Just minutes into the new year last year, a 22-year-old man was gunned down walking in the alley behind the Santa Ana apartment where he lived. Two days later, a 19-year-old was fatally wounded in a car-to-car shooting near the city’s Centennial Regional Park.
Over the next 24 hours, two more men were killed in gun violence a mile apart in a gang-plagued area already targeted for special enforcement by police and prosecutors.
The four shootings in the first five days of 2016 grew to 55 over the next 45 days, a spike in violence not seen in decades in the city that dubs itself Orange County’s downtown. As broken families held vigils for the dead and wounded, investigators pored over near-daily shooting scenes and residents peered warily from their homes, law enforcement leaders, elected officials and researchers struggled to pinpoint the cause and determine if a new era of bloodshed was dawning.
And then, according to Police Chief Carlos Rojas, the spasm of violence receded. How much isn’t completely clear because the Police Department stopped releasing shooting totals, which had helped fuel headlines in the first weeks of the year. Instead, Rojas noted that in February, major violent crimes reported to the FBI dropped 24 percent from the previous month and remained at roughly that level through the remainder of the year.
But community concern and the political repercussions of the surge of shootings became a central focus of the November City Council campaign, which highlighted public safety and reset the balance of power at City Hall.
POLICE UNION’S ROLE?
One political winner was the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, which criticized the leadership of Rojas and the city manager and spent nearly $300,000 supporting a slate of candidates that included the longtime mayor, Miguel Pulido. Three of the four candidates backed by the union, including Pulido, were elected, unseating an incumbent council member for the first time in decades.
Three weeks ago, in one of the new City Council’s first actions, a majority that included three lawmakers supported by the police union placed City Manager David Cavazos on paid administrative leave, citing performance evaluations and concerns about a City Hall personnel matter involving him. The allegations harked back to a Pulido-initiated investigation of Cavazos’ relationship with a subordinate female city employee that resulted in his censure by the International City/County Management Association.
The move against Cavazos signaled a partial reversal of the 2012 election results. In that so-called Santa Ana Spring election, voters installed a slate of candidates that promised greater City Hall transparency and responsiveness and unseated a majority allied with the mayor. That group fired the previous city manager, who was supported by Pulido, and hired Cavazos. Rojas was hired under the new administration.
In the runup to the election, officers union President Gerry Serrano attacked Rojas’ management and policing strategies, which in part emphasized assigning officers to neighborhood beats where they would get to know residents, in lieu of beefing up specialized enforcement units.
In an email to the news media and city elected officials last summer, Serrano released figures showing a more than 550 percent increase in shootings for the first half of the year compared with the same period four years earlier, when Rojas became chief.
Specifically, Serrano criticized Rojas for reassigning officers to the neighborhood beats, cutting back on resources allocated for gang suppression, and failing to reinstate a police strike force that had been used to respond to crime hot spots.
“Violent crime continues to rise at an unbelievable rate, yet patrol staffing remains below minimum staffing levels,” Serrano wrote. “What is Rojas doing to address this? Nothing. What is Cavazos doing to address this? Nothing.”
Since Rojas took over, Serrano added, officer morale is down and many are retiring early.
Pulido said in an interview that the realignment of the City Council will help ensure a return to successful policing strategies.
Violent crime prevention in the city “kind of went backward,” he said. “We need to continue to make progress. Going backward and even holding our own is not acceptable.”
Responding to the police union’s portrayal of rising crime, Cavazos released a report showing Santa Ana had a 74 percent reduction in murders, aggravated assaults, forcible rapes, robberies, arsons and property crimes from 1987 to 2012, based on moving three-year averages.
Rojas cited 2016 overall crime data, reported to the FBI, which showed violent and property crimes peaked at 871 incidents in January and dipped into the 600s and 700s thereafter.
“It does appear to be slowing down a little bit,” Rojas said, “which is good.”
POLICE UNION MAILERS
In the months leading up to the election, records show the police union provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to help fund mailers and television advertisements endorsing its slate of candidates and attacking council incumbents. The expenditures included the majority of contributions to an independent political action committee, California Homeowners Association, which spent nearly $100,000 opposing council members Roman Reyna and Vicente Sarmiento, a Register analysis found.
