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Following public outcry, Santa Ana increases police budget and gives more funding to deportation defense fund

Immigrant rights groups
Immigrant rights groups hold a news conference at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Santa Ana. The Santa Ana City Council on Tuesday chose to reduce a planned increase to the city’s police budget from $9 million to about $3 million and increased funding to the city’s deportation defense fund.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The Santa Ana City Council chose to reduce a planned increase to the city’s police budget from $9 million to about $3 million after dozens of residents spoke at a contentious council meeting Tuesday night.

The council also decided, as part of its 6-1 approval of the city’s new budget, to allocate another $100,000 to the city’s deportation defense fund, a program started in 2017 that allows Santa Ana residents facing potential deportation to secure an attorney they would otherwise not be able to afford.

The fund was set to receive $100,000 less than the $200,000 budget it received the prior year after an initial approval of the city’s budget at the last council meeting. Council members Vicente Sarmiento and David Penaloza dissented in that vote.

Sarmiento, the lone dissenter Tuesday night, said he supported some of the moves that city staff made to reduce the increase to the police budget since the last vote. He’s also been a strong supporter of the deportation defense fund.

But, he said he was concerned that the police department still could be narrowed down to basic policing functions. One example he gave was the city’s quality of life team, which deals with the homeless.

“To me that is something that could be done by a civilianized professional — maybe a mental health worker or social worker, somebody who is trained professionally to address those problems,” Sarmiento said. “Too many times, a simple welfare check turns into something else because a person who is autistic, who is approached by somebody in uniform, doesn’t know how to respond and may respond differently, and bad things occur.”

While voting for a much milder increase to the police budget, council members still voiced support for the city’s department.

Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza thanked the police department for agreeing to work with the council on the six-month deferral of police salary raises.

“It makes no sense to defund the police,” Mendoza said. "... We cannot do away with our police department. Who is going to respond to the emergencies that our public needs? It makes sense to work with them and to continue providing excellent public safety. There may be some reforms to do and maybe better training, and we can look at that. So, we are listening.”

Mayor Pro Tem Juan Villegas similarly backed the police department.

“One of the main complaints I get about officers is ‘What took so long [for them] to get there?’" Villegas said. “Well, we don’t have the personnel, and Santa Ana is a very active city. Let’s not forget about the voice of those people who called and are asking for help and are asking for service. Their voice matters also. We need to maintain the level of service best we can for those residents.”

Dozens of residents voiced their anger at the council during the nearly eight-hour meeting. Many were displeased that they had to appear in person to give their public comments, and yet were forced to give their comments from outside the council chamber. Councilmembers could see speakers on a screen in the chamber.

The change to include in-person public comments was made due to technical issues with the city’s phone-in public comment system during previous meetings.

“I think that you guys are utilizing the pandemic to silence the voices of your own damn constituents and prevent us from coming in here,” said Abel De La Cruz, of the activist group By Any Means Necessary. “Santa Ana has the highest count of coronavirus in Orange County, and you are using that to shut us up and prevent us from coming here and confronting you.”

Regarding the budget, she said, “You are funding a police force that systematically targets and kills brown and black people ... Create a new budget that includes a complete defunding of the police, a complete abolishment of the police and actual protections for immigrants in Santa Ana.”

Many speakers pointed out that Santa Ana’s department is one of the most deadly in the state. According to Mapping Police Violence, Santa Ana is the fourth deadliest police department in California.

“People are more comfortable with drug dealers around them than being next to police because of how scared they are — it’s not right,” said Anthony Hernandez, who said he was born and raised in Santa Ana.

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