By LOUIS CASIANO JR., JESSICA KWONG, ALMA FAUSTO and JENNA CHANDLER / STAFF WRITERS
SANTA ANA – Three people died and two others, including a police officer, were wounded in a rash of shootings across the city this week, underscoring what the police chief on Friday called a surge in brazen gang-related crimes.
Santa Ana police Chief Carlos Rojas said it was the worst week in a year already rocked by the “busiest” January for his department since 2011.
The number of shootings reached 55 on Thursday since Jan. 1.
“We’re seeing more gang activity now, and I think a lot of that has to do with gang members being released into the community and more of a soft-on-crime approach,” Rojas said.
The chief cited the early release of offenders under Proposition 47 as a contributing factor to the violence. The initiative, passed in 2014, reclassified some nonviolent felonies, including those for drug and theft crimes, to misdemeanors, which can lead to earlier releases from jail.
Rojas, however, said he did not know precisely how many people arrested in connection with this year’s shootings had been released early under Prop. 47.
The spate of gunfire this week unfolded over three days starting Tuesday with a drive-by shooting outside a home near two elementary schools. Police officers were involved in two of the shootings that followed, one each on Wednesday and Thursday.
The department has released few details on the fourth shooting, also on Thursday, of a man who walked into a hospital with a gunshot wound.
Rojas said Friday that the department’s 13-member gang unit has “sufficient” manpower to go up against the 100 documented gangs in the city and their estimated 4,500 members.
But the department, with 305 officers, remains understaffed, the continuing fallout of a major budget crisis in the 2009-10 fiscal year. The chief has openings for 67 more officers.
“We’re making a concerted effort to hire as many officers as we can,” Rojas said.
He’s working to beef up the force at the same time the city grapples with a swell in crime.
From 2014 to 2015, violent crime in Santa Ana rose 29 percent, driven largely by a 39 percent jump in aggravated assaults, according to the FBI and local police.
The proliferation of aggravated assaults equated to 262 incidents more than the prior year, dwarfing increases in Orange County’s other most populous cities.
Compared with January 2015, the number of shootings this January spiked to 41 from 24.
By mid-January, with the number of shootings reaching more than 20, the department began orchestrating sweeping probation compliance checks, seizing guns, and rifling through furniture, kitchen cabinets, bedrooms and cars, looking for drugs, paraphernalia or signs of recent gang activity at the homes of people on probation.
Police union President John Franks said Friday that Prop. 47 has created a “perfect storm.” Newly released rival gang members, he said, “walk into each other and no challenge goes unanswered … the answer is always going to be violence.”
It doesn’t help, Franks said, that the Police Department is understaffed and no longer boasts an elite SWAT team that once helped gang officers deal with the most violent criminals in the city. The team was disbanded three years ago.
“Some specialized enforcement is needed,” Franks said. “We have a very, very effective gang unit, but again, when you have other enforcement teams, everything helps right now.
This week’s string of shootings began Tuesday evening with a drive-by in the 1100 block of South Harmon Street. The victim was 24-year-old Francisco Sotelo Gonzalez, who police said had no gang affiliations or criminal history. He was struck multiple times and later died in a hospital.
At 3:30 p.m Wednesday, in an alley near the 2700 block of West McFadden Avenue, police said, officers exchanged fire with Carlos Michael Rodriguez, a 30-year-old gang member who previously served eight years in prison for a separate attack on a police officer.
According to police, officers were patrolling the alley when Rodriguez fired “one of his weapons at a detective.” The bullet grazed the head of a detective, who was treated and released.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office charged Rodriguez on Friday with five felonies, including attempted murder of a peace officer. Prosecutors allege he used a semiautomatic weapon.
At 4:15 p.m. Thursday, a man walked into Coastal Communities Hospital with a gunshot wound. He is expected to survive. Authorities said the victim may have been shot about 20 feet from Wednesday’s officer-involved shootout with Rodriguez.
Later that day, at 5 p.m., police officers shot and killed two of four burglary suspects at a home in the 400 block of Eastwood Avenue.
Police have not released the burglary suspects’ names, but one was identified by his family as 30-year-old Jose Manuel Quintanilla of Hawaiian Gardens.
“He had his problems and he stole, but he was never violent. Why did he have to die for this?” his sister Silvia Llamas said Friday.
Rojas said police officers were involved in three shootings this year.
“I think what you’re seeing is the gang members being a lot more brazen,” Rojas said.
But, he said, residents should feel safe.
“There’s people every day that live very comfortably here in Santa Ana,” Rojas said. “We don’t want to send a message that everybody should be in a panic and there should be this kind of fear.”
He added: “Should everybody be concerned and everybody be willing to call the police when they see something? Absolutely.”
Resident Marta Rivera said the shootings in her neighborhood have been alarmingly frequent. She lives in an apartment building near the scene of Wednesday’s alley shooting. Her door faces a narrow passageway cluttered with plants and toys and trash bags.
“Bad things happen all around this area. It’s not that the criminals live here, but they come here because of the alley. It’s very dark there,” she said. “That’s why people gather there to do bad things or run into the alley to hide. They run through our apartments (passageway) here and into the alley and nobody ever sees them.”
Rivera said she doesn’t see many police officers patrolling the area.
“There’s a certain point in the day where we go in our homes and don’t really come out anymore,” she said.
Staff writers Alyssa Duranty, Scott Schwebke and Jordan Graham contributed to this report.
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