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Top Cops Missing As Violence Gripped Santa Monica, Report Finds
By Jorge Casuso
May 11, 2021 -- Two captains charged with the police response to the riots that erupted in Santa Monica on May 31 were sidetracked for most of the day, leaving a lieutenant in charge, according to an Independent After-Acton Report released last week.
Protesters had already begun descending on Santa Monica when Police Chief Cythia Renaud arrived from a personal out-of-town trip at the Public Safety Facility at around 11:30 a.m., the report found ("Series of Missteps Led to Botched Response to Riots, Report Concludes," May 7, 2021).
One of her first actions was to send the two captains -- including the designated “incident commander" in charge of the entire SMPD response -- into the field to meet with protest organizers.
The move "was unorthodox to the point where many participants, including the captains themselves, remain baffled by the decision months later," the OIR group wrote in its 117-page report the Council will discuss Tuesday.
When the two captains arrived at demonstration gaining steam on Ocean Avenue, they were "quickly surrounded by protesters."
"The crowd was large, energetic, and well past the point of designating organizers to meet with police representatives for planning purposes," the consultants wrote.
"It would be hours before either returned to the Public Safety Facility."
In their absence, a lieutenant took it upon himself to take charge "as noontime approached and the pace of challenges accelerated."
The lieutenant stationed himself in the Department Operations Center (“DOC”), "where he had access to technology and media of various kinds."
"He was joined there by the Chief and, later, the acting City Manager as SMPD started reacting to the day’s events in earnest."
The Department continued to deal with "limited resources" after the previous night's request for 100 additional officers was rejected, and only 20, along with a few extra sargents, were approved.
There was also a "disjointed vision" of how to respond to the demonstrations that were beginning and rapidly growing, then splitting into subgroups, according to the report.
Shortly after noon, officers manning SMPD's aerial drone, SKY1, reported two "parallel" marches converging and traveling toward the Pier.
Meanwhile, the Lieutenant who had taken charge at the Operations Center began making deployment decisions focused on blocking the ramp that led to the Pier, which had been closed during the coronavirus shutdown.
"As the crowd swelled, it prevented all traffic flow along Ocean Avenue and surrounded a marked police vehicle that was responding to the area," the report stated.
By now, SKY1 had stopped transmitting live feed footage to the EOC, forcing the officers monitoring the drone to "verbally report what they were seeing" via radio. The Center's monitors were now only airing live feeds from news media helicopters.
At 12:15 p.m., the Metro Line stopped all service into Santa Monica. Five minutes later, Renaud initiated a “Tactical Alert” for the entire Department, indicating the force was now engaged in a "major police incident," although it remained understaffed.
"Had the Chief anticipated the potential levels of unrest and damage that would occur, she could have initiated Tactical Alert earlier, which may have increased deployment and preparation levels earlier that day," the consultants wrote.
By 12:25 p.m., the crowd gathered at the pier had grown to some 500 demonstrators who stood and chanted for about 15 minutes.
At 12:40 p.m., a SWAT team was deployed to the pier, where officers had been trying to clock the entrance with bicycle racks "and worried about the limited munitions with which they were equipped."
By now the lieutenant at the Operation Center had called for air support from the Hawthorne Police Department, which was expected to arrive at 1 p.m. He also requested mutual aid from the Culver City Police Department.
By 1 p.m., "nearly all of Ocean Avenue, from California Avenue to Colorado Boulevard, was full of protesters. And at one point, protesters were reported to be verbally berating officers at the Pier."
At 1:14 p.m., the lieutenant at the Center "activated an “Area A response,” which formally requested mutual aid from all local, neighboring law enforcement agencies.
"As protest activity was intensifying in the early afternoon on Ocean Avenue and beyond, criminal activity began to break out elsewhere in the City," the consultants wrote.
At 1:34 p.m., the officers manning SKY1 reported that a group of approximately 50 people had broken into and were looting the Vans store at 4th and Broadway, the first documented looting that day.
The coordinating lieutenant responded by redeploying the SWAT team from City Hall to the Vans store.
The looting spread to other Downtown sites, including Santa Monica Place but "few, if any, units were available" to respond.
