Amid controversy over rise in shootings, Santa Ana police chief resigns, 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 to Acting City Manager City Manager Gerardo Mouet and obtained by the Register, Rojas noted he had served the city for more than 27 years and called for 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 shooting, reduced Rojas’ support on the council.

The Santa Ana Police Officers’ Association announced Thursday 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 Register Thursday that  “maybe the POA won’t need to do a vote of no confidence.”

Santa Ana police Cpl. Anthony Bertanga had said early Thursday morning that Rojas “is not currently discussing his employment status.”

The police union email to city officials, provided to the Register, states that 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 said during last week’s council meeting. “With that comes the increase in shootings we’ve seen.”

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

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.

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.

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

Mouet, the city manager, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

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 rose through the ranks of the department and was appointed as 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.

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