Essay: Why Santa Monica Failed to Make Progress on Police Reform

Essay: Why Santa Monica Failed to Make Progress on Police 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 Three below, he offers his reflections on what motivates the forces of resistance in Santa Monica.


In this essay, I talk about societal and structural racism as an impediment to police reform in Santa Monica. My views and opinions are shaped, in part, by my life experiences across many domains.

I am a Black man. I spent most of my adolescent years in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on the south side, about a half-mile from where George Floyd was murdered decades later. Many of my friends were white and came from working-class families. I experienced racism and learned about their culture by being adjacent to it and seeing the similarities and differences between their families and mine. Over the ensuing decades, I have been immersed in a wide range of racial and socioeconomic settings. I draw on those life experiences while reflecting on the nature of the forces and people impeding police reform efforts in Santa Monica. I also have had significant involvement in police reform efforts, which I discussed in a prior essay.

Goals of Public Safety and the Need for Oversight

Santa Monicans should be able to agree on some of the fundamental goals for public safety in our city:

We should have well-trained public safety officers who ensure that law enforcement activity is carried out in a manner that is fair, safe, and equitable for all Santa Monica stakeholders. Stakeholders include the 93,000 residents; the daily tens of thousands of workers who commute here; businesses and property owners; renters; unhoused persons; and the millions who visit us each year for vacation and leisure activities.

Our police department should use leading practices in all aspects of policing and engage in bias free policing that is consistent with the overall values of the community.

Sound governance and fiscal responsibility also suggest that the police department must be subject to independent oversight. It would be irresponsible to allow the city’s largest department—at over $100 million per year—to operate without supervision and oversight to ensure the department is meeting the expected goals and reflecting the values of the city.

It’s also dangerous to allow police departments—to whom we have granted vast authority to use force and violence to keep us safe—to operate without well-designed oversight and review that is independent from the department.

There is a fair amount of political posturing in the city—and elsewhere—in which some people claim that they are “pro-police” while suggesting that others are not. As a community, we all need to be in favor of having public safety that works, is fair and equitable, and keeps us all safe.

Unfortunately, what is meant by some who claim to be “pro-police” is that they support whatever the police department wants, without any limits or oversight. I believe this posture—often taken by privileged and affluent white people—reflects a belief that the police are political allies who protect them from “others” (e.g., immigrants, unhoused persons, racial and ethnic minorities) who are perceived as threats, and that the police are extremely unlikely to be a threat to them or their children. This knee-jerk position may have a certain logic to it, but it is both implicitly racist and ultimately dangerous for all of us. It leads to unfettered and uncontrolled police departments who have unchecked political and policy sway within the city. This undermines our local democracy and imposes the opinions and policies of outsiders—e.g., police leaders and officers who live far from here—on our residents, without political checks and balances.

What explains the resistance? In Part Two of this series, I discussed the methods and modes of resistance to police reform efforts in Santa Monica. What drives that resistance? I begin with some observations that may help us understand what has caused Santa Monica to swing from strongly favoring to regularly undermining efforts to have a formal process for community input and oversight of public safety.

A Toxic Local Political Environment Combines with a Shift in Council Makeup

The local political environment has grown increasingly contentious over the last several years. As a result, reaching agreement based on reasoned discussion and evidence has become more difficult.

The trend towards toxic politics was accompanied by a sudden shift in the political makeup of the City Council. By the summer of 2021, it became clearer that a majority of City Council members no longer fully embraced the reforms approved less than a year earlier. How did this happen?

Just two months after the City Council’s profound embrace of a series of police reform initiatives in the city, three incumbent Council members were replaced in the November 2020 elections. It was a close election, with the winners prevailing over the incumbents by less than a few hundred votes.

The three victorious challengers came from different political circles, but had banded together to run as a slate. One was a longtime resident and social justice activist; the second, a local populist; the third, a public safety employee from another city. Once elected, they behaved as a faction, voting together on most issues.

Although I have not deeply studied the attitudes of voters in Santa Monica during the 2020 election, a few questions arise. Did these voters in the local 2020 Santa Monica election intentionally select City Council members who would undermine police reform, while concurrently voting for a progressive prosecutor, George Gascon, for Los Angeles County district attorney by large margins? Or did they prioritize other local political issues over police reform? My speculation is that voters were not given a clear choice because the issue of police reform seemingly had been resolved in September 2020 when the City Council took unanimous action adopting a reform and oversight agenda. Perhaps voters assumed that change was underway.

