Thousands of law enforcement personnel from throughout the region gathered Thursday for a memorial service in Ontario in honor of two El Monte police officers fatally shot in the line of duty, with the men hailed as “valiant heroes.”
The Toyota Arena ceremony, which followed a solemn procession that began at El Monte police headquarters, was held in remembrance of Sgt. Michael Paredes, 42, and Officer Joseph Santana, 31, who were gunned down June 14 while responding to a reported stabbing at a motel. Both are survived by wives and young children.
“Like all of us, they chose to be police officers, but they did not choose to be taken from us,” El Monte police Chief Ben Lowry told the mourners. “I want the families to note that there is no way they would willingly allow themselves to be taken from you.
“You were the reason they came to work every day,” Lowry said. “But they left this world as valiant heroes; Mike and Joseph were heroes. I’m not saying that because they died. I’m saying that because of how they lived. We’ll never forget Mike and Joseph. Thank you for sharing them with us. They were the best of us.”
The procession, featuring dozens of motorcycle officers and dozens more in law enforcement vehicles, set off at 8:30 a.m. and began with the participants passing under an American flag draped from two fire department ladder trucks, then headed east on the San Bernardino (10) Freeway to the arena.
The memorial service, which began shortly after 10 a.m., was not be open to the public but was open to all uniformed law enforcement personnel.
“Today is the most difficult day in my family’s life,” Santana’s sister, Bianca Santana, said. “We gather to say farewell to a son, brother, father, husband, grandson, nephew, and friend. To those of you who are here — and everyone who knew Joseph — you are already aware of the type of person he was.”
Bella Paredes remembered her father, Michael.
“My entire life, I’ve been told I’m my father’s daughter,” she said. “On the days leading up to my father’s passing, I began to recognize who he was to me, and what he stood for to the others around him. … I realized how much I loved him, and just how great of a guy he was.”
The ceremony also featured a riderless horse provided by the Anaheim Police Department, a 21-gun salute by the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and a flyover by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Paredes and Santana were fatally shot the afternoon of June 14 when they entered a room at the Siesta Inn at 10327 Garvey Ave. to confront a suspect in a reported stabbing.
The suspect, 35-year-old probationer Justin William Flores, ran from the room after the shooting and exchanged gunfire with at least one other officer in a parking lot. He subsequently died at the scene of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, according to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
Paredes and Santana were both shot in the head, according to the coroner’s office. They were taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where they were pronounced dead.
Paredes was a corporal at the time of the shooting, but he was posthumously promoted to sergeant.
Both officers lived in Upland but were raised in El Monte, and both were married fathers with children.
Paredes began as an EMPD cadet and was sworn in as a full-time police officer in July 2000, city officials said. He is survived by his wife of 18 years, his 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son.
Santana spent six years working for the city’s Public Works Department, then worked for three years as a San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy. He joined the El Monte Police Department last year. He is survived by his wife of seven years, a 9-year-old daughter and 2-year-old twin boys.
Following the officers’ deaths, L.A. County District Attorney George GascÃ³n came under criticism for policies that critics say allowed Flores — a felon with a history of arrests — to be on the street.
Flores was given a plea deal last year that allowed him to avoid prison time for being in possession of a firearm. As a result of the plea, charges of methamphetamine possession and being a felon in possession of ammunition were dropped, and Flores was placed on two years probation, serving 20 days in jail.
Santana’s mother, Olga Garcia, said policies implemented by GascÃ³n led to the deaths of her son and Paredes.
GascÃ³n — the target of a recall effort — insisted the plea agreement was “appropriate under the circumstances.” He also conceded that “we have an imperfect” criminal justice system, and said it’s impossible to “predict 100% of the time” what will happen with criminal defendants in the future.
The Los Angeles County probation department has also, subsequently, come under criticism for its handling of Flores’ case.
Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that, in the days before the officers’ deaths, the county probation department had received reports Flores was in possession of a gun and had beaten a woman. However, Flores had not been seen in person by his probation officer in more than six months, the newspaper reported.
The lobbying organization Peace Officers Research Association of California has established a fundraising campaign on behalf of the officers’ families. Donations can be made at porac.org/fundraiser/el-monte-police-officers/.
More than $390,000 had been raised through the effort as of Thursday.