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Series of Missteps Led to Botched Police Response to Riots, Report Concludes

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By Jorge Casuso

First of two parts

May 7, 2021 -- A report released by the City Thursday provides an inside look at the developments that culminated in the Police Department's failed response to the riots that erupted in Santa Monica on May 31, 2020.
Media post shared by Chief Renaud
Media post shared by Chief
(Courtesy SMPD)

Following is a summary of the narrative laid out in the OIR Group's 117-page Independent After-Action Report.

Shortly after former City Manager Rick Cole tapped Cynthia Renaud as Santa Monica's new Police Chief in March 2018, four of the five top ranking police officials left the Department, leaving simultaneous vacancies the following year.

"The impacts were inherently de-stabilizing," the consultants wrote. "Several decades’ worth of collective experience and leadership had left in relatively short order."

The Chief created the new position of "assistant Chief" and filled it with a former colleague who was kept on longer than expected and became a barrier to high-ranking supervisors.

In addition, in the two months leading up to the May 31 riots, City leadership was focused on responding to the COVID pandemic and concerned with overtime spending after the Council had slashed the City's budget.

As civil unrest began sweeping the nation in the wake of George Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, there seemed little sense of urgency to prepare for potential unrest in Santa Monica.

In fact, Chief Renaud had left town on Thursday leaving no one clearly in command.

"It is unclear, and a matter of some disagreement, as to whether she had designated one of her Captains to serve as 'Acting Chief' in her absence," the consultants wrote.

One Captain "later professed to be unaware until the weekend that the Chief had left town at all."

Posts began surfacing on social media and protests erupted in parts of Los Angeles that week, but it wasn't until 1,500 protesters descended on Beverly Hills on Saturday that the threat to Santa Monica suddenly seemed real.

"If social media postings were scattered and somewhat inconclusive," the consultants wrote, "the events in neighboring Beverly Hills -- which began in earnest on Saturday afternoon -- were a much more noteworthy bellwether."

A total of 25 Santa Monica police officers headed by a sergeant were deployed to help quell the violence and looting that erupted in the upscale city less than ten miles away.

But when they returned to Santa Monica "well after midnight," the SMPD supervisors "were not asked about their experience and insight by those police officials in Santa Monica planning for the next day."

As a result, their direct experience "did not coalesce into a coherent, agreed-upon assessment that comprehensive and pro-active preparations were warranted," the consultants wrote.

Still, there was concern among the captains gathered at the station Saturday night. Tensions had been building in the region and a protest was scheduled to take place in Santa Monica at noon.

That night, the captains spoke with the Chief hoping to get approval for "as many as 100 extra officers, almost half the entire Department roster." Renaud, who was still in Northern California, authorized 20 officers with "some extra sergeants for supervision."

"A sergeant scrambled to contact people on short notice and was able to put a roster together," the consultants wrote.

There was also a lack of communication among the captains gathered at the station that night.

"When the captains finally left for the evening on Saturday, they did so in the knowledge that the other two captains would be on hand Sunday morning to provide in-person leadership for whatever arose," the consultants wrote.

"What they did not do, though, was ensure that even the rudiments of an 'operations plan' were in place."

They also failed to "clearly designate" an “incident commander” to coordinate deployment and authorize "specific responsive actions as needed."

"The failure to clearly designate an 'incident commander,'" the consultants wrote, "is consistent with the larger mindset that Sunday’s prospective events had not risen to a level where traditional incident command was warranted."

Meanwhile, the warning signs had been growing. Posts on social media had begun popping up indicating trouble could be brewing, and anti-police graffiti was scrawled at different locations in the City on Saturday.

By Sunday morning, Santa Monica Place had erected fencing to block the mall's entrances and some Downtown merchants had started boarding their storefronts.

The Department, however, showed its "sluggishness and limitations" in tracking social media and other sources of information, OIR found.

"SMPD did not have any resources dedicated to intelligence gathering, such as data-mining social media, and no clear system for sharing important intelligence."

The crime analyst assigned with intelligence gathering had little experience in social media and “data mining” but was able to gather some information from Facebook and Twitter, which she was familiar with.

As early as Thursday, she began sharing with her commanding sergeant information "about possible protest activity and threats of looting," but the sergeant "did little with this information -- if he saw it at all."

At around 10:15 Sunday morning -- three and a half hours before the looting began -- Renaud received an email from a reporter "with an attachment of a highly-viewed social media post regarding planned looting in Santa Monica." She was advised that there were a number of similar posts online.

The Chief, who was heading back to Santa Monica, forwarded the email to a captain "but by this point, the captain was assigned elsewhere and there was no apparent response to email."

Meanwhile, the captain chosen to be the incident commander was not aware of her role until she arrived Sunday morning and found there was no detailed plan.

"In a span of minutes, the captain attempted to cobble together an 'operations plan,'" a task usually undertaken by a lieutenant or sergeant.

But "its brevity and limited scope were far from an adequate match for the circumstances," the consultants wrote.

Because no acting chief had been designated, "what constituted the operations plan in this case was not reviewed by anyone beyond the Captain who wrote it."

The consultants concluded that "the hesitancy and ambiguity that persisted into Sunday shows the impact both of mixed information and uncertain leadership within SMPD."

"As for the Chief, she had secured a flight on a state-owned plane from northern California on Sunday morning, and arrived at the Public Safety Facility from the airport at approximately 11:30 a.m.

In a 7 a.m. email to the City Council members, she had "provided updates and described an engaged, prepared SMPD."

PART II -- The Protests and Looting Begin

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