Photo by Jack GouldJust after dawn on Jan. 6, 1999, nearly 200 officers from more than a dozen local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies raided 21 homes in Placentia's Atwood neighborhood. In the largest anti-gang sweep in Orange County history, cops in military-style fatigues and packing a fearsome array of SWAT gear and weaponry awoke residents with battering rams and explosives while police barged into homes, guns waving. In one home, a teenager whose older brother was arrested in connection with a gang shooting before the raid was awakened by a police officer pointing a pistol at his temple.
Witnesses said there was one obvious exception in all of this: Garden Grove police officers were polite and professional during the raid, using no more force than necessary to carry out their duties. Indeed, residents charging rough, rude and even brutal treatment left Garden Grove out of their $202 million lawsuit naming all other police agencies involved in the sweep.
Garden Grove's enlightened behavior can be traced in part to a 1988 decision to join the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Formed 30 years ago by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the National Sheriff's Association and the Police Executive Research Forum, CALEA members adhere to a uniform set of professional standards on everything from officer-involved shootings to use of physical force. By contrast, police departments that aren't members adopt policies as they see fit.
Of 22 law-enforcement agencies countywide—including the Sheriff's Department—Garden Grove is the only local member of the Fairfax, Virginia-based CALEA.
Local activists would like to change that. In June, the Anaheim-based citizens group Los Amigos sent letters to county Sheriff Mike Carona and 21 police chiefs across the county, asking them to follow Garden Grove's example and join CALEA.
"I believe accreditation makes a strong statement that a police department has established compliance with a set of professional standards," said Garden Grove Police Chief Joe Polisar. "It forces me to review my policies, orders and regulations on a regular basis and match them up with national standards."
But so far, only Carona and Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters have responded to the Los Amigos request. Both officials claimed there was no need to join CALEA because their departments are part of the California Department of Justice's Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST).
Unlike CALEA, however, POST does not accredit police departments. It sets minimum requirements for California's police departments on more basic matters, such as hiring, training and overtime.
Polisar acknowledged that joining CALEA isn't cheap—or easy. "It takes a lot of time and work to get accredited," he said. "It's very labor-intensive."
Even membership in CALEA is no guarantee of sainthood. In 1994, six years after it joined the group, the Garden Grove Police Department was successfully sued by two Asian-American teenagers who alleged the city's cops used racial profiling to stop and question any Asian teen wearing baggy pants or a beeper. Two weeks ago, a jury required Garden Grove to pay $1 million to a man police wrongly handcuffed during a search of his home.
Because accreditation only lasts for a three-year period, police agencies must re-apply on a regular basis. There's also a membership fee to join CALEA that varies depending on the size of the department. Polisar said Garden Grove, which has about 250 officers, paid about $8,000 to get its most recent three-year seal of approval.
Compared to the $202 million lawsuit Garden Grove escaped, that ain't much.
To help Los Amigos modernize OC law enforcement, call your local police department during office hours or write a letter to a member of your city council asking why your department is not accredited with CALEA. To educate yourself on the issue, check out CALEA's website at www.calea.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts