The Santa Ana Police Department is investigating officers’ attempt to stop a citizen from filming them by blasting copyrighted Disney music on a patrol car’s loudspeaker and waking up neighbors in the middle of the night.
The music began blaring at 11 p.m. on a Monday with the Randy Newman hit “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from the “Toy Story” movies and immediately drew the ire of residents. The onslaught continued with the song “Reflection” from the 1998 Disney movie “Mulan” followed by the smash hit “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from the 2021 film “Encanto.”
The April 4 incident occurred as officers investigated a possible stolen vehicle in the 1600 block of West Civic Center Drive, according to video posted by the Santa Ana Audits YouTube channel, which documents police interactions with the public. The officers were apparently annoyed at being filmed and used the copyrighted music to keep the videos — or at least the audio — off online platforms.
The song “Un Poco Loco” from the 2017 movie “Coco” played as residents, including Santa Ana Councilmember Johnathan Ryan Hernandez, gathered on the sidewalk and pleaded with the police to turn down the music, the video shows.
“Guys, what’s going on with the music?” Hernandez asked as he confronted one of the officers.
The unidentified officer admitted he was playing the music from his phone through his cruiser’s PA system, citing copyright infringement.
“You’re using our resources?” Hernandez asked the officer.
Hernandez asked the officer if he knew who he was.
The officer sheepishly said: “You’re a City Council person.”
“Absolutely,” Hernandez said. “And this is my district. You’re not going to conduct yourself like that in front of my neighbors.”
The officer apologized several times to Hernandez and to the citizen videotaping the exchange.
“My people live here, brother. Please treat them with respect,” Hernandez said. “There’s kids that need to go to school. There’s people that are working. You chose to use our taxpayer dollars to disrespect a man with your music. That’s childish, sir.”
In a statement, Santa Ana Police Chief David Valentin said the incident is under investigation.
“The Santa Ana Police Department takes seriously all complaints regarding the service provided by the department and the conduct of its employees,” Valentin said. “My expectations is that all Police Department employees perform their duties with dignity and respect in the community we are hired to serve.”
Sgt. Maria Lopez, the Police Department’s public information officer, confirmed that the incident is being investigated but could not say how many officers were included in the probe or if they are still on duty.
“We don’t teach our officers to do anything like that,” Lopez said. “This is certainly unique to us. I can say we don’t expect this to happen again.”
Hernandez has requested that the City Council discuss a resolution, policy or ordinance to ban police officers from using loud music as a tactic in the field. The issue has been placed on Tuesday’s City Council meeting agenda.
Hernandez did not respond to requests for an interview.
Attorney David Loy with the First Amendment Coalition says the officers’ attempt to use copyright infringement laws in order to interfere with their own accountability to the public raises serious concerns.
“I think that undermines the very premise of officer accountability,” Loy said. “The public has a clear, well established 1st Amendment right to observe, document, record their conduct in public. Anything that an officer does to frustrate that is a direct assault on accountability and personal rights.”
Loy says if someone is recording events of public significance, that does not infringe on copyright law even if an officer is playing Disney songs.
The tactic is something law enforcement agencies need to proactively address, Loy said, because the Santa Ana incident is not the first time this has happened.
Last summer, a deputy with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office pulled out his cellphone and started playing a Taylor Swift song while talking to protesters outside a county courthouse who were filming him. Much like the approach taken by the Santa Ana police, the move backfired and the interaction went viral on Twitter and YouTube.
In Beverly Hills, a police officer played Sublime’s “Santeria” while he was being filmed by L.A. activist Sennett Devermont in February 2021. In both instances, the police departments said the incidents were under investigation.