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Santa Monica Police Thwarted Looters Tuesday Night, Captain Says

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By Jorge Casuso

September 4, 2020 -- The lines of cars that exited the freeway one recent weekday evening reminded Police Captain Candice Cobarrubias of weekend nights when Santa Monica's Downtown economy was humming.

Only it was a Tuesday, and the City was still in the midst of a coronavirus emergency that had crippled its once thriving business center.

"At 7 p.m., we started seeing carloads of people coming off the freeway," said Cobarrubias, who was formerly in charge of Traffic Enforcement.

The cars streaming into the city, Corbarrubias knew, weren't shoppers and diners but well organized bands of looters who planned to strike Downtown after they had swept through the area during rioting May 31.

Police had been tipped off by a community member who on Tuesday afternoon had seen a one-line "story" posted on Instagram, Cobarrubias said.

It read: "Looting Santa Monica at 7 p.m."

The previous night hundreds of protesters had taken to the streets of South Los Angeles after Sheriff's deputies fatally shot a Black bicyclist during a traffic stop.

Three months after rows of Downtown area businesses were ransacked, looters were coming back.

This time, Cobarrubias said, police were ready. They had tracked those who posted the Instagram "story" and found that one of them had more than 3,000 followers.

"We called everybody in," Cobarrubias said. "Let's just basically saturate the Downtown area."

At around 6 p.m., Santa Monica Police Chief Cynthia Renaud sent out a message asking police "partners" to email if they saw something suspicious.

"We want to share that there will be a continued visible presence of SMPD officers in the community this evening given a threatening Instagram story shared in the last hour," Renaud wrote.

At around 6 p.m. the Police Department deployed its drone to monitor incoming traffic.

An hour later -- as called for in the Instagram post -- caravans of rental cars began exiting the freeway and traveling in rows of three to five towards the Downtown.

Officers began pulling over drivers who who violated the traffic code, Cobarrubias said.

"As soon as we started doing traffic stops the others would leave," she said. "As soon as they saw the officers, they veered off.

"The cars kept circling the Downtown area."

It was an unusual sight on a weekday night during a pandemic.

"The Downtown area on a Tuesday night doesn't get a lot of people," Cobarrubias said. "This looked like a Friday or Saturday night when it was busy."

The pattern of the looting was similar to that in other cities like Chicago, she said.

"It's the same M.O. (modus operandi). Organized groups are renting cars and driving in caravan style.

"They meet outside the targeted area and drive in," she said. "It's the same pattern."

While many of the rental cars used in Santa Monica had out-of-state plates, those inside were mostly young residents of the Los Angeles area, with a few from Northern California, Cobarrubias said.

The police response Tuesday night "shows the collaboration between the police and the community," Cobarrubiias said. "If we have to turn every stone over, that's what we have to do.

"Lesson learned from 5/31," she said. "We're not going to let that happen again."

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