Essay: What are the Modes of Resistance to Reform?

Essay: What are the Modes of Resistance to Reform?

George Brown
George Brown, Executive Director of the Stanford Center for Racial Justice

Stanford Center for Racial Justice continues this four-part retrospective from our Executive Director George Brown as part of our On The Ground Series on Police Reform in Santa Monica, California. In Part Two below, he outlines how reform was resisted from the outset – causing police reform to fail in Santa Monica so far. He identifies six categories of resistance: Ignore, Deny, Delay, Dispute, Starve, and Taint.


In Part One of this retrospective, I outlined the arc of how Santa Monica’s leadership reacted to the racial reckoning and call for action in the summer of 2020. This led them to embrace a series of recommendations to improve public safety, including civilian oversight of policing and a review of SMPD’s use of force policies. I also noted that the forces of resistance immediately kicked into gear and worked to undermine the implementation of police reform and improvement efforts. In this Part Two, I offer my views on the nature of the resistance to police reform efforts in Santa Monica.

Forces of Resistance Emerge Quickly

Just over 90 days after the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 that were disastrously handled by Santa Monica police, the momentum for police reform and civilian oversight in Santa Monica peaked. The forces of resistance kicked in immediately:

  • The interim City Manager never again convened the Advisory Committee that had developed the reform agenda for City Council.
  • The interim City Attorney delayed drafting the required ordinance to establish the police oversight commission.
  • The local police union, (Santa Monica Police Officer’s Association) first threatened and later sued to kill the oversight commission.
  • SMPD’s use of force policy was never systematically reviewed in public to determine how the SMPD’s practices compare with the recommendations approved by the City Council.

Eight months later, the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission (“PSROC” or “Commission”) was finally established and members were appointed. I was appointed to the Commission by the City Council, and then the other Commissioners unanimously elected me to serve as its first Chair.

However, the Commission was delayed and detoured, under-resourced, and attacked in several ways:

  • Subsequent appointments to the Commission were rumored to have been tainted by backroom dealing and police department and union influence, undermining its independence.
  • The interim City Attorney negotiated a temporary suspension of the Commission’s activities that attempted to gut its powers.
  • There was little to no support for logistics or planning from the City, which at times resulted in lack of essential records, information, or the necessary notice to hold meetings.
  • When new leadership arrived, both the new City Manager and the new Police Chief showed little interest in making the Commission successful.

Police reform has failed in Santa Monica to date, largely because of these forces of resistance. Consequently:

  • The Commission has been unable to function in a coherent and effective manner.
  • There have been no major accomplishments.
  • The Commission has been unable to have meaningful oversight of, or public dialogue about, the operations, strategy, personnel, policies, or training within the police department.
  • Similarly, there are few, if any, organized efforts by the Commission to pursue community engagement or to discuss the public safety issues of concern to the residents, visitors, workers, renters, homeowners, or businesses in the city.
  • The Commission has been unable or unwilling to systematically ensure that the City Council-approved reform agenda is implemented.
  • There has been no reconciliation, healing, or meaningful accountability for the many internal problems, policy violations, and other misconduct that occurred on May 31, 2020 during the protests.

Modes of Resistance

What are the methods used to block change and progress towards the goal of implementing civilian oversight, adopting use of force policies that reflect community input and values, and other related goals? I have identified six primary modes of resistance: Ignore; Deny; Delay; Dispute; Starve; and Taint. Each standing alone can pose a serious threat to progress. Collectively they can be catastrophic.


A subtle but harmful tactic is to ignore inquiries, requests, and important developments, thereby frustrating the ability of Commissioners or community members to learn information they may need in order to move forward. This is among the most important resistance tactics that has harmed the overall community:

  • The City Council, City Manager, and Police Chief have ignored the PSROC’s most important publication: PSROC’s Final Report on May 31, 2020 Events.
  • The interim City Manager ignored her own Advisory Committee, choosing not to reconvene or speak to it again after the City Council adopted the committee’s recommendations over hers.
  • The interim police chief and other city officials often ignored requests for information from me when I was Chair of the PSROC.
  • The commissioners who chaired committees had difficulty getting information from SMPD required to hold productive committee meetings.

