Before last summer, Anaheim was famous for one thing: Disneyland. A few weeks into summer, the city became infamous for police killings.
Much of the blame was directed at John Welter, who’s been Anaheim’s chief of police for nine years.
In July, the online political activist group Anonymous posted Welter's personal information online, and The Onion posted his picture, with the headline: “Look, Our Job is to Shoot People.”
The Onion is a satirical newspaper, but Welter took the article seriously.
“When I saw that hit my desk one morning, naturally I was not very happy at all,” remembered Welter in a recent interview at Anaheim Police headquarters.
“To say something like our officers are expected to shoot people regularly, and if they don’t they’re not doing their duty? I’ve gone my entire career and never fired my handgun,” said Welter.
Welter said for “99 percent" of Anaheim's police officers, it's the same.
"When you consider 350,000 residents, 20 million visitors, hundreds of thousands of contacts we make and then six shootings?" said Welter. "It’s not as if any number of shootings are good, but it’s not like we’re just shooting at people running down alleys because they’re afraid of the police.”
Rioting started after 2 young men shot by police in one weekend
During the first half of last year, Anaheim had six officer-involved shootings. Five were fatal, including back-to-back deaths that set off the July’s rioting.
Manuel Diaz was shot as he ran away from officers. He was unarmed.
The next day, Joel Acevedo was killed after allegedly firing a gun at police.
Welter says it’s too early to comment on the specific incidents.
The District Attorney, U.S. Attorney, the FBI and the Los Angeles-based Office of Independent Review are investigating the shootings. The Anaheim Police Department has begun an internal investigation.
“I’m waiting for the investigations to be concluded," said Welter. “When we’re wrong, I’m the first one to say we need to prosecute, take care of business, or terminate the employees. Probably 15 employees over the last eight, nine years have been terminated as a result of misconduct, including excessive force. But we also need to change behavior.”
Mayor wants civilian oversight, which Welter says can create a wedge
Changing behavior, training, procedures, and even uniforms has been Welter’s focus the past few months. It’s all part of an effort to change the way Anaheim citizens see police.
“The perception of many, too many, in the community is that they’re afraid of us,” said Welter.
It was a perception, Welter now admits, that was made worse by his department’s militarized response to the riots last summer. What should have been crowd control was handled like a SWAT operation.
Now Welter directs officers to avoid wearing camouflage, except when necessary.
He’s expanded an effort to have cops involved with after-school programs, so they’re not just showing up in neighborhoods when something goes wrong.
“It’s kind of like a silver lining in a very dark cloud,” said Welter. “We hate to see unrest or we certainly hate to use any kind of force. But it also unfortunately brings to light some issues that need to be addressed.”
Every month Welter meets with community leaders on his Chief’s Advisory Council. But is that enough? Should there be a citizens review board to give not just advice, but oversight? Anaheim’s mayor is among those who say yes. The police union is opposed.
The city is studying the issue, but Welter says he’s already well-acquainted with review boards. He worked under one as deputy chief in San Diego.
“Citizens review boards serve a purpose for some communities," said Welter. "But in others, they can divide and drive a wedge between the police and the community, depending on how they’re structured and how they’re implemented."
Anaheim resident: 'No trust' with police
That’s long before most people were paying attention to the Anaheim police. Smith has little regard for the Anaheim Police Department.
“They keep saying that they could get killed, but there hasn’t been an officer shot,” said Smith. “It’s all been young men who’ve been shot, some of them unarmed. My son was shot in the back.”
Her son, Caesar Cruz, was fatally shot by officers four years ago. She said she’s only received a few paragraphs of information about what happened.
Smith acknowledged the department is doing better at providing information. Families now have access to highly detailed reports about any officer-involved shooting.
But she thinks everything else has gotten worse.
“Back in the day, if the police came into your neighborhood, they knew everybody who lived there, and they said 'Hello,'” said Smith. “There’s none of that anymore. There is no trust.”
That trust needs to be restored, said Smith. On that point, she and Chief Welter agree.