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Ministry of Funny Investigations

By Frank Gruber

Feb. 22, 2011-- The “investigation of the investigation,” i.e., that by the OIR Group into the one of School Board Member Oscar de la Torre by the Santa Monica Police is, thankfully, on the agenda of the City Council tonight, but it is unclear to what extent the council will be able to discuss the report. The item is listed on the agenda as an “oral report” from City Manager Rob Gould, meaning that there will be no staff report.

Last week I talked to some council members about the case, but they told me that they were somewhat limited from discussing the report because of a memo they had received from City Attorney Marsha Moutrie warning them that because of potential litigation, namely a suit Mr. de la Torre might file against the City, and a pending personnel matter regarding the police officer who investigated Mr. de la Torre, the council members need to be careful about what they say.

The ever-vigilant Ms. Moutrie will no doubt repeat those admonitions at the council meeting tonight, and the council members themselves may want to delay discussion of the case until they have a staff report.

But ultimately the council will need to discuss the report.

Why? Santa Monica does not have a civilian police commission. I am not saying that a small city like ours needs one, but in the absence of a police commission, it is up to the City Council to establish and enforce the norms governing the conduct of the police. This is why we have politics, and these values are more important than the outcome of any particular lawsuit or personnel matter.

Having said that, the council has plenty of room to discuss the case without getting anywhere near prejudicing the City’s or anyone else’s rights in any litigation or administrative procedure. The council can simply start with what Police Chief Tim Jackman has already said, namely that he will implement all of the recommendations the OIR Group made.

It is more than appropriate for the City Council to hold Mr. Jackman to this; it is the council’s job. The council members can begin by discussing with Mr. Jackman just what those recommendations are, and what they mean, and then they need to require him to report back periodically on the progress of implementing the recommendations.

Undoubtedly Ms. Moutrie is concerned about any apology that members of the council might want to issue, because that might be seen as an admission of liability to Mr. de la Torre or prejudicial to the personnel matter. But there is nothing stopping the council members from expressing what they consider to be appropriate standards of justice and fairness for all police investigations in Santa Monica, especially those that involve controversial public figures.

The police certainly violated those standards in the investigation of Mr. de la Torre. If Mr. Gould and Mr. Jackman believe that the police department was in any way vindicated because the OIR Group condoned the initiation of the investigation of Mr. de la Torre, and at one point concluded that there was no evidence of “ill motive,” then they are ignoring the thrust of the report -- and fooling themselves to boot.

I do not know the OIR investigators, Michael Gennaco and Robert Miller, personally, and perhaps they are devoid of humor, but to me, as someone who prides myself on an affinity for the obvious, their report, in its over-the-top attempt not to offend anyone, is loaded with subversive and devastating irony.

Some of this irony takes a little digging to get to, but after reading the report the third time I stopped chuckling long enough to look on the cover page to see if John Cleese from Monty Python was a co-author.

For instance, in the report the OIR investigators quote from police interviews of witnesses, notably the two young men whose fight Mr. de la Torre broke up, who were interviewed with their parents present, and they find repeated instances where the police investigator denounces Mr. de la Torre as if he’s campaigning against him for school board, and gives the witnesses the investigator’s own interpretation of what happened at the fight while they’re watching the video of it.

But the OIR investigators note that these efforts to influence the witnesses, and to poison them and their parents against Mr. de la Torre, come after the police investigator had already determined that neither boy was aware of any fact that might support the allegation that Mr. de la Torre had facilitated or condoned the fight, set it in motion, or “in any way conveyed a message to the two boys that this would be an acceptable way to resolve their differences” (the famous “mindset” Mr. de la Torre was supposed to have had).

But that’s not the irony. The irony comes when the OIR investigators drolly conclude that after the police investigator had learned that the boys had no evidence against Mr. de la Torre, then that “may have been a good time to end the interviews.”

Or how can this not be ironic: After quoting the police investigator telling one boy’s father that “[a]s a father myself, if that was my child… I would hope that an adult would not let a fight continue because of the potential for somebody to get hurt bad… all it takes is one smack on the head [that] could make somebody paralyzed, could screw up their brain, could kill them,” the OIR investigators reported that “[t]his effort to point out the potentially high stakes of boys having fistfights would be laudable and appropriate in another context.”

“Appropriate in another context.” Ouch.

There are other ironies in the report, but the ultimate irony in it is that the OIR investigators find instance after instance of police conduct that, they acknowledge, might contribute “to the belief by some, including Mr. de la Torre himself, that the investigation was not objective,” but then state that there is “no evidence to suggest” that there was an “ill motive” behind all this bad police work.

They have to be kidding, right? Hilarious. You write up 14 pages of evidence, and then say there’s no evidence? As I said, it reminds me of a Monty Python skit, something with John Cleese playing the police investigator. Call it, “The Ministry of Funny Investigations.”

Count me as one of the “some” who believe the investigation was not objective.

* * *

Last week when I wrote about the OIR Report I made the comment that other than the police investigator, based on the report the person who came off worst was School Superintendent Tim Cuneo, and I concluded my comment by saying that Mr. Cuneo actions showed a “profound lack of judgment.”

I want to make it clear that that last statement was also based on my reading of the OIR Report, not on the basis of any other information. After reading my column, Mr. Cuneo told me that he disagrees with the account in the report, and pointed out to me that the OIR investigators had not interviewed him in connection with the report, and therefore did not have his version of the events.

Indeed, the OIR investigators do not say that they interviewed Mr. Cuneo, although he seems to have played a significant role, especially in the initiation of the investigation. While it now seems to be Mr. Cuneo’s decision whether to make his account of what happened public, I want to reiterate that my comments were based only on my reading of the OIR report.

________________________________

Notice:
I want to remind readers of what could be a fun and informative evening coming up Thursday night at Santa Monica College. It’s Sheila Kuehl’s movie night; as reported a few weeks ago(Kuehl_Movie_Night , February 3, 2011), our former State Senator’s Public Policy Institute at the College is hosting a presentation by Ms. Kuehl of clips from movies with a political bent, accompanied by discussion.

Details: 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 24 in Room 123 of the Santa Monica College's Bundy Campus, 3171 S. Bundy Dr., Los Angeles. The event is free, but seating is limited and reservations are required. To RSVP, email ppi.rsvp@smc.edu or call (310) 434-3429.


Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on amazon.com.

 


If readers want to write the editor about this column, send your emails to The Lookout at mail@surfsantamonica.com .


If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email frank@frankjgruber.net The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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