The collective refusal by city leaders to evaluate, in public, the important PSROC report about the May 31, 2020 protests and organized criminal activity kept its key findings out of view. This allowed the City Council and the city’s Leadership to ignore difficult realities reflected in the SMPD’s handling of the May 31, 2020 events. These include:

  • “The events of May 31, 2020 put the SMPD under stressful conditions that revealed the department’s structural, planning, and operational weaknesses.”
  • “SMPD perpetuated a false and misleading storyline about the status and operations of SMPD in the immediate aftermath of May 31, 2020, and continuing many months thereafter.”
  • “The SMPD’s policies, training, and tactics…caused injury to lawful protesters…”
  • “SMPD used ‘less-lethal munitions’ on lawful demonstrators.”
  • “Numerous instances of potential officer misconduct occurred, including misuse of tear gas, pepper spray, and flash grenades…”
  • “[A]n SMPD officer pointed his rifle at the back of an elderly African-American female passerby who was crossing an intersection.”
  • “[K]inetic projectiles were allegedly shot indiscriminately into a crowd of protesters…”
  • “[A] rubber bullet was shot and hit a young African American woman who had her back to the officer who fired it.”
  • “[There was] a widespread and willful failure to use body worn cameras.”
  • “The SMPD leadership failed to appropriately investigate and hold officers accountable for misconduct on May 31, 2020.”
  • “SMPD and its leadership have not adequately engaged in community dialogue to help remedy the numerous flaws revealed on May 31, 2020 and in the OIR Group Report.”
  • “SMPD’s Use of Force Policy is flawed.”
  • “SMPD’s Protests and Crowd Management system is flawed. Its policies have not been updated to reflect community values and are not transparent.”

Despite the unanimous approval of this report by the PSROC, the city failed to acknowledge its existence, put it on the City Council agenda, or take any specific actions to address the report’s recommendations. Now, nearly a year after that report was completed, the City Council was recently publicly pressured into promising to add the PSROC report to an upcoming November 2022 public meeting agenda.


People in leadership and other influential positions can use their credibility and political capital to deny the underlying realities that are the foundation for reform efforts. They deny racism exists. They deny that there are any issues with policing. For example:

  • SMPD officials denied that racism exists in the department, claiming as proof that their diversity statistics are much improved from 20 years earlier;
  • SMPD officials denied the relevance or importance of statistics provided in 2020 to the Advisory Committee showing disproportionate stops, citations and arrests of Black and Latinx individuals;
  • SMPD officials denied the significance of prior incidents of police conduct reflecting racial bias “because they happened in the past” or were “anomalies”;
  • City officials publicly graded the SMPD with an A+ performance for their actions just days after they mishandled the May 31, 2020 protests.

SMPD leaders as well as police union members told the Advisory Committee and others that SMPD is a “progressive” police department or a “leader in progressive” policing and already uses the best practices in public safety. They deny that any problems exist or that any aspects of policing could be improved. The community’s response should be: “do you mind if we look in the trunk?”

Instead, SMPD’s denial stance has been used to resist community oversight, object to reform proposals, and avoid meaningful public discussion about how policing should be done in Santa Monica or how to make it better.


Foot-dragging and other delaying tactics can be used by local officials to undermine momentum and progress. It was used effectively in Santa Monica:

  • City officials didn’t produce the ordinance to establish the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission (PSROC) for multiple months.
  • It took more than eight months, after more foot-dragging and delay, for City Council to make the initial appointments to the newly established PSROC in May 2021.
  • Once the Commission was in place, its business was often undermined and delayed because staff hadn’t been able to complete the work or SMPD had not provided requested information.
  • The interim City Manager and City Attorney failed to hire the required subject matter expert, an “Inspector General,” for an additional nine months after the Commission commenced, 17 months after the City Council’s 7-0 vote to create the oversight body.

Lawsuits can delay or block progress. In Santa Monica, the local police union tried to kill the PSROC by using a common union legal tactic. They first threatened and later brought a lawsuit before the California Public Employee Relations Board claiming that the city had failed to “meet and confer” with the union before establishing an oversight commission.

