On the ‘Tightrope’ With Santa Ana’s New Police Chief

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There is no question that newly sworn Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas has a full workload.

The city’s strategic plan calls for a move toward restorative justice, a concept that places less emphasis on punishing youth who have broken laws and focuses instead on having the offender address the damage they’ve done to the victim.

Meanwhile, activists are pressing for an end to the city’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a deal that has the federal government renting space at the city jail to house undocumented immigrants.

Also, many will be watching to see how Rojas, who after a two-year stint as interim chief became the first Latino to permanently hold the department’s top job, will handle the challenge of addressing the tenuous trust that comes with policing a heavily Latino immigrant population.

He sat down with Voice of OC to discuss these topics and more.

Tell me a little about yourself and why you decided to become a police officer?

I grew up in the city of Huntington Beach and ever since I was little I had some good influences in terms of people that were in law enforcement. I had a couple next door neighbors that were secret service agents. So they had a large influence on me looking at law enforcement.

I come from a family where I’m first-generation American. My parents immigrated as adults here: my father’s from Colombia, South America; my mother’s from Mexico. So, my dad was always a hard worker, strong work ethic, and at the end of the day my mom just took care of the house and took care of the kids. Everything that myself and my sisters were experiencing as young children was a first for our family, so having good mentors like my next door neighbors was I think something that really pushed me towards law enforcement.

You’ve been hailed as the city’s first Latino police chief, what does that mean to you?

I really look at it as the best qualified for the position, I feel that’s why I got the job. Rising through the ranks makes me very proud. In terms of being Latino, it just happens to be who I am. Do I speak Spanish, yes. Does that give me a unique understanding of the Latino culture? Sure. But what I’m really proud of is rising through the ranks of the department and being able to get to this level, and I think being Latino is a plus for me. And I think it’s helpful, considering the demographic of our community.

How are you different from former Police Chief Paul Walters?

I think everybody that serves as a chief of police has a different style when they come in. Chief Walters did a lot of great things in community policing. I just want to build upon things that were started and change things up as I see necessary. And over time, things change, whether its community expectations, employee expectations, just society as a whole so I really want to bring that awareness piece to the police department and make sure that we’re making the necessary adjustments.

What kind of organizational changes have you made, and why did you make them?

I’ve looked at various bureaus within the police department and really started focusing on not only the service component in terms of what we’re providing the community but also innovation and efficiency. And how do we accomplish those things without hurting the service we provide. At the end of the day I need to be a responsible steward of the taxpayers’ money, so I have to make sure that we’re using our folks in the right capacity, providing the necessary service, but also doing it fiscally responsibly.

And so one of the things I did, I had moved a major narcotics team, and I moved them over to the county task force. That allowed me to reduce that team by a couple officers and put those officers back in patrol and then put the remaining officers at the county task force, which was more cost effective for us.

There are many clamoring for restorative justice, and it is now part of the city’s strategic plan. Are you taking steps to move toward it?

The restorative justice concept, while we’re looking at it, we’re trying to get a better understanding of it ourselves, because a lot it really falls under the purview of the county. Orange County Probation has restorative justice programs serving Santa Ana, so going back to saying in terms of really identifying and being responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ money, we’re on a research project to figure out: OK how do we fit into the restorative justice concept here in the county, because we don’t want to duplicate the efforts that may already be available through the county.

Restorative justice does focus on making the victim whole. We want to be part of the solution, but at this point to be honest with you it’s not something that’s in our wheelhouse. So we’re educating ourselves on it. And as part of the strategic plan, we’ll have more conversations with the county, with the community groups, and really identify what’s out there already, so we don’t duplicate our efforts.

There are a lot of people who say the ICE contract is morally incongruous for a city that’s so heavily immigrant. What do you think?

Folks that talk about morality and a contract — to me that’s kind of a gray. I’m not sure where they’re coming from or what they mean about a contract not being morally correct…what I see is a lot of people don’t have a good understanding of what the contract is.

At the end of the day, we’re leasing bed space to immigration and customs enforcement. If we weren’t leasing the space to them, somebody else would be leasing the space to them. And what we do provide is a very humane, dignified environment in our jail facility. It’s a much better facility than other facilities that are around. I think the immigration issue is a much higher issue, a federal issue, that needs to be resolved at another level. But nevertheless we are listening to these folks and we want to be strategic in how we handle these contracts.

Do you see the ICE contract ending at some point? Is that a goal you’d like to see?

Before we can even go there what we’re trying to do is make the jail facility a cost-neutral situation. So after that, we can surely entertain conversations about any of our contracts and what we want to do in the long term. So it’s a very incremental process that we have to engage in order to decide OK what do we do?

City officials are asking for more money from ICE to house inmates. If the ultimate goal is to end the ICE contract, doesn’t increasing your dependence on these types of inmates put the goal farther away?

The question would be then, what would be the solution? Do you get rid of these inmates and then lay off 75 to 100 employees? Or do you at least in the short term recover the costs? So to me step one is: give us a fair per diem for the services that are being provided to the federal government. Once we reach that point, we can have further discussions for what the long-term plan is.

What do the crime levels look like across the board?

More recently, fast forward 2013, we were down 13 percent from the previous year. And that’s also been helpful during these tight budgetary times. We haven’t seen a huge crime spike. Sometimes it fluctuates month to month, we have seen a little bit of an increase in property crimes, and we’re constantly keeping tabs on it, but there isn’t a huge crime wave that’s taken place.

Trust is always an issue between the police department and the community, especially a working-class ethnic community. How do you address that?

I do think trust is at the core of what we do. I always look at it as the police is the community, and the community is the police, right?

And we’ll have issues and challenges that come up, and sometimes we’ll have an incident where an officer is disciplined or an officer is terminated. I think its important for members of our community to know that we take any misconduct by our officers seriously and that we’ll do the investigation — do what we need to do — to make sure that the situation is handled. But at the same time there’s responsibility on both sides — we want our community members to also be forthright truthful, respectful, as they bring issues up.

When it comes to discipline, and making sure officers are held accountable, you run into the Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, which keeps so much of the disciplinary action secret. How can you assure the public that officers are being disciplined, when there is misconduct, if you can’t tell them about it?

What happens when somebody does file a complaint — an allegation of misconduct — they do receive notification. I know it’s in very generic terms because of the confidentiality laws, but nevertheless less it does let them know what the outcome was of their allegation. And I think that’s where the communication was important, and the confidentiality laws are in place and we have to abide by those, whether it’s the police department, or the DA’s office.

So it’s a tightrope and it could create misperceptions as to the police department being secretive or not wanting to give information. And I think that’s where it’s important for myself as the chief to have good communication with members of the public and be as forthcoming as I can be, as long as I don’t step over that line and cross over any areas of confidentiality.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek

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