Nevertheless, the new faction seemed to be a lot less interested in supporting vigorous efforts at oversight or reform of policing. Many of their choices and decisions seemed to fall in line with whatever position or proposal was advocated by the SMPD, the police union, or other anti-reform voices. Virtually no effort was made to consult with the new Commissioners about important public safety matters.

Do Self-Identified Progressives Care About Public Safety Reform and Oversight?

I am a Journalist 12

Santa Monica residents regularly vote by large majorities for Democratic candidates and for ballot initiatives characterized as liberal or progressive. However, when it comes to issues of public safety and civilian oversight, these same voters have not recently shown much outward concern. This raises the question of whether these Santa Monica voters care about the disproportionate impacts that Black and Latinx people routinely experience in police encounters.

Over the past 50 years, the demographics of Santa Monica have changed. The Black community has diminished to a tiny fraction of the population, just 4.2 percent. The Latinx community has grown smaller (around 16.1 percent), has dispersed around the city, and is no longer principally concentrated in the area known as the Pico neighborhood. The dispersion of these groups and their diminished numbers has perhaps made it difficult for them to coalesce and organize around common interests. Based on my experiences and interactions, I believe Black and Latinx residents and voters care about police reform and independent oversight, but have limited political sway due to their diminished numbers.

There are also a number of organized groups in Santa Monica who characterize themselves as politically liberal or progressive. This characterization is often challenged. Nevertheless, on the issue of police reform and civilian oversight, these groups (beyond the few that are specifically organized to address police reform) have been relatively silent.

“Where have the progressives gone?” one might ask.

I don’t believe they have disappeared, but perhaps many of them prioritize other issues and have put police reform and civilian oversight on the back burner. The usual debates over rent control, sustainability, housing, and development seem to be continuing. But the silence on public safety is often deafening. A potential consequence of the silence of progressives is that opponents of independent oversight and reform can influence policy behind the scenes without significant pushback.

Draw Congress: The Stanford Redistricting Project (Law 808I)

The economic status of people who have moved into the city as other residents have been displaced over time has also changed. The city has grown even more affluent. Most residents are renters; the stark wealth disparities and extremely high costs of housing are worse than before. The average household income is now around $150,000, while the average home value is $1.5 million. This reflects stark income differentials, as the median (i.e., the exact mid-point) household income in Santa Monica is around $98,000, which means half the households in the city bring in less than this amount. And even that amount is far above the median household income of around $65,000 for residents in neighboring Los Angeles.

In sum, these progressive-voting Santa Monica residents are more economically affluent than before and likely more able to deal with the challenges of the high cost of housing. They may also be extremely busy working on developing their careers or raising small children, or both. This, in turn, may mean that many Santa Monicans don’t have the bandwidth or energy to commit a significant amount of time to local issues. And policing and public safety may not rank as high on their priority list as other local issues.

This is admittedly speculation on my part, and I don’t want to provide excuses for anyone. All of us should try to be more engaged in and care about how our city is handling public safety issues.

Racism and Privilege

We all should acknowledge that racism in policing is a major underlying reason why police reform is on the political agenda in our country. It is the reason why millions of people protested in the U.S. after George Floyd’s murder. And it animated the protests in Santa Monica on May 31, 2020 and the response by the City Council when it took steps to address policing in the city.

Scholars and experts have written that policing has traditionally been done in a way that favors the privileged over those deemed to be outsiders. In the U.S., Black and Latinx people usually have been in the outsider group, and we experience policing in our lives differently from most white people.

The vast majority of residents in Santa Monica are white and affluent, and they are extremely unlikely to have an unpleasant encounter with police. They do not have a persistent worry in their day to day lives about having an unpleasant or violent police encounter, or that their children or relatives will have such an encounter. Consequently, they do not have the inherent motivation to address the challenges and problems of policing.

Black and Latinx people living here or visiting Santa Monica cannot assume the same comfort level. The data shows that there are stark and persistent disparities in the treatment of Black and Latinx people in the U.S. during police encounters—encounters that include a range of disparate treatment from aggression and disrespect to physical violence, serious injury, and sometimes fatalities. Data provided to the Public Safety Reform Advisory Committee during 2020 showed similar disparities by race and ethnicity in SMPD stops, arrests, and citations.