There is a California law that requires cities to have a good faith conversation with organized labor unions before making significant changes to their working conditions. In Santa Monica, no changes to police officers’ working conditions had occurred because the creation of an oversight commission did not actually change anything.

Concluding otherwise would be a blow to the fundamental democratic processes of local government. A commission would be just the starting point in developing recommendations that may or may not change working conditions for the rank-and-file union members.

Still, the union used this tactic. As local unions have done in other cities, the Santa Monica POA sought an order prohibiting the Commission from operating.

City officials, in particular the interim City Attorney, made few efforts to advise the oversight commission about the looming threat. The lawsuit was threatened in February 2021, but neither the interim City Attorney, nor interim City Manager, discussed the looming threat with the members of the original Public Safety Reform Advisory Committee. In fact, none of the newly appointed members of the PSROC were advised about the threat, until August of 2021.

By that time, the interim City Attorney had negotiated a standstill agreement that would gut the powers and effectiveness of the PSROC. As I explained to the local press:

“It’s overall an attempt to basically gut the Commission and prevent it from operating. It’s clear that the Santa Monica police union opposes civilian oversight. They’ve been trying to kill it behind the scenes for the entire time.”

The City Council – behind closed doors and outside of public view – approved the standstill agreement sharply limiting the Commission’s activity pending settlement negotiations with the union.

Later, a settlement agreement was reached between the city and the union that weakened the Commission and threatened its independence.


Providing inadequate resources is another tactic that can block progress.

  • The city provided virtually no logistical or infrastructure support for the Commission.
  • No subject matter experts were hired to help advise or guide the Commissioners on trends in public safety or best practices in community-oriented policing.
  • A staff liaison was appointed, a dedicated public servant who worked hard to help the PSROC, but was allowed to spend only six hours per week supporting the Commission.
  • The liaison lacked the power (formal and informal) necessary to gather required information, and lacked the time and resources to accomplish basic tasks that would be necessary to allow the PSROC to function competently. For example, no timely meeting minutes were produced and the adopted bylaws were not published for public review. Public meeting agendas were often late or delayed.
  • When pressed on why the city did not provide adequate resources, the interim City Attorney and other staff replied that we had more staff time than other Commissions so we should not complain.

In Santa Monica, the PSROC has the important responsibility to help provide oversight and policy recommendations relating to one of the largest and most important city departments. The SMPD has over 400 sworn and nonsworn officers and a budget of well over $100 million per year. The failure to provide adequate resources, expertise, and logistical support was an effective way of ensuring the Commission would not be able to carry out its intended goals effectively.


Establishing independence from police department influence is a critical feature of successful civilian oversight commissions. Stated differently: Independent oversight is needed because the police should not police themselves. Therefore, one of the most significant ways in which effective oversight can be undermined is by compromising the independence of the Commission.

  • City Council appointed some members to the inaugural group of Commissioners who did not support the goals of reform and oversight.
  • Some of the appointees were former police officers or otherwise very closely aligned with the local police union.
  • When a few initial vacancies occurred, some City Council members deferred to police union representatives in selecting who to approve or not approve to fill the vacancies.
  • The new appointees publicly stated that they were not in support of reform and oversight of the SMPD.

I do not know with certainty whether some City Council members voted for new Commissioners based on the police union’s preferences or for some other reason. If it is true that the union influenced the selections, this is a tactic that is inconsistent with a functioning democratic local government and ultimately will cause the demise of the Commission.

Equally troubling, it can allow officials to claim that they do in fact want to have civilian oversight of the police department and claim that an effective process is in place while the reality is that they have poisoned the process and rendered it ineffective.

I resigned from my position as Chair of the PSROC in February 2022, in part, because the process had become infected by a lack of independence and I did not want to provide cover for city officials who want to claim that they are pursuing progress in improving public safety, when they are not.

Why Such Vigorous Resistance?

In Part Three, I will reflect upon some of the forces and potential explanations helping to fuel the resistance to reform. Finally, in Part Four, I will offer some thoughts on how Santa Monica can move forward and pursue a public safety agenda that helps ensure a fair, safe, and equitable environment for everyone.