Santa Ana’s Top Cop Has Tense Debate With Residents During Forum

Voice of OC forum on community policing. (From left) Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas, Santa Ana City Councilman David Benavides ACLU attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer. (Photo credit: Daniel A. Anderson)

Voice of OC forum on community policing. (From left) Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas, Santa Ana City Councilman David Benavides ACLU attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer. (Photo credit: Daniel A. Anderson)

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The Santa Ana Police Department needs to bolster its ranks of patrol officers by several dozens before it can shift significant resources toward community-oriented policing, Police Chief Carlos Rojas told residents gathered at a Voice of OC forum on the issue Tuesday.

Rojas’ acknowledgment came during a nearly two-hour long panel discussion with more than 30 community members that was at times tense, with residents making a host of complaints about the department, and sharp disagreements among speakers on the forum panel.

In addition to Rojas, panelists included: Santa Ana councilmen David Benavides and Roman Reyna; American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California attorney Belinda Escobosa Helzer; Chicanos Unidos activist Gaby Hernandez; and Latino Health Access community engagement coordinator Sarai Arpero. It was moderated by Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr.

According to Rojas, there are just over 100 officers in Santa Ana dedicated to patrol, a figure he says leads to an unacceptable average police response time of more than seven minutes. The chief’s goal is to reduce that to five minutes, which requires over 180 patrol officers to make happen, he said.

Rojas also said he needs more resources for crime investigations and staff to answer calls. Once the patrol ranks are beefed up and those bases are covered, then the department can really start to focus extra resources on community oriented policing, he said.

“You don’t want us to show up an hour late after you’ve been assaulted or robbed,” Rojas said.

By making this statement of priorities, Rojas in essence acknowledged that the department won’t be focusing heavily on community-oriented policing anytime soon. Hiring that many officers would require the city to add millions of dollars to the police budget and could take years to achieve.

While the main focus of the forum, held in the foyer on the second floor of downtown Santa Ana’s Santora building, was community policing, the conversation often veered into a host of other frustrations city residents have with the department.

Forum attendees mostly complained about having a city jail housing undocumented detainees on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in a city that is almost 80 percent Latino; and an overwhelming sense in the community that there is lack of accountability for officers who engage in misconduct.

After Rojas outlined his priorities, Escobosa of the ACLU asserted the police department focuses “traditional policing” instead of community oriented policing. She said to truly implement a community policing model, there needs to be a “paradigm shift” away from focusing on response times and more on building community relationships as a more effective crime fighting approach.

Rojas bristled at Escobosa’s statements about the city’s policing model, calling it a “mischaracterization.” He then listed several programs, like the police athletic league and coffee with a cop, that are community oriented. Later, he also pointed out that he broke up the city into a dozen geographical officer-assigned beats as a way to have officers get to know the community better.

Experts on community-oriented policing say implementing a true community policing model requires a paradigm shift. Successful programs focus heavily on organizing neighborhood watch groups to assist police efforts and, especially in cases of minority communities who distrust police, getting officers out of patrol cars on foot and bicycle patrols. These patrols are crucial to building the officer-resident relationships that will ultimately help alleviate the overall community mistrust in police.

Rojas, however, acknowledged that in the foreseeable future Santa Ana officers will largely remain in cars because he doesn’t have the resources for a robust foot patrol.

Despite the heavy criticism, Rojas was for the most part amiable and repeatedly stressed that he wanted to hear the residents’ concerns. But he did on occasion show frustration with the line of questioning and more than once reacted to residents’ complaints by saying they rebuffed opportunities to meet with him. He also reminded one woman who spoke only Spanish that gave her personal assistance when a relative of hers was arrested.

That revelation drew a strong rebuke from some, who said it was inappropriate for Rojas to be airing such things publicly. Rojas quickly apologized and said he was only trying to show that he will make extra efforts to help residents.

Benavides and Reyna talked about city resources being strained in recent years due to heavy budget cuts, and how that, according to Benavides, “budgets do impact how you’re able to roll out your values and commitments.” Reyna said others needed to be included in the discussion, such as school district officials, to come up with a comprehensive solution.

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

  • Ltpar

    As usual, the ACLU who now pretends to be an expert on Community Policing is out to lunch. While the focus of Community Policing is building a foundation for a Police – Stakeholder Partnership, it does not curtail the routine and emergency tasks Officers must perform on a daily basis. Response time have always been a critical priority for all Police Departments from both a practical and a customer satisfaction perspective. The Police Chief is absolutely correct and with Santa Ana being active response wise, it would behoove the City Council to add additional Officers to provide for the Community Policing interaction.

  • LFOldTimer

    So what’s the latest on the Santa Ana narcotics officers destroying private property and allegedly eating marijuana products in front of their fellow officers during the dispensary raid? How long ago did that happen anyway? 6 months ago? Haven’t the drug tests come back yet? 🙂 Or were they even administered? Would that be in violation of the Police Officer Bill of Rights….to test narcotics agents for drug ingestion after watching the agents eat something suspicious on video tape? So let me guess….the investigation continues so Santa Ana PD cannot comment. 🙂 I wonder what would happen to an ordinary citizen if he were caught destroying private property on video tape. Would the investigation continue after 6 months or would he be in jail? So much for that ‘higher standard’, eh? No wonder people are confused about who the good guys and bad guys are. 🙂

  • Connie

    One of the residents commented that these panels seem to only to include viewpoints that are overly critical of our police. There really are many residents that hold our police department in very high regard, in spite of the negative rhetoric. Everyone has their own opinion, but the negative views seem to be the ones getting the most attention. Funny how that works…