Politics & Policy

Anaheim: No Laughing Place

Anaheim, Calif., crime map (www.spotcrime.com/Google)
Screaming and posturing in the home of Disneyland.

There is more to Anaheim, Calif., than Disneyland. As shown by this crime map, the unfortunate tourist who takes a wrong turn on his way out of the Magic Kingdom may quickly find the neighborhood he has entered is far from The Happiest Place on Earth. 

Things are not getting any happier. On a recent Friday morning, Anaheim police officers shot at (and missed) a man who attempted to run them down with a car when they interrupted him and an accomplice while committing a burglary. The previous weekend, officers tried to stop a stolen car whose driver led them on a brief pursuit before crashing. The two men and a woman in the car fled on foot, and, as one of the men did so, he pulled a gun and fired at the officers. The officers returned fire and killed him. Also that weekend, officers on patrol attempted to stop some suspected gang members, one of whom ran away. A pursuing officer believed the man was pulling a weapon as he ran, prompting the officer to fire at him. The man died, but was found to have been unarmed. 

The four suspects involved in these shooting incidents were Frank Armenta, Jose Campos-Castellanos, Manuel Diaz, and Joel Acevedo, names that might lead the reader to assume a shared lineage that leads to countries somewhere south of the U.S. border. And, as you might imagine, the uproar that has followed these incidents is not limited to the shootings themselves but instead about the cauldron of racial politics that has come to a boil in the city of Anaheim.

Anaheim is an oddly shaped city in Orange County, about 25 miles south on the I-5 from downtown Los Angeles. It is, in effect, two cities, with a mostly white and moderately affluent population living in Anaheim Hills on the city’s east side, and a mostly Latino and far less affluent population occupying the areas to the west — known locally as “the Flats.” Although Latinos make up slightly more than half of the city’s population, none currently serve on the city council, whose members are chosen in at-large elections rather than by individual districts. (Four of the five current members live in Anaheim Hills.) This arrangement has, of course, attracted the attention of the ACLU, which has sought to end the practice with a lawsuit.

It is against this civic backdrop that the recent police shootings and the protests they have engendered must be viewed. Yes, just over half of Anaheim’s residents are Latino. But some significant portion of them are not U.S. citizens and therefore cannot vote — at least in theory. At the same time, the vast majority of the city’s criminals are also Latino, and, as the map linked above indicates, they are a busy lot. The overall crime rate for the city puts it well below the national and state averages, but what crime there is is concentrated in a few neighborhoods in the center of town where the population of Latinos is highest.   

This puts the Anaheim Police Department in an uncomfortable political situation, with the city government demanding an aggressive approach to fighting crime and protecting the tourism on which the city depends. Of necessity, this brings police officers into frequent — and sometimes violent — contact with Latino gang members. According to a statement released by the Anaheim Police Association, the officers’ labor union, the two men killed in the police shootings described above — Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo — were documented gang members who had served time in prison.

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Joel Acevedo’s shooting should have been uncontroversial, and probably would have been had it been isolated from this unusual rash of police shootings. Acevedo was in a stolen car and fired at police officers trying to arrest him. A gun was recovered at the scene, proof enough to all but the most ardent cop-haters that the shooting was justified. And when the suspected burglar was shot at, it would have drawn little attention outside the neighborhood where it occurred but for the fact that it followed the other shootings so closely. It is the death of Manuel Diaz which has sparked the most outrage and brought protesters to the steps of Anaheim City Hall. 

Officers reportedly saw Diaz and another man standing and talking with the driver of a car. One of the officers recognized Diaz as a gang member and ex-convict, and found his behavior sufficiently suspicious as to warrant investigation. Rather than stop as instructed, Diaz ran. According to the officers, he held something near his waistband with both hands. When Diaz turned toward the officers, one of them opened fire in the belief that Diaz was about to shoot. Some who claim to have witnessed the shooting say that Diaz was shot once in the back as he ran, and then shot in the head “execution style” as he lay incapacitated. The latter claim strikes me as far-fetched. I’m not so naïve as to believe some cops don’t do things they shouldn’t, but I can’t bring myself to entertain the thought that a police officer would execute an unarmed man in broad daylight in front of a street full of witnesses.

And what of the claim that Diaz was shot in the back? He may well have been. But neither the fact that he was shot in the back (if indeed he was) nor the fact that he was found to be unarmed will ipso facto cause the shooting to be found unjustified. The controlling case law, as set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989), established that “[t]he ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.” 

So the question is not whether or not Diaz was armed but, rather, did the officer, who knew of Diaz’s record of carrying guns, have a reasonable belief that he was? This is a question that will take months or even years to answer with any authoritative conclusion. The likely outcome, based on what I’ve read of the incident to date, is that the officer will not be convicted of or even charged with a crime, but that the city of Anaheim will pay a settlement to Diaz’s family to conclude a civil suit. That’s just the way these things most often go.

But before that happens there will be much screaming and posturing, with some of Anaheim’s civic leaders trying to position themselves to withstand the demographic shift that has already changed the political landscape in much of Southern California. City council member Lorri Galloway, for example, seems determined to survive the political upheaval she sees in the near future. Commenting on a call for an outside investigation into the police shootings, Galloway said, “It’s really about empowering the people, and I want to see this through a summit and I want it happening six months down the road. I think communication is imperative once something like this happens, because it’s broken. It’s totally broken now, and we’ve got to face it head on.”

Galloway went on to offer her opinion on the state of affairs in Anaheim. “I think there’s an imbalance in Anaheim,” she said. “I’m not surprised by this at all. There have been root causes to these problems. These areas are just on the outskirts of the resort area of Disneyland, and it’s the happiest place on earth, but just around the corner, it is a completely different world that has been ignored.”

“Empowering people,” imbalance, “root causes.” This is the language of the community organizer, one who sees a wave coming and wishes to ride it rather than see herself swept away by it. In one shape or another, change is coming to Anaheim. When that change comes, will Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., bear any resemblance to the city’s actual streets? 

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.

Jack Dunphy served with the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 30 years. Now retired from the LAPD, he works as a police officer in a neighboring city. Jack Dunphy is his nom de cyber.

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