One of the PAC’s mailers carried a headline asking: “Want to know who to blame for Santa Ana’s rising crime? It’s Reyna and Sarmiento!” The mailer also included a reproduction of a Register article on Cavazos, the city manager, which noted that he received a bonus amid allegations of misconduct and highlighted a reference to “a romantic relationship with a subordinate city employee.”
The police officers association’s independent spending far exceeded that by a police union-endorsed candidate, Orange County sheriff’s officer Juan Villegas, who unseated Reyna.
Council supporters of the police chief and Cavazos, who clashed with Pulido over various City Hall projects, see the election results not as referendum on the city’s public safety programs but as a power grab by the police union, which among other things is seeking raises for members and more officer hiring for patrol shifts.
Reyna, who grew up in a gang-infested community near El Salvador Park, said at a recent council meeting that the spike in shootings early in 2016 appeared to be tied to a struggle involving the role of a top gang leader and not deficient city policing tactics.
“The other gang members all wanted to sit in that leadership position so they fought literally with guns to see who could get that position,” Reyna said.
At the first meeting of the new City Council last month, Councilman Sal Tinajero, Cavazos’ most vocal supporter, complained about what he portrayed as political strong-arm tactics by the police union. He alleged that Serrano, the group’s president, “met with different folks, saying: ‘If you fire the chief of police, we will support you. The only way to get to the chief of police is to fire the city manager. We are going to raise over $400,000 and those who support this, we will support, and those who don’t, we are going to run someone against you,’”
“He asked me … ‘So Sal, are we going to throw a body out the window?’” Tinajero continued. “This (police union) is who’s just taken over our city.”
Tinajero also defended Rojas’ leadership, saying: “You see for the first time in our city, officers are being held accountable. … We need to help our community be safe and being safe means that we need community policing. We need a relationship with our police officers.”
Serrano said evaluating the city manager is the job of the City Council, not the police union.
“It’s not our issue,” he said. “Why Councilman Tinajero wants to include me in it, I have no idea.”
And his union’s involvement in this Santa Ana election was “nothing out of the ordinary,” Serrano said.
“All unions invest when it comes to election – that’s what we do, we look out and try to support elected officials that are supportive of labor unions,” he said. “I look forward to working with our entire City Council and being part of moving the city forward.”
Pulido said he expects that the new City Council will revive a gang suppression unit.
“Part of it is we have to go back to basics. … We need to work closely with the community and do many of the things we’ve done in the past,” Pulido said. “We know what works, and it’ll work again.”
Similarly, Jose Solorio, another police union-endorsed candidate elected in November, said bringing down gang violence and shootings will require restoring gang unit officers and more transparency of crime statistics.
“It’s time for the city to step up and do something about it,” Solorio said. “I think with the addition of myself and council member Juan Villegas, we both have very strong pro-public safety backgrounds.”
Councilwoman Michele Martinez was the swing vote, siding with Pulido and his two newly elected allies to place Cavazos on leave. The councilwoman supported Cavazos’ hiring, but her opinion shifted after he alleged Martinez sexually harassed and made romantic advances toward him. A city-ordered external investigation found that his allegation was without merit.
Martinez said she’s not aligned with either City Council camp and doesn’t vote based on their agendas.
“I’m very independent. I think in both sides, it’s all political and the city manager is right in the middle,” she said. “I will be working with anyone who is willing to set good policy.”
Pulido has said talk of an alliance between him and the police union is irrelevant, and the election results are what counts.
“Do people who work harder sometimes gain more votes? Yes,” Pulido said.
FIRE THE CITY MANAGER?
While the shooting-per-day average from the beginning of 2016 hasn’t been the case for the first weeks of this year, last Saturday night was the most violent in recent memory, with six people shot, according to Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.
On the political front, it appears the reverberations of the November election are just beginning. Cavazos supporters say they are committed to checking the political power of the mayor and police officers association at City Hall.
“We have a strong, solid team in the council” that among other things supports the current police chief, Councilman David Benavides said.
Five votes are needed to fire a city manager, who has the authority to appoint and remove the police chief.
The sharply divided council is expected to revisit Cavazos’ employment in closed session before today’s council meeting.