Protests demanding police reform and the end of systemic racism have broken out across the nation and Orange County following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
In Orange County, nearly every city has seen mostly peaceful protests during the past several days. The largest numbers of protesters have flocked to Santa Ana and Anaheim.
Police officers have a difficult job to do: uphold the right of peaceful protest while protecting lives and property if the protests turn to violence and looting.
Floyd’s death, said Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin, was “not in compliance with the law and not supported by policing practices, use of force contemporary practices, and — more importantly — it’s just a disregard for human life.”
Four Minneapolis police officers have been charged in Floyd’s death.
“Our primary mission here at the Santa Ana Police Department is to ensure that people have opportunity and a voice to be able to share how they feel and do it in a safe manner,” he said. “It’s part of anyone’s First Amendment right.”
Valentin himself addressed all officers on the first weekend of protests prior to the officers leaving the police department. He felt it was important to remind them of their mission and goal.
“For us, and for most, I would say it’s to facilitate an environment where it’s safe for people to peacefully demonstrate,” he said.
“I hope as the days go and we move forward, the underlying cause and messaging returns to the focus and where it needs to be, which is a nonviolent, constructive approach to issues,” he said. “Some of these are very broad systemic issues, some specific to this industry of policing. That can only be done through constructive dialogue and a meaningful approach to the broader issue.”
On Saturday, May 30, protests began peacefully, but the crowd turned aggressive as night fell. Protesters shot fireworks at officers. A 32-year-old man, who was arrested, threw mortars at officers and Orange County Sheriff’s deputies.
Officers who’ve been with the department and the SWAT team for nearly 30 years agreed that was the most aggressive crowd SAPD had experienced.
The next morning, community members came out and cleaned up the neighborhoods.
The same pattern repeated, on a smaller scale, on Sunday following a long and peaceful protest.
“It’s one thing for officers taking ‘rocks and bottles’ as they say in police vernacular,” Valentin said. “But it’s a whole separate thing when taking rockets, fireworks, and missile sticks that can cause serious injury to our officers and can injure themselves as well.”
The violence and number of protestors were the catalyst for a mutual aid response. OCSD deputies and officers from La Habra and other nearby cities assisted — nearly 450 in total.
“I believe most of these violent protestors were not from Santa Ana,” he said. “They’re coming for the specific purpose of causing disruption, havoc, and targeting innocent people, property, and police officers.”
When protests turn violent, he said, the message and the underlying cause can be lost.
“We know what occurred was wrong,” he said. “As a society, and a policing industry, what can we do to address that?”
The Santa Ana Police Department is taking action in several ways, the first of which is protecting the peaceful protestors who have been gathering around the city in recent days.
The department’s already robust, contemporary policy and procedure framework informs all its training and in-field action. The framework is based on a de-escalation approach to all incidents.
“It’s most important to always keep at the forefront that you’re in the people business,” Valentin said, adding that applies regardless of whether the person is suspected of committing a crime. “We’re dealing with human beings and it’s imperative that everyone is treated with dignity and respect… it’s the Golden Rule. Treat people the way you want to be treated.”