Riverside County is home to more than two million people, the majority of whom are white, yet people of color make up 67.5% of defendants in criminal cases filed by the Riverside District Attorney (DA). Latine people make up almost half (48.8%) of those cases, and Black people make up 13.9% of the cases.
The racial disparities in the Riverside County criminal legal system reflect the longstanding systemic oppression Black and Latine communities continue to face in the region. Paying attention to whom we elect in office is critical to undo decades of racial injustice. Right now, the Riverside DA holds immense power over our community and has resulted in almost half of all adult prosecution cases (48.8 percent) filed against Latine people, youth imprisonment 2.5 times higher than the state’s average, and having the highest death penalty rate in the state. With egregious findings like these, many leaders have organized their communities to better educate them about the power of a DA, and fight for alternative solutions that do not lead to imprisonment.
Natalia Serrano is an organizer at Riverside Justice Table, a coalition of organizations with the mission to hold the office of the DA accountable for violence against the community. Natalia and her family have personally experienced the criminal legal system, and she is committed to keeping her community “beautiful, thriving, and growing.” She spoke with us about why she holds the Inland Region close to her heart and what it takes to keep her community safe.
Q: What are some of the issues you fight for in your community? Why?
Natalia: A cause I am passionate about is supporting families who have been affected by police brutality like mine — whether it’s to continue advocating for their loved ones or connect them to resources.
I also advocate for our unhoused neighbors. The unhoused community is overlooked and viewed as a nuance to more privileged folks in the community. They suffer from police violence and are targeted when they have a mental health crisis. Many unhoused folks suffer from mental health issues and do not receive proper care. There are currently 2,884 unhoused folks accounted for in Riverside County – the majority (2,155) are unsheltered. Their stories bring me to tears, and they deserve to be seen and heard.
There is so much to be done and there is a capacity issue as organizers and other community members are looking to make a difference. Many grassroot organizers like myself can feel hopeless, but we keep fighting.
Q: How have you or your family or friends experienced the criminal legal system?
N: My family has been directly affected by our community's criminal legal system — just as many families of color every day. On December 15, 2020, my cousin Ernie Serrano was murdered by Jurupa Valley sheriffs in a Stater Bros market. Since then, my family and I have been doing what we can to receive justice by holding peaceful demonstrations in Riverside and connect with other families who experienced their loved ones die at the hands of law enforcement. We know that all Riverside residents deserve more from our elected officials, and we need clear protocol and accountability procedures when law enforcement officers are involved in shooting cases. Police officers can’t keep getting away with their violent actions.
In February 2022, we found out that Riverside DA Michael Hestrin will not be filing charges against the officers involved in Ernie’s murder. I was devastated. I felt the harsh realization that my cousin was murdered in such a brutal way, and the people who murdered him got to live their lives without any consequences. I felt like I had let Ernie down, and that the past 14 months we spent doing everything in our power to ensure justice would be served, was all for nothing. Fighting for justice as a family member is an emotional challenge in itself. During this whole process, I felt we were never given the proper time to grieve because we spent so much time working with the community and other families affected by police violence.
My cousin was a highly gifted and talented person with so much opportunity ahead of him — and those officers robbed him of that. Although DA Hestrin chose not to pursue charges, all hope is not lost. Ernie T. Serrano will receive justice. He was a human being, and no person deserves to experience death in such a terrifying and brutal way as he did.
Q: What would you change about that experience?
N: I would definitely change what happened to my cousin in a heartbeat, but sadly that cannot be undone. I would change the decision that DA Hestrin made to not charge the officers involved in the murder of my cousin. DA Hestrin is using the fact that my cousin Ernie struggled with addiction against him.
Q: How do the actions of law enforcement/police impact the community and their families?
N: Encounters with law enforcement often result in police brutality and fatalities. Like my cousin Ernie, 60 Riverside County residents have been killed by law enforcement officers since DA Hestrin took office in 2015. What’s worse, is that at least six of them were experiencing mental health crisis at the time of their death. Having personally experienced violence at the hands of law enforcement, I am passionate about fighting to keep law enforcement accountable for their atrocities.
I also think about our youth, and how they’re constantly targeted by law enforcement in schools, through probation and even during their free time. There are many programs funded by the DA’s office that may seem like they’re helping youth. In reality, our community feels that these programs target youth and their families – causing more harm than good.
Q: If you had a 1:1 chat with DA Hestrin, what would you tell him?
N: I don't think anything would ever be able to prepare me to have that conversation, but I would ask him about his loved ones. I would ask him if he has a cousin, like my cousin Ernie, or someone who he has formed lifelong memories with, and with whom he shares an unbreakable bond. Then I would ask him how he would feel witnessing that loved one being murdered, and watching their death being broadcasted on television and the Internet for the whole world to see. I would also tell him to consider harm reduction as an option, instead of charging folks with harsh sentences.
Q: What is the change you want to see in your community? What are your hopes for your future?
N: I feel that Riverside has so much potential and beauty. A change I’d like to see in our community would definitely be a shift in politics where our elected officials work to represent the issues of the community like mine. Inland Empire Harm Reduction is an amazing organization that has a genuine purpose and serves our community — they provide services without any biases or judgment. We definitely need more support for community organizations.
Q: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
N: I have hope that our community can heal and grow. Community organizers like myself have the answers to creating a safe and just community where people have the choice to seek community-based solutions like calling mental health professionals instead of cops. Riverside County has an incarceration problem, and even though this issue won’t be resolved overnight, we’re not going to stop demanding for change until we see justice for Ernie, and the countless families like mine who had their loved ones taken away. It’s up to us to ensure what happened to my family and me doesn’t happen to other families.
Natalia Serrano is an organizer at the Riverside Justice Table in Riverside, CA.
*The ACLU of Southern California does not endorse specific parties or candidates for office. However, the ACLU SoCal may participate in voter and public education about candidates and issues.