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Magazine Probe Finds Police Botched Response to Santa Monica Riots

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By Jorge Casuso

November 17, 2020 -- The main findings of a Lookout probe into the Police Department's failure to contain the violence and looting in Santa Monica on May 31 were confirmed by an investigation published Tuesday by Los Angeles Magazine.

The Lookout's report, based on exclusive interviews in the days following the riots, found that SMPD failed to head clear warning signs, was unprepared and understaffed and appeared to have no operations plan ("PART I -- Santa Monica Police Could Have Prevented Looting Spree, Former Top Officials Say," June 10, 2020).

The magazine's investigation -- based on hundreds of documents obtained through public records requests and interviews with past and present officials -- "undermines" the City's argument that police "were overwhelmed by forces beyond their control."

"Rather, the evidence shows that incompetence, inexperience, and a failure to respond to clear warning signs played a major role in what outside experts believe was a largely preventable catastrophe," the investigation concluded.

Among the key findings were the following:

  • "The police did not have nearly enough officers assigned to work that day and could not call up reinforcements fast enough when trouble erupted."

  • Police "did not see -- or did not believe -- the multiple social media posts openly announcing looting runs by street gangs, even though city employees and elected officials flagged them as they appeared."

  • "An inexperienced top brass did not arrange for street closures, or have community service vehicles ready to block freeway exits, or use city buses to close off major thoroughfares."
  • "The drone they typically use to provide aerial intelligence was not working and the main command post they set up in a bus depot. . . had spotty internet service and no televisions on which to follow the wall-to-wall media coverage."

The report also confirmed the Lookout's finding that former Police Chief Cynthia Renaud was out of town to attend her daughter's graduation and did not arrive in Santa Monica until the morning of May 31.

Although the Chief called in extra reinforcements, many "live more than an hour’s drive away -- in places like Palmdale and Thousand Oaks -- and by the time they arrived much of the damage was done," the magazine reported.

"Even with extra manpower, the police were far tougher on the protest crowd than they were on the looters. They ended up arresting more than 400 people, only eight of whom were later charged with felony offenses. By contrast, the vast majority of looters escaped."

The LA Magazine investigation comes less than one month after Renaud shared "preliminary findings" on the police response to the riots ("Police Chief Shares 'Preliminary Findings' on Response to Riots," October 23, 2020).

The report -- released days before the chief unexpectedly retired -- found that police were unprepared for "three, separate events that converged" simultaneously and "ultimately prioritized life and personal safety."

Wile police were prepared for peaceful protesters and "riotous individuals," Renaud wrote, they were not prepared for the "massive groups of extremely organized individuals, who were unassociated with the protests, committing highly mobile, well-coordinated looting at multiple locations throughout the city."

Renaud's brief update came shortly after the City hired a consulting firm to investigate the police response four months after the City Council first directed staff to do so.

OIR Group will be paid $75,000 to provide within 180 days "a written narrative of facts regarding those events" and "an independent evaluation of, and recommendations regarding, the City’s response."

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