Meanwhile, Santa Monica is a destination for millions of visitors each year. Those visitors come from around the world, and importantly, a majority of them come from the local regional area. Our Southern California region is wonderfully diverse, and much more so than Santa Monica—for example, 48 percent of Los Angeles residents are of Latinx roots. This means that our city is regularly populated during the day by a wide variety of visitors who don’t look like the privileged insiders who live in Santa Monica.

America on Fire book

This divide between how people experience policing is also a factor in why police reform is difficult in Santa Monica—and in the country at large. Privileged insiders have political power and do not perceive police to be a threat to their day-to-day existence or livelihood. They have little incentive to work to make policing better.

Yet, the failure to address our historical and present-day challenges with policing threatens our democracy and our well-being. Failure to address structural and systemic racism, along with other problems associated with policing, led to hundreds of rebellions during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The backlash response led to years of mass incarceration. These policies, in turn, have created massive inequities and ongoing social problems. And the confluence of all of it allows for the evolution of political extremism in our country that could lead to our demise as a democratic society.

The challenges of disparate treatment of Black, Latinx and other marginalized groups in policing have deep historical roots and many different causes. Of course, a starting point should be to eliminate bias and racism among police officers. However, problems in policing and inequitable outcomes are more complex and have become embedded in our laws, policies, and procedures surrounding policing. Remediating these challenges will require more comprehensive efforts to achieve unbiased outcomes.

Essay: Why Santa Monica Failed to Make Progress on Police Reform

Indeed, many officers and departments will also say that they are not racist and therefore no reform is needed. “Just an occasional bad apple” is the standard refrain. Making policing more fair, safe, and equitable will require more from our institutions than simply claiming that they are not racist, or that they have a more diverse group of officers. We need to dig into how we, as a society, should shape police activities; how departments—funded with our tax dollars—actually work; and how we can all work together to improve the systems, culture, and outcomes of policing for the benefit and safety of all of us.

Fear, Unions, and Capture by Political Outliers

There are other factors that may explain the multi-pronged attacks to prevent independent police oversight in Santa Monica. For starters, the local police union has been a significant impediment to the overall effort. We need to remind ourselves that while our police officers, as individuals, are often dedicated public servants doing their best to perform their duties, the union’s goals are different. The goal of the police union is to prioritize the job conditions, wages, benefits, and liability exposure of its members—and not to prioritize the fair, safe, and equitable implementation of the community’s public safety priorities. Thus, their efforts to impede the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission through direct and indirect methods can be explained by their fundamental purpose of self-protection.

The local police union has worked directly to undermine reform and oversight, but they also have outsized political influence. The police union has long been active in local politics and influencing public opinion. While this may seem benign at first, it becomes problematic because of the union’s goals. The union wants more money for the police budget, higher wages, more benefits, and strong protections from accountability for police misconduct. To achieve these self-interested ends, they form alliances with local political factions, influence public sentiment about the nature and extent of local crime trends, and vigorously object to any attempts to adopt oversight. This behavior is a common feature of police unions throughout the U.S., but it is a threat to local democratic processes. Police unions should not be dictating local policy and cannot review and oversee themselves. They are inherently conflicted.

The outsized role of local police unions in local government and politics also creates the opportunity for bureaucratic capture of the city’s administrative and policy setting mechanisms by people and factions who have views that are at the fringe of what most mainstream voters believed they were getting when electing City Council members. I refer to such people as “political outliers,” because other terms such as “right wing,” “conservative,” or “reactionary,” are often somewhat lacking in meaning in a city like Santa Monica, though undoubtedly such people are around.

Political outliers who end up in key city positions, whether as city manager, city attorneys, or other key staff positions, can use their positions to undermine policy positions adopted by the City Council. Such people are in a position to engage in most of the “modes of resistance” I described in my prior essay. They can delay, undermine, and impede the ability of the oversight commission to function as it was designed to function.

Challenges, Complexities, and What’s Next?

I hope the above reflections help reveal some of the complex societal conditions that may underly our city’s challenges in achieving effective independent oversight of public safety. Santa Monica likely is experiencing the same challenges faced by many other cities that have attempted civilian oversight of their police departments. In the final installment of this retrospective, I will offer some thoughts on how we might move forward to achieve fair, safe, and equitable public safety policy in Santa Monica.