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Family of slain El Monte police officer protests dispatcher’s failure to communicate

The family of slain El Monte police Officer Joseph Santana marched in protest outside the El Monte Police Department on Monday, Jan. 29, over a dispatcher’s failure to verbally communicate that the man who shot and killed him and another officer was armed with a gun and under the influence of PCP.

Family members said they are not pursuing legal action against the city or seeking monetary compensation, but demanded that the dispatchers responsible for the communication failures be fired.

“We’re just here to bring awareness and to hold those accountable,” said Santana’s sister, Jessica Santana, during the protest.

Over the blare of honking horns from passing vehicles, Santana’s sister, Bianca Santana, played a recording over a bullhorn that said “El Monte PD dispatchers failed my brother, Joseph Santana!”

More than a dozen family members gathered outside the department after the Southern California News Group reported that veteran dispatcher Kristen Juaregui failed to inform Santana, 31, Cpl. Michael Paredes, 42, and Sgt. Eric Sanchez over the radio that suspect Justin Flores was reported to have a gun and be under the influence of PCP and methamphetamine when the officers responded to a domestic violence call at the Siesta Inn about 5 p.m. on June 14, 2022.



911 call

Maria Zepeda, the mother of Flores’ wife, made a frantic 911 at 4:58 p.m. that day informing dispatcher Ruth Bonneau that her daughter’s friend had called her and told her that her daughter, Diana Flores Cruz, had been stabbed by Flores at the motel. Zepeda also told Bonneau during the 7-minute, 20-second call that Flores had choked her daughter in Pico Rivera and had been hospitalized on a psychiatric hold the week prior.

Zepeda also told Bonneau that Flores showed up to her home three days prior to the shooting with a gun, prompting a police response to her home that included a helicopter, according to the 911 call.

When Bonneau asked Zepeda if she had seen Flores with a gun, Zepeda said: “No, but he has it with him, I’m telling you!” She also told Bonneau that Flores was on probation for a gun offense and began abusing PCP regularly following his cousin’s death about four months prior, in March 2022.

Officers ambushed

Flores, 35, ambushed the three officers as they made contact with him inside Room 103, brandishing a gun stolen out of a police car in North Carolina and opening fire. Paredes and Santana were killed and Sanchez was shot in the foot during a shootout with Flores. Flores seized Paredes’ gun during the melee and, mortally wounded by Sanchez in the gunfight, fatally shot himself as other officers began arriving, according to a recording obtained by the Southern California News Group.

The shooting remains under investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s Justice System Integrity Division, said Detective Amber Montenegro, a lead investigator on the case.

During a Dec. 11 briefing Montenegro gave to Jessica Santana and three El Monte police officers at the sheriff’s homicide bureau in Monterey Park, Montenegro said Santana was shot three times — in the head, upper right arm and the left leg, which broke his femur. She said Paredes was shot nine times, including twice in the head, which were the only fatal wounds.

The recording of the briefing obtained by the Southern California News Group also revealed Montenegro told family members that  toxicology tests confirmed Flores had PCP, methamphetamine and marijuana in his system when he died.

In a telephone interview, Montenegro said she gave the briefing at the request of Santana’s family. During the meeting, she played recordings of both the 911 call and the dispatch call.

Department changes

El Monte Police Chief Jake Fisher, who has stood by the actions of his dispatchers, said in a statement that since the shooting his department has improved its communications protocols and invested heavily in new equipment.

Among the changes and enhancements include expanded use of computer-aided dispatch and data systems to improve communication and officer response, and ramped up training.

Additionally, bulletproof windshields are now in every newly purchased police vehicle and tactical shields are now available for use by officers responding to active shooter scenarios or any other unpredictable and potentially violent situations.

In a statement sent to all his officers on Thursday, Jan. 25, Fisher said: “Our department is committed to making sure all of our employees are treated with dignity and respect. As I have said before, there is only one person to blame for the death of Mike and Joseph, the criminal who killed them.”

Communication breakdown

But all the changes at the Police Department have been little consolation to Santana’s family, who felt they were kept in the dark about what happened, only to learn of the communication breakdown nearly a year-and-a-half later.

Bianca Santana said that had her brother and the other responding officers been told over the radio that Flores was reported to have a gun and be under the influence of PCP, the officers could taken a different tactical approach that possibly would have resulted in a different outcome.

“Having that information could have allowed them to be aware of the threat that they were facing, potentially even sparing them their lives,” Bianca Santana said. “How can the chief stand by the dispatchers who failed at their jobs? This isn’t just a mistake. Mistakes can be fixed. This cannot. We will never have my brother back.”

Detective Wyatt Reneer, president of the El Monte Police Officers Association, said he and his colleagues support the Santana family and understand that they are grieving.

“We also stand by and support the department, our officers, our dispatchers, our jailers, our department as a whole,” Reneer said. “They come in here every day and do the right thing, and everybody did the right thing that day as best as they could. But at the end of the day, we lost two of our partners, and it’s a tragedy, and it will last with us the rest of our lives, and we learn from it and move forward as best we can.”

He said many in the department did not become privy to the information about the dispatchers until the same time the Santana family did.

“I heard some insinuations of a cover-up, or ‘they hid it,’ and that is not the case,” Reneer said. “We are not doing the investigation. All the very intimate details and facts and circumstances, we didn’t ourselves receive until a year later.”

Montenegro said during her briefing that while the dispatchers did not verbally communicate the information about the gun and drugs over the radio, that information, and more, was typed into the computer-aided dispatch system and available to the responding officers on their vehicle computer terminals.

Holding one of her twin sons in her arms Monday outside the police department, Santana’s widow, Sasha Santana, said it seemed apparent that neither her husband nor the other responding officers saw the information on their terminals.

“My husband would not have been outside that motel door knocking for minutes if he was told about the gun,” she said. “He would have been more prepared. He would not have been out there knocking nonchalantly knowing what he was going to come across. None of them knew what they were going into because they were never told.”

Source: Orange County Register

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