Earlier this month, Santa Ana police found Eduardo Mijares riddled with gunshots on West Myrtle Street. When paramedics arrived, they declared the 30-year-old man dead at the scene. Police didn’t release any information about a suspect or possible motive to the public while homicide detectives continued their investigation. Grim scenes in the Golden City are, sadly, becoming more commonplace.
The Urban Peace Institute just released a comprehensive “Santa Ana Community Safety Assessment” aimed at unpacking the dynamics of violence in the community and the city’s approach to public safety. Citing a “dramatic increase” in violent crimes committed in Santa Ana, especially with homicides, the report couldn’t have come at a more urgent time.
“There’s been lots of community-based organizations doing the work,” says Eric Lam, UPI’s manager of strategic initiatives. “With all that background and context, we saw Santa Ana as an opportunity. Generally, Santa Ana can have a bad reputation. Part of that is unearthing what’s actually happening. What’s really going in the city?”
Surveying the past five years, the 83-page report returns bleak statistics regarding violent crime in the city. By 1990, Santa Ana had the highest homicide rate in OC, pegging it with a reputation of being a “bustling” yet “dangerous” town. Overall violent crime is down from that era, but stats are now trending upward at an alarming clip. The homicide rate in Santa Ana, for instance, spiked 62 percent in the past five years.
During that same time, the city’s police department experienced a sharp decrease in homicide clearance–crime investigations resulting in charges–by 59 percent. As the report details, Santa Ana’s homicide rate sharply contrasts with the five percent increase experienced statewide; good for a twelvefold difference.
The UPI attempted to engage with the Santa Ana Police Department for the assessment, only to have the force decline. “The Santa Ana Police Department was previously aware of this privately funded assessment and will be responding to this report on August 1, 2019,” says Corporal Anthony Bertagna, police spokesman. They will be providing the response to the Weekly at that time.
“They were interested in the study,” says Lam, “but they didn’t formalize a memorandum of understanding with us having to bear the weight of taking on the recommendations.”
Described as a “major gap,” the noncooperation from the police department doesn’t factor into the report’s findings backed by otherwise available research and statistics. And it’s not just homicides that are experiencing a jump in the past five years. Violent crimes, overall, are also on the rise; a 46 percent increase to be exact. By comparison, OC’s only seeing a 26 percent hike, a few points higher than the statewide average.
Throwing money at law enforcement-only approaches doesn’t seem to be working. As it stands already, Santa Ana allocates 70 percent of its budget to public safety, 50 percent going to SAPD alone. But crime statistics don’t complete the picture of why change is much needed. For that, the assessment engaged with over 1,000 residents during a yearlong period through focus groups, surveys and one-on-one interviews.
What came out of that process is revealing. An overwhelming majority of respondents put a high premium on the importance of police earning trust and having credibility with the community. But when asked to gauge where that sentiment actually stands, residents rated it a 4.9 out of 10.
The assessment contrasts that trust gap in the community with a stronger bond between residents and the Santa Ana Unified School District. Encouraging statistics are to be found with the district’s police force, the third largest of its kind in the state. Arrests by school police reached a peak in 2017 with 552. But within two school years, that number dropped precipitously to just 173.
“The school policing model is very different than SAPD’s,” says Lam. “They actually do practice peacekeeping. Arrests have gone down. That also speaks to the programming in-house with the rise of restorative justice programming that the district has embraced.”
Like any good report, the “Santa Ana Community Safety Assessment” ends with an extensive list of recommendations like putting faith in the introduction of single-member district elections to curb the influence of special interests, a brand of politics that stifles the youth-driven political awakening trying to change the course of the city’s political destiny. It’s definitely no secret that the Santa Ana Police Officers Association and big developers have held sway over council in recent years.
“The city of Santa Ana has been closed off from a comprehensive approach to address violence which means genuine collaboration with community residents, service providers, other public agencies such as SAUSD and the county,” the report reads. “Santa Ana has isolated itself and has continued with business as usual privileging the voice of special interest groups.”
Investing in infrastructure, reducing city staff turnover plaguing local government, expanding gang prevention programs and challenging police to go beyond traditional “coffee with a cop” outreach efforts are all presented as paths forward.
One key policy that activists have been fighting for intermittently since the 1960’s, a civilian police review board, didn’t make it to the list but UPI is supportive of efforts to establish such a panel to bridge mistrust between the community and police.
“In a city like Santa Ana where there hasn’t been a lot of authentic community input, there’s going to be struggles ahead to get a body with actual power,” says Lam. “City council holds the power. It would serve as a model in the city to begin to incorporate authentic community voice into local policy that affects them.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!