief of police Paul Walters in 2013. Walters served the city of Santa Ana for 42 years and oversaw a near 40% reduction in street violence. 

Walters was appointed chief of police in 1988 and later interim city manager and the city’s first police commissioner in 2012. By 1999, Walters was recognized by former California attorney general Bill Lockyer for the reduction in street violence, improvement in the quality of police services, prevention of crime, and innovative leadership.

Yet during this period, extrajudicial killings of Santa Ana youth were underway. The family of 17-year-old Joseph Pulido, who was fatally shot by a Santa Ana police officer, filed a $10 million claim against the city in 1996. In 2003, the family of 17-year-old Elmer Bustos questioned the events that led to the fatal police shooting of Bustos. Ironically, Walters was recognized by the Southern California Juvenile Officers Association for commitment to working with the youth of California for a safer school climate. In both cases, the stories provided by investigators did not match the testimonies given by witnesses.

A photo of a commemorative plaque for former chief of police Paul Walters.

A dedication plaque for former chief of police Paul M. Walters. (Photo: Ray Diaz)

In Santa Ana, taxpayers have covered roughly $24 million in police lawsuit settlements over the last decade.

Walters’ removal was prompted by his close alignment with then mayor Miguel Pulido, who was implicated in a conflict-of-interest violation after records showed his involvement in a property swap resulting in $197,000 in profit. While the OC district attorney’s office found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Pulido was fined $13,000 for political misconduct. In a 6–1 vote, the Santa Ana City Council fired Paul Walters, who had been elevated to the city’s most powerful administrative role. 

Walters’ attorney, Wendell Phillips, notoriously dubbed then councilmembers Sal Tinajero, Michele Martinez, David Benavides, and Vicente Sarmiento the “Gang of Four,” claiming they were responsible for the termination of Walters. In a chilling last word, Walters’ attorney stated, “Paul’s just a casualty of the war.”   

The role of the district attorney’s office is to ensure and safeguard trust between the community and the institutions that should and must work for the people. The failure to hold former mayor Miguel Pulido or any political actor accountable has allowed the SAPOA to organize a monopoly of power in Santa Ana that undermines democracy. The power vacuum left by the firing of Paul Walters and termed-out Mayor Pulido allowed the association to finance political candidates in Santa Ana and use that political leverage to demand for pay increases. 

The militarization of police forces across America is a political struggle for power that views the people as disposable. Paul Walters and the SAPOA have historically disenfranchised an entire community with intimidation, harassment, and fear. The stories and people in Santa Ana have been relegated to being pawns on a political chessboard designed for special interests. 

Special interests do not value the people or communities that they exploit. The “war” that Wendell Phillips mentions has real families in the crossfire. In October 2021, Councilmember Johnathan Hernandez said, “If the world saw value in people like George Floyd, they would see value in people like Brandon Lopez.” Brandon was killed by police in Santa Ana, and yet his story continues to live on through the shared struggle for liberation.  

Santa Ana should allow the voters — not special interests — to define what public safety looks like in Santa Ana.

This op-ed is dedicated to Joseph Pulido, Elmer Bustos, and Brandon Lopez.

Ray Diaz is a student at UC Santa Cruz and proud Santa Ana resident. More recently, Ray served as the chairperson of the Santa Ana Youth Commission, where he served as an adviser to the Santa Ana City Council regarding youth and teen services. Over the years, Ray has worked on a number of political and social movements across the state of California.