The Chutzpah of a Police Union in Santa Ana, California

This is the video that three police officers wish you hadn’t seen—and are suing to stop internal affairs from investigating.

Steve Dipaola / Reuters

Unions that represent American police officers are often complicit in keeping bad cops on the street. This is a story about one of those unions flagrantly allying itself with misbehaving cops who are trying to suppress hard evidence of indefensible behavior.

Even the backstory is jaw-dropping.

Earlier this year, Santa Ana, California, decided that it had too many pot dispensaries operating in the city without a permit. Officials decided to crack down. Police could have quietly served a search warrant or padlocked a front door.

Instead, they opted for a raid during business hours with guns drawn.

As a result, customers at Sky High Holistic marijuana dispensary had a terrifying experience: While browsing the pot shop’s products, they suddenly heard someone busting in the door. Seconds later, men were rushing into the room with guns drawn. Some wore masks. Frightened patrons quickly lay face down on the ground.

All by itself, this potentially dangerous, totally unnecessary show of force was troubling. The pot business was accused of a mere misdemeanor. There was no need to surprise patrons—some of whom were ill—with guns in their faces. But needlessly endangering the public was just the beginning of the dubious conduct. A surveillance camera recorded officers disconnecting the shop’s surveillance cameras. Under the impression that they’d got them all and were only accountable to fellow police officers, the cops discredited themselves in footage destined for YouTube:

On-duty police officers appear to be eating edible pot products—OC Weekly transcribes words they spoke while egging one another on. (“Those candy bars are pretty good,” one said. “I kinda feel light-headed though.”) Other dialogue offers a number of insights into the subculture of this narcotics unit. Take the woman with an amputated leg that police encountered on entering the dispensary. “Did you punch that one-legged old benita?” one police officer asks another. The other cop laughingly replied, “I was about to kick her in her fucking nub.” These are people Santa Ana taxpayers empower to use lethal force at their discretion.

Later, OC Weekly got access to a fuller version of the footage. They marvel at what it contains:

Hon. Jonathan Fish has been an Orange County Superior Court Judge since 2008, but before that he was a prosecutor with the district attorney’s office who specialized in narcotics cases.

In the footage, an unidentified Santa Ana Police officer is talking to another cop as they wrap up their raid on the marijuana dispensary.

“You ever work with John Fish, the DA?” the officer asks.

“He was just in when I got there,” his partner responds.

“He's the judge that signed our warrant,” the first officer continues, adding that he had just spoken with Judge Fish and had enjoyed a good laugh with him about their old times together. “He's the fucker that pulled into a gas station on our way to the Staples Center and goes, ‘Let's buy some beers and drink 'em out of a red cup.’ I go, ‘That’s not going to be obvious.’ There we are at an am/pm getting styrofoam cups and pouring our beers into them. That fucking blew me away.”

That is all part of the backstory.

What’s new is the way that the cops caught misbehaving on camera and the police union that represents them have responded to an internal police investigation—not with embarrassment, contrition, and public apologies, as would befit trustworthy people of good character, but with shameless, discrediting chutzpah: They’ve sued to keep now public video of their indefensible behavior from their overseers!

“A lawsuit, filed last week in Orange County Superior Court by three unidentified police officers and the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, seeks to prevent Santa Ana Police Department internal-affairs investigators from using the video as they sort out what happened during the May 26 raid of Sky High Collective,” the Orange County Register reports. The article goes on to characterize the lawsuit’s claims:

The lawsuit argues that the video doesn’t paint a fair version of events. The suit also claims the video shouldn’t be used as evidence because, among other things, the police didn’t know they were on camera. “All police personnel present had a reasonable expectation that their conversations were no longer being recorded and the undercover officers, feeling that they were safe to do so, removed their masks,” says the suit.

The dispensary also did not obtain consent of any officer to record them, the suit says. “Without the illegal recordings, there would have been no internal investigation of any officer,” the suit says.

To sum up: These police officers are complaining that after rushing into this business with guns drawn, forcing employees outside, and using a crowbar to pry visible surveillance cameras off the walls, they were not warned—by the same employees they forced out—that their efforts to disable all surveillance cameras failed, rendering their decision to eat the business’s products visible to its owners. As well, they’re arguing that, though on-duty cops, they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, having failed to account for their own incompetence at disabling surveillance.

But even more galling is that last bit about how “without the illegal recordings, there would have been no internal investigation of any officer,” as that’s only true if one assumes that all cops present would cover for one another’s egregious misbehavior and sign off on a police report that misrepresented the raid. That isn’t a bad assumption, given that police subculture is rife with cops who fail to report on the misconduct of fellow police officers, but it’s really something to see police officers invoke that reality, even implicitly, in an attempt to wriggle out of accountability.

And most galling of all is the fact that this tactic is going to work temporarily. “A Superior Court judge indicated Tuesday that he plans to issue a temporary restraining order that would prevent the Santa Ana Police Department from using video of officers misbehaving during a pot-shop raid as the department investigates the officers’ actions,” the Voice of OC reports. “According to court documents, Judge Ronald Bauer so far agrees with officers’ claims that they would suffer ‘irreparable harm’ if the department is allowed to use video that the Santa Ana Police Association argues was obtained in an illegal eavesdropping operation.”

The reprieve is likely temporary.

As Larry Rosenthal, a law professor of law at Chapman University, told the Orange County Register, “When you are on duty as a public official you have no expectation that what you do will not be subject to public scrutiny. I don’t think it matters whether cameras were destroyed or not. They were doing the public’s business.”

The website of the police union declares that over five decades, it “has grown from a good idea amongst a couple friends to one of the most respected organizations of its kind.” Its police-officer members are now funding a legal defense strategy that aims to prevent Santa Ana internal-affairs cops from reviewing the best available evidence in a police investigation of what appears to be illegal behavior. Any loss in respect that this organization now suffers is well deserved.

Will any Santa Ana cops criticize its actions?