By: C. Harold Pierce
Weeks after Kim Pham’s death, police officers flood Downtown Santa Ana on horseback, foot and in cars while private security stands guard on the corner of Fourth Street, the location of the fatal beating.
Downtown patrons and bouncers liken the increased security patrol to a police state that city officials have created to reassure the public that the area is safe.
The beating death has sparked a debate about safety in a neighborhood once associated with crime and gang violence, but has been repairing its image with a thriving arts and nightlife scene.
“Now that I know this is going on, I don’t feel safe. A lot of my friends hang out around here, but I never have, and now that I know that this happened, I don’t want to come out,” Libby Martinez, a Santa Ana resident said.
Pham’s death is the second homicide to occur downtown since 2010, when Jeffrey Lee Chung, 23, was shot and killed by a robber in a parking structure on W. 3rd St.
“I’ve visited downtown since the event. I encourage all of the general public, all of you, to do so. I believe it’s a safe area and there are many good businesses there,” Mayor Miguel Pulido said during a press conference Jan. 24, adding that the beating does not represent a crime wave.
Two suspects, Vanesa Tapia Zavala, 25, and Candace Marie Brito, 27, were arrested and charged with homicide within 10 days of the incident after police received tips and reviewed videos from the morning of the clash.
The circumstances of Pham’s death remain murky.
“It was a very chaotic scene,” said Santa Ana Interim Police Chief Carlos Rojas, adding that at the time of the brawl, there was another fight taking place outside of the nightclub that distracted bouncers.
The national attention Pham’s death has received may effect business, some shop owners say.
Property owners have been redeveloping Downtown Santa Ana — once a 12-block district lined with quinceanera shops, carnicerias and thrift stores marketed to Latinos — into a hot spot for nightclubs, hipster restaurants and trendy bars.
“We don’t want this one isolated case to disrupt the momentum that we’ve tried to achieve there,” Santa Ana City Councilman Vincent Sarmiento said.
Owners of The Crosby, the nightclub where the fight started, have shut down their bar and restaurant since the night of the brawl.
Crosby regulars have posted condolences on the restaurant’s Facebook, mourning the closure of the business, but the owners have not confirmed permanently shutting down.
“This puts a black eye on the city,” said Jim Kendrick, owner of Rags International News Stand located next to The Crosby.
In response, city council members are seeking to increase police patrols, install a network of security cameras and reactivate a downtown police substation.
Four private security officers patrolled the area at the time of Pham’s beating, typical for a weekend night, said Ryan Chase, a Santa Ana property owner and president of Downtown Inc., a business association which employs the security force.
“The downtown area is a very vibrant area. We have very few issues as a police department, and from a safety standpoint, that is not a problem area,” Rojas said.
There were 13 calls for service in the five-block area surrounding The Crosby in 2013, Rojas said.
Bouncers and security officers say that most fights downtown go unreported.
“If we can handle it without police intervention, we try to. If altercations don’t turn into full-on fights, reporting it is a misuse of police resources,” Brandon Walter, a bouncer at Velvet Lounge, said.
Mike Lore, a bouncer at Proof Bar and Velvet Lounge, counts four times in seven years when fights have become uncontrollable and police were called in.
Still, downtown property owners acknowledge that the death will tarnish the city’s reputation.
“If you don’t have a safe downtown, you have nothing. I don’t want to say that it’s not going to effect downtown, but to blame it on downtown is really not reasonable and fair,” Chase said. “It could happen anywhere.”