Santa Ana police chief resigns amid controversy over rise in shootings, says he has new job

Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas has announced his resignation, saying he has agreed to take a job with another undisclosed agency.

In a letter dated Wednesday, April 19, to Acting City Manager City Manager Gerardo Mouet and obtained Thursday by the Register, Rojas noted he had served the city for more than 27 years. He called for the appointment of an acting police chief to “allow for a seamless transition as I separate from the department.”

The action comes amid recent criticism by some City Hall elected officials over a rise in shootings and an ongoing discussion by a sharply divided City Council of the department’s performance and leadership. The November city election, which focused in large part on crime and trends in shootings, reduced Rojas’ support on the council.

Also on Thursday, the Santa Ana Police Officers’ Association announced it was moving forward with a vote of no confidence on Rojas. The police union agreed to proceed with the vote last week, the group’s president, Gerry Serrano, wrote in an email to city officials.

Newly elected Councilman Jose Solorio, who had police union backing in the November election, said in an email to the Register Thursday that “maybe the POA won’t need to do a vote of no confidence.”

Councilman David Benavides, a Rojas ally, expressed gratitude for the chief’s service to the city, beginning as a patrol officer and ending as the city’s first Latino chief.

“I believe he was a strong and effective leader. It’s unfortunate that the police union leadership and its allies on the City Council have made the police chief’s job difficult over the last several months, and I can understand the chief’s decision to go to a place where he might be allowed to be more effective.”

In a statement, Serrano, the police union president, thanked Rojas for his service, adding: “Now we need a Chief with a new problem-solving and community-oriented policing strategy to address the spike in gang shootings and morale at the Santa Ana Police Department.”

The agency was “once recognized as a leader Nationally in Community Oriented Policing,” he said, and “with the right leadership can once again make the city of Santa Ana a safer community for the families, business stakeholders and city employees to work in.”

City police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna said Rojas “is not currently discussing his employment status.”

A source close to the police department said Rojas is expected Friday, April 21, to be named police chief of BART, the Bay Area transit agency. The San Francisco Chronicle, citing multiple sources, reported Thursday that Rojas would be appointed chief of the BART force leading a department with 227 sworn officers.

Mouet said he received the resignation letter Thursday morning and was beginning meetings with personnel officials on a process for selecting an acting police chief. He said he believes there are “a lot of individuals internally” who may seek the job, but the search could be opened to external candidates, as well.

The police union email to city officials on the no-confidence vote, provided to the Register, says the union tabled plans for a no confidence vote more than a year ago, “in fairness, to allow Chief Rojas to address the issues.”

“A year has elapsed and gang shootings are up to historic numbers, mismanagement of resources and the morale at the police department has worsened to near unrecoverable levels,” Serrano wrote. “There has been no change in all of the areas of concern, and as new issues arise, the association has decided it is now time to move forward.”

The new development comes days after council members directed city staff to pursue, at the chief’s urging, what was characterized as a multi-pronged holistic approach, involving community groups, to combat shootings and gang violence.

“Gang prevention is a big challenge for us,” Rojas told the council. “With that comes the increase in shootings we’ve seen.”

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of the problem,” he added.

Mayor Pro Tem Michele Martinez, who had called for Tuesday’s discussion on gang shootings and violence, said she wishes the city could have continued efforts to reduce crime with Rojas.

“We had a good working relationship and appreciated his efforts to change the culture in the [police department] and hold his officers accountable, and his willingness to partner with the community,” Martinez wrote in a text message. “A big loss to the city family.”

There were 55 shootings in the first 50 days of 2016, a five-year high for Orange County’s second-largest city. Shortly afterward, the police department stopped releasing the number of shootings – which include attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and firing into an inhabited dwelling or vehicle – citing problems tracking from multiple databases.

Figures released by the police department last month showed shootings in May and June last year exceeded the pace of shootings in the beginning of the year, and that the trend eased before climbing back to about one-per-day in January of this year. More broadly, shootings increased 183 percent from 2013 to 2016 to 292 incidents, according to the report. Many were gang-related

The surge in shootings and the department’s handling of crime data became an issue in the council campaign later in the year, with the police union spending nearly $300,000 to help elect candidates who voiced concerns about the strategies and leadership of the department.

After the election, Rojas’ allies claimed publicly that the union wanted candidates it supported to remove both the former city manager, who agreed to depart in January, and the police chief. Serrano, the police union president, has said such decisions rest with the City Council and his association’s involvement in the campaign wasn’t unusual.

On Thursday, Benavides said that “everything that was suggested, that there were promises made, is all coming to fruition as was said, so it’s difficult to think otherwise.”

He added that it is now “very important for us as a council to provide clear direction to the acting city manager. That focus is the safety of our community, quality of life and that we don’t [fall into] allowing politics to drive decisions of the police department or city.”

In his email, Solorio noted the chief worked many years for Santa Ana “and we are thankful for his service and commitment to our city.”

Rojas was named the 20th Police Chief in May 2014. He served at the rank of corporal, sergeant, commander and deputy chief. Rojas developed the Homeland Security Division after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, according to the city’s website.

Rojas is a Medal of Valor recipient from the United States Customs Service, Santa Ana Police Department and the Federal Bar Association. He has a Master’s Degree in criminal justice from Chapman University and a Bachelor’s degree from California State University, Long Beach.