Former Chief Allen “had a motto: ‘Be good, or be gone,’” says Walters, Santa Ana’s top cop since 1988. “The policing ideas in those days were old-school, good-ol’-boy tradition—lock ’em up and throw away the key.” That approach “certainly created difficult challenges” for the department in maintaining a good relationship with Santa Ana’s black and Latino communities.

Community furor over the SAPD’s investigation of the Sasscer murder contributed to Allen’s retirement in 1972. Following him was Ray Davis, who instituted the then-revolutionary concept of community policing, which encourages officers to maintain close ties to city residents. Other local departments emulated Santa Ana, and Walters has earned national praise for continuing and expanding the strategy.

A new police culture wasn’t the only positive change that resulted from Sasscer’s death. The 1969 grand jury issued a special report recommending the county create a Human Relations Commission to mitigate the bad blood between police and minorities in Santa Ana. “If no attempt is made to resolve these difference, the potential danger can have tragic repercussions for all of Orange County,” the report stated.

Former OC Black Panther head Daniel Lynem, originally accused of the murder of Officer Nelson Sasscer
John Gilhooley
Former OC Black Panther head Daniel Lynem, originally accused of the murder of Officer Nelson Sasscer
League in an undated photo before his arrest for the murder of Santa Ana Officer Nelson Sasscer
League in an undated photo before his arrest for the murder of Santa Ana Officer Nelson Sasscer

In February 1971, the Board of Supervisors approved the commission, but only as a one-year pilot project. “The only staff that we could have was a meagerly paid executive director,” recalls Amin David, longtime head of the Latino civil-rights group Los Amigos and the commission’s first chairman. “We occupied a vacant county-building office without any desks or chairs.”

Despite challenges and perennial threats by subsequent supervisors to revoke its funding, the commission continues to this day. Rusty Kennedy, who joined in 1976 and became its executive director in 1981, has seen a welcome trajectory between police and his organization over the decades.

“There’s been a dramatic shift in the attitude of Orange County law-enforcement leaders toward the Human Relations Commission. When the commission was created, the Police Chiefs Association came down and testified that it shouldn’t be created,” he recalls. “Transitioning through the years from the days when the police complaints were considered a hostile thing and treated very poorly, we’ve come to a day when they are seen as important tools in managing liability and recognizing officers that may be going off the deep end before they become really problematic.”

*     *     *

After the League trial, Lynem tried to live a normal life. He worked for the county in mental health but fell into cocaine and heroin and turned to robberies to support his habit. He eventually spent four years in state prison, where he struck up an improbable friendship with his main antagonist on the force.

“I can’t stress enough how much I hated that man,” admits Bob Stebbens, who worked at the SAPD for 32 years before retiring as a captain in 1989. The Huntington Beach resident worked on community relations when Sasscer passed away. “The African-American community in Santa Ana was good. We’d get militants from Los Angeles to try and stir things up, but most locals would say, ‘Leave us alone. Things are fine.’

“The more miserable I could make it for the Panthers, the more I could enjoy it,” he adds with a chuckle. Stebbins remembers two encounters he had with Lynem before Sasscer’s murder. “One time, I walked into [Panther] headquarters in uniform to burn Michael. I asked to see him, and in front of everyone, I said, ‘Thanks, Mike, for the info’ to make the others think he was an informant. Another time, he came into my office, and Michael told me in effect that we cops better change or the Panthers would burn the city down. I told him he better have a lot of gas because we’re going to blow you off the face of the Earth.”

The two wouldn’t speak again until 1978, when Santa Ana Mayor Loren Griset—who had helped Lynem find Christ—called Stebbins and said he had a letter from someone in his past. It was Lynem writing from prison, with Griset’s encouragement, to amend for his wrongs. Stebbins wrote back to Lynem, not expecting a reply. Days later, he received one, along with a Scripture verse, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The two continued their correspondence during Lynem’s prison stint. Once Lynem was released, the two told their story before congregations and Christian businessmen’s meetings. They still speak regularly.

“I knew that God would have me be friends with Michael,” Stebbins says. “It wasn’t something I asked for, but all that hatred passed away. We still talk about how we came together—even for us, it still blows our minds.”

But the friendship wasn’t popular among Santa Ana officers. “I could understand their feelings, but the reality was that we were brothers in Christ,” Stebbins says. “Michael was my friend, and that was the way it was going to be. Some thought I was a traitor. What else could they think? They couldn’t possibly understand.”

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