Did OC Human Relations Breach an Anaheim Community's Trust During Last Summer's Unrest?
In his staff report, Bob Wingenroth strongly favored the possibility of Police Chief John Welter's current 22-member Advisory Board serving as a base to be improved upon. "As part of this approach," the city manager wrote, "the advisory board could also utilize the pre-existing partnership with the Orange County Human Relations Commission." He went on to note the agency had played a role in "fostering dialogue" between the police and the community.
But is that truly a credible blueprint for a watchdog agency?
Public records obtained by theWeekly
reveal that, during the city's greatest civic crisis last year, a several-days-long conflagration that arose in the wake of a series of police shootings, the OCHRC, a mediating organization that has done good work over decades, dispatched canvassers to Anna Drive and collected general "observations" from residents without disclosing the fact that they would later be reported back to both Wingenroth and Welter.
After a pair of fatal officer-involved shootings over a weekend in late July left two young Latino men dead, CEO/Executive Director Rusty Kennedy forwarded an email originally addressed to the Orange County Board of Supervisors to Wingenroth and Welter on the morning of July 23, 2012. "I and my staff are completely available to you 24/7," Kennedy wrote to Welter personally.
Bilingual canvassers, he noted, had already been dispatched to Anna Drive--site of the police shooting that killed 25 year-old Manuel Diaz--as well as to the APD headquarters, where a Sunday demonstration occurred the next day when activists briefly took over the front lobby.
Chief Welter addresses the OCHRC facilitated forum last year
"Many people from surrounding areas...were adding to the pandemonium," Kennedy wrote,"including numerous 'masked' individuals, like the Guy Fox [sic] anarchists who have been frequenting the Kelly Thomas demonstrations, the Angel Hernandez public forum we held with APD, and other hot button confrontations." The email relayed a number of other possible factors behind the protest, like high unemployment during a hot summer, but did not mention any frustrations with police as a possible motivating force.
Such grievances, though, were on full display at the aforementioned forum the commission hosted in March with regards to last year's spat of controversial officer-involved shootings at Ponderosa Elementary School.
The weekend of back-to-back fatal officer-involved shootings in July that followed months later did not mark the end of OCHRC canvassing. After the ATF-led Operation Halo raid on August 10, 2012 in Anna Drive and other adjacent neighborhoods, observations were collected and forwarded to Chief Welter in another email marked as being of 'high' importance.
"I have Edgar Medina on his way to Anna Dr. to talk with residents and help," Kennedy wrote to Welter and Anaheim Police Captain Jarret Young early that morning. "He has a positive relationship with a key leaders [sic] there, Yesenia Rojas."
While Rojas has indeed emerged as a leader in the community, she denied having a positive relationship with Medina. "He has no relationship with me," she tells the Weekly. "I have never seen him in Anna Drive. They shouldn't be using my name for their pendejadas!" Asked if Rojas had ever heard of the commission working in her neighborhood during the summer months, she replied,"In reality, no."
The emails detail the canvassing that Medina and another commission staffer Joyce Sanchez did that day. "They made contact with at least 25 families including those who had family members arrested," Kennedy wrote. Among the points provided were that, "Many of the parents say their kids are not in gangs. That they are really good kids, but maybe are hanging around some gang kids." This notion was explained away as "denial" by Medina.
According to the email, most of the families were said to have had no complaints about police conduct during the operation. Associates of Manuel Diaz were also noted as believing the raids to be in retaliation for the demonstrations. "Some of the youth might be more problematic tonight. Possibly lighting trash fires or blocking streets is possible," the email states.
But would residents in the community readily offer up any of their general concerns and feelings about the events of last summer if they knew that they would be compiled and turned over to the Chief of Police? There was a marked hesitancy by more than a few to even talk to reporters, much less people operating under different auspices, during those tumultuous times. "It angers me," Rojas says in response to the sharing of collected observations.
Bruised up Anna Drive resident
"OCHR staff members canvassing the neighborhood did identify themselves to residents and related why they were there handing out flyers about an ATF/APD/FBI raid--to help clear up any misperceptions," Kennedy wrote to the Weekly after first replying with a long-winded response cc'd to Amin David and Jose Moreno of Los Amigos as well as Chief Welter. "OC Human Relations staff members did not specifically cite to residents that aggregate information would be shared back," he admits, though he claimed it should be assumed, given their work. "We will continue to bring more specificity to our interactions with how content will be used as we engage with city residents."
"We did not provide any investigatory intelligence on any residents," Kennedy further stated, in relation to Operation Halo. "We were not there in line with any investigations, or to collect any info on individuals, crimes or ongoing cases."
Apart from the raids, after speaking with several residents during a recent visit, one person did happen to remember an interesting encounter in the days after the officer-involved shooting of Diaz. The resident, who spoke with the Weekly under the condition of anonymity, made a positive photo identification of Medina and said he was accompanied by a younger woman. According to the source, Medina presented himself as a teacher and his companion as an apprenticing student of journalism who were there to help the community. The resident recalls being asked for photos, videos or other information about the recent officer-involved shooting.
The Weekly reached out to Medina for comment but, as of press time, has yet to receive a response.
According to documents, a few days prior to the post-Operation Halo canvassing, OCHRC staff were involved in an August 1 meeting hosted by the Orange County Labor Federation that included a number of other local groups. A representative from the U.S. Department of Justice was also present. Organizers fielded much more critical concerns this time, relaying that "People who got shot by rubber bullets and pepper balls tried to get medical attention from the paramedics but were denied," and that the Chief's Advisory Board wasn't seen as "representative of the community."
Other general issues communicated included the ticketing of residents parked in the alley by police as they unload groceries, harassment, profiling and broken trust between community members and officers.
As Anaheim mulls over models for a future police oversight commission that seems at this point to favorably look at the current Chief's Advisory Board--which Kennedy was a founding member of, is featured prominently in a 2009 video when OCHRC awarded the APD during their annual gala and is largely comprised of retired law enforcement, wealthy business professionals, religious leaders, school officials, OCHRC employees and a smattering of Latinos--and its partnership with OCHRC as a prefiguration, impartiality and critical distance from police are viewed by many as necessary for any such body to have a modicum of credibility.
Kennedy stands by the commission's decades of work in Anaheim, including the events of the Little People's Park Riot and this summer's unrest. He also has words of praise for the current Chief. "John Welter has been a leader in Community Oriented Policing, he has been critical of any misconduct among his officers, taken appropriate action, as well as, led the department to build better understanding with the emerging Latino and other immigrant communities," he remarks to the Weekly. "He is a trusted partner and we believe can be a great ally to those same immigrant parents striving to raise their children in the dangerous neighborhoods where their poverty has stranded them."
Whether or not Anaheim residents will view the advisory board in tandem with the commission as trusted partners for a viable civilian review board remains to be seen.
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