Off-duty officers began to arrive at the Public Safety facility, and by 2 p.m. staffing levels had reached 120 sworn officers and 40 civilian personnel.
By then, "mass looting" was underway, "but as quickly as a unit arrived at a location, another was hit."
Meanwhile the captains who had been sent by the Chief to meet with the protesters -- contributing "to the breakdown in centralized command" -- were now responding to an “officer needs assistance” call.
They would be "occupied there for hours, engaged in what was essentially 'line level' enforcement and supervision while draining the situation of higher-level leadership."
The force was now responding to both increasing protests and looting, which "quickly exhausted the Department’s available resources and command’s capabilities."
Hawthorne's air unit was delayed and, "to make matters worse, there was a period in which responding mutual aid units did not know where to report for deployment."
With the two captains missing in action, there was little or no coordination between the DOC and a field command post set up at the Big Blue Bus garage area, where a lieutenant "simply began sending cadres of officers to needed locations."
At 2:09 p.m. the City declared a curfew set to begin at 4 p.m. At 2:10 p.m., the incident commander asked the CHP to close all freeway ramps into Santa Monica.
By now looting was rampant, with more than 100 looters overtaking Santa Monica place and hitting stores across the Downtown.
At the same time, tensions between protesters and police were rising near the Pier entrance, resulting in the deployment of additional SWAT teams, along with their armored vehicle, the Bearcat.
"Meanwhile, mutual aid units from other agencies were arriving to the City but did not know where to go or how to communicate."
At 2:18 PM, Chief Renaud requested that National Guard troops be deployed to Santa Monica, a request that "would take nearly seven hours to fulfill."
Motorcycle units were being shuffled between the Pier and the mall, as looting continued in a "chaotic Downtown."
At 3:09 p.m., with the go-ahead from the lieutenant in charge at the DOC during the continued absence of the two captains sent to meet with protesters, SMPD "declared Ocean and Colorado to be an unlawful assembly and issued two dispersal orders from the Bearcat’s loudspeaker system."
"If you do not do so, you will be arrested under section 409 of the United States Penal Code, which prohibits remaining at an unlawful assembly," the order declared.
The order, however, "did not inform people of the impending use of chemical munitions," according to the report.
The majority of the protesters defied the order and the skirmish lines established by police were reinforced.
At 3:16 p.m., SWAT team officers threw two “tear gas” grenades in front of the crowd of protesters; "one grenade was ineffective and did not disperse the intended chemical munitions."
Some protesters began tossing water bottles and rocks at the officers, and a SWAT officer responded by deploying "a third, and then a fourth, tear gas grenade," while another "deployed impact rounds using a 37mm launcher" at those "who appeared to be throwing rocks."
To avoid having the grenades tossed back, a third SWAT officer fired rounds of Pepperball at the ground around the deployed grenades." Use of the chemical munitions stopped when it was learned mutual aid partners "did not have gas masks."
Most of the crowd eventually dispersed, with some headed Downtown, but a splinter group returned and fortified their attack with construction materials from a nearby building.
"The 'peaceful protest' had now morphed into more of an unambiguous confrontation between the police and individuals who were openly resistant," the consultants wrote.
Officers tossed tear gas canisters towards the crowd and targeted "impact munitions" at those they thought more aggressive.
Protesters tried to toss the canisters back or cover them with traffic cones. Officers fired back with Pepperball rounds and held the skirmish line.
"Meanwhile, looting and vandalism had increased throughout downtown Santa Monica despite the City’s curfew," the consultants wrote. "It became abundantly clear that a more strategic and systematic plan was needed to secure City streets."
By 6 p.m., "with more mutual aid resources and nearly full deployment" SMPD began to "execute a more coordinated plan" to "systematically push and contain individuals into intersections to effect mass arrests."
The tide began to turn as SMPD units began to arrest groups of 35 to 50 people at various locations across the Downtown, although the field jail set up at Santa Monica Airport was inadequate to handle the mass arrests.
At 8:16 p.m. National Guard troops finally arrived, and shortly before 9 p.m. were stationed at the Mall, City Hall, the Public Safety Facility and the Pier to "support and relieve units.
Aside from some "sporadic looting and arrests " that continued "well into the early morning hours, "the City had largely re-established control."
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