Santa Ana Police Chief to Resign Amid Criticism and Praise

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Former Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas, in a public safety announcement video.

Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas is resigning and taking a job in the San Francisco Bay Area, amid public praise and criticism of his leadership from a divided City Council.

In an internal memo sent to the acting city manager Thursday, Rojas said he plans to leave his job in June and recommended city leaders quickly appoint an acting police chief.

“For over 27 years, I have had the privilege and honor to serve the business owners, residents and all community members of this wonderful city,” Rojas wrote in the memo. “This memo will serve as my intent to resign as the Chief of Police for the City of Santa Ana.”

“I have currently come to an employment agreement with another organization,” he added. “I expect my last day on city payroll to be June 9, 2017.”

Rojas did not name his new job but he will become police chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in Northern California, according to the San Francisco Chronicle and sources close to Santa Ana City Hall. He did not respond to requests from a Voice of OC reporter for an interview.

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

Rojas has led the police department since March 2012, and has been praised by most of the seven council members for building strong relationships with community members and holding officers accountable for misconduct. But he’s been criticized by other council members and police officers for being too tough in disciplining low-level police and not tough enough on their bosses, and for not effectively combating a rise in gang shootings.

Officers have also criticized him for embarking on new initiatives that require more police – like reassigning officers from citywide patrols to geographic beats – despite being understaffed.

In his highest-profile disciplinary action, Rojas fired an officer who was criminally charged with stealing snacks from a pot shop and destroying its security cameras during a police raid. When the officer was ordered re-instated by a city appeals board, a narrow majority of the council stood by Rojas’ decision and challenged the re-instatement in court, while the police union supported the officer.

Rojas also faced public criticism recently from Mayor Miguel Pulido and Councilman Jose Solorio for how he has handled of a sharp rise in shootings in the city.

Last Thursday, the police officers’ union decided to move forward with a no-confidence vote on Rojas.

“Gang shootings are up to historic numbers, mismanagement of resources and the morale at the police department has worsened to near unrecoverable levels,” police union President Gerry Serrano wrote in an email to city officials Thursday.

Councilman Sal Tinajero, who supports Rojas, said in a phone interview Thursday the police chief brought credibility to the department through his approach to discipline.

“If an officer made a mistake and violated the public’s trust, he was quick to evaluate that officer, give them an action plan and if that officer did not fulfill their duties…then that officer was brought up for dismissal, which created a great deal of credibility in the community,” he said.

But, he alleged, Rojas was pushed out under pressure from the union.

“I’ve been telling everyone since back in November that this was going to occur, that they were going to make his life difficult,” and that was done, he said. Police union-backed candidates won three council seats in November.

“This was the [police union] pressuring him” and “utilizing their clout” with new council members “to squeeze him…and ultimately he realized that this is not a good place for him to work anymore,” Tinajero said.

In response to Tinajero’s remarks, Serrano said Rojas chose to leave on his own.

“The fact is Rojas has applied for employment at other cities, has chosen to leave and left at his own accord. The [police union] represents its members and has no authority on who is the chief,” Serrano wrote in an email to Voice of OC.

“We thank Mr. Rojas for his years of service. Now we need a Chief with a problem solving and community oriented policing strategy to address the spike in gang shootings and morale at the Santa Ana Police Department.”

The decision on who to appoint as acting police chief is up to the acting city manager, Gerardo Mouet, and is expected to be watched closely by the City Council and community members.

In a phone interview, Mouet said he will create a “very transparent and very objective” process to choose an acting police chief to lead the city’s 300-plus officers, sergeants, and command staff.

A special city council meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday to discuss the issue during closed session. Topics will include the acting chief search, among "other issues" related to city leadership, Tinajero said.

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento said Rojas has had a “strong tenure” at the city.

“Personally I don’t think that he can be held personally responsible for the spike in [shooting] activity…I think there are a lot of factors that…have a role in that increase.”

As police chief, Rojas “has to be held accountable for maybe not addressing some of that spike, or some of the increase, you know, maybe more expediently,” Sarmiento added. “[But] I think there’s so many other factors at play here that…it would be unfair to completely place this on one person’s shoulders.”

Councilman Juan Villegas, who works as a sheriff’s special officer, said he has a strong respect for Rojas.

“This is a man who was worked his way from the bottom up. And I thank him for his 27 years of service to the city of Santa Ana. He’s a good man, and I wish him well in his endeavors,” he said.

“We as a City Council need to look forward to the future of Santa Ana, [to make] sure we provide the best public safety possible for the communities we serve.”

Villegas said the qualities he’s looking for in an acting chief are “integrity…leading from the front, open-minded to working with the community, proactive, someone who has the trust of the troops.”

Sarmiento said the qualities he’s looking for are “objectivity…separation from special interests, and autonomy and good leadership abilities.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.