If you’re wondering why police officers sometimes lose the trust of the communities they serve, forget about the overheated rhetoric from Black Lives Matter and focus instead on an ongoing local matter.
Santa Ana police raided the Sky High Holistic medical-marijuana dispensary in 2015, accusing it of selling marijuana without a permit. The dispensary’s lawyer released an edited video that made national news and later released the full, unedited version. As officers served the warrant, they ordered the people there onto the ground and appeared to make disparaging remarks about a Sky High volunteer, an amputee sitting in a wheelchair.
One officer allegedly said: “Did you punch that one-legged old Benita?” The other officer seems to have said: “I was about to kick her in her (expletive) nub.” Nice, huh? The video also shows an officer munching on snacks and apparently disabling the store’s security cameras. Had there not been a hidden camera, it’s unlikely this case would have gotten much attention.
Because of union-backed rules and legal decisions that protect the privacy of officers, the city wouldn’t comment on “personnel matters” related to three officers at the raid. In July, the Register reported that three of the officers, Brandon Matthew Sontag, Nicole Lynn Quijas and Jorge Arroyo, were no longer on the force.
The Register later reported the three were fired and charged by the Orange County District Attorney’s Office with petty theft and Sontag also was charged with vandalism. The three pleaded not guilty to the charges. That’s a fair way to handle the matter. But the issue returned to the news this month after the city’s personnel board reinstated Sontag. It is still considering reinstatement appeals by the other two.
In an admirable act of courage, the Santa Ana City Council voted 4-3 to appeal the reinstatement to the Superior Court. But Mayor Miguel Pulido and council members Jose Solorio and Juan Villegas voted against appeal. All three had been elected with enormous support from the city’s police union.
The raid already has cost city taxpayers $100,000 as part of a settlement to a federal lawsuit filed by the dispensary’s owners. The Voice of OC noted that the raid “was not the first time Sontag’s conduct cost the city.” The city paid $2.45 million in 2011 to settle a case brought by the family of a woman Sontag shot to death and $100,000 to a man who was, according to the Register, rammed by a police cruiser in a parking lot.
Every profession attracts its share of characters, but this situation reinforces one of my theories about why policing problems often fester. A small number of officers can cause a lot of problems. Union political activism and protections make it inordinately difficult to discipline, fire and prosecute even those caught on camera doing atrocious things.
That lack of justice breeds community frustration — and can have a corrosive effect within departments. Note that other officers at the pot-shop raid didn’t appear, based on the video, to try to stop this behavior, which reinforces the point about corrosiveness. In an ideal world, other police officers should be the first line of defense if their fellows behave in such a manner.
Solorio was quoted expressing concern that an appeals could end up costing the city too much money if it loses, and said the firings were “unfair” because of insufficient discipline for the raid’s supervisor. But I’ve seen him in action in the state Capitol. In 2007, Solorio was chairman of the Assembly Public Safety Committee when legislation was introduced to make it easier for the public to learn about police officers disciplined for their on-the-job power.
The hearing room was filled with boisterous police-union members. Solorio reserved the front seats for union lobbyists. As I wrote for the Register at the time: “Solorio gave a bizarre, rambling speech complaining about the rapper Ice-T, about rap-music lyrics in (general) … and claiming that police already are vilified by the public.” He used his power to crush the bill without a vote.
The Santa Ana police union, which in May 2016 reportedly had a shake-up with the goal of taking a more aggressive political stance, certainly knew what it was doing in spending large amounts of campaign cash on behalf of Solorio, Pulido and Villegas.
Union backers typically say that unions “are just doing their job” protecting officers. That’s a fine argument if unions were one of many voices in the Capitol and City Hall. But they are a dominant force in the former and typically are the dominant presence in local elections. The result is serious and legitimate public concerns about the use of force, gang injunctions and poor community relations never get aired. Don’t they work for us?
Until this kind of outsized union influence is scaled back, it will be nearly impossible to make reasonable reforms to police departments — and to punish officers who clearly deserve punishment. If police officers really want to build better relationships within the communities they protect and serve, they need to spend less time worrying about over-the-top rhetoric and more time getting their own house in order.
Image by Roxana Gonzalez