On the Ground Q&A: Craig Miller

On the Ground Q&A: Craig Miller

On the Ground Q&A: Angela Scott

Craig Miller is a member of Santa Monica’s Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission. He also serves as Chair of its Reimagining Public Safety committee. In the early 80s, Miller began his career as California’s youngest manager of winning legislative and congressional campaigns. When AIDS emerged as a national health crisis, Miller fixed his attention on it, organizing the world’s first “AIDS Walks” (Los Angeles, 1985; New York, 1986; and San Francisco, 1987). For more than 35 years, he has worked closely with police departments throughout the U.S. in staging large public events promoting public health and human rights. He is co-founder of Santa Monicans for Democracy.  

How do you remember May 31, 2020 in Santa Monica? 

All week, I was watching protests unfolding throughout Los Angeles County, including in Santa Monica. And I was feeling badly about not having gone out into the streets myself. So finally, on May 31, at about 2 p.m. and recognizing that we were under a 4 p.m. curfew, I just threw my pencils down, marched out the door with my godson, and said, “We have to be a part of demonstrating about the problems with American policing. And we ought to do it right here in our own hometown.” So, that’s what we did.

On the short walk from my home to Colorado and Ocean avenues, which was our destination, we passed by the Third Street Promenade. And we noticed that all of these businesses and shops, large and small, were being violently attacked–some set on fire, windows smashed, and no police deterrents to be found. I thought that was very curious. And worrisome. And somewhat surreal.

But then something more curious and disturbing happened. (Facing the protesters), it looked as if the (police) officers were putting on gas masks. But surely that couldn’t be. And then it looked as though the officers were bringing out rifles and attaching canisters to them. But surely that couldn’t be. And then, as if in slow motion–it was so surreal–we watched officers point these rifles with tear gas canisters at this spirited, but lawful body of protestors. And then we saw the smoke. And then we saw the results of nearby demonstrators who had inhaled that gas and were running away …

And what I felt in that moment was, my God, it’s Minneapolis everywhere.

What is important about that day and the moments that followed? 

Well, I think it was the day that we should have all realized the Emperor has no clothes. We have been told time and time again that the Santa Monica Police Department can be counted on to protect us. They’ve been funded to the hilt to do this. But on May 31, the day that Santa Monicans most needed a competent and equitable police department, we found we had neither. And it was for many, and should have been for all, a real eye-opening experience.

People were injured unnecessarily as a result of an incompetent police response to something that not only could have been predicted to occur, it was predicted to occur. All the warning signs were ignored. But what was most injured that day was the First Amendment and our community’s values. The people of Santa Monica ardently believe in the First Amendment. And the people of Santa Monica do not want to see lawful protesters treated in the way these lawful protesters were treated. The Constitution and our community’s values took a terrible hit that day. And I believe that it has created a rift between the police and the community that has still not healed.

Following that day, what has gone wrong with efforts to establish civilian oversight of police in Santa Monica? Could this oversight have worked? What are the most pressing issues that you are concerned about?

I have been advocating that the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission needs resources. The typical amount of resources provided in our city is not appropriate for this commission, which came into being as a result of a clear and significant danger and failure. And racism–unaddressed, institutional racism. This commission, which arose out of an emergency, needs to be operating with a sense of urgency.

I think the commission did a good job of reviewing May 31 and the aftermath of May 31. We did a courageous job of identifying and calling out a false narrative that was being perpetuated by the top brass of SMPD and other top city leaders. But also, what showed itself on May 31–and I believe was key to the poor decision to fire on that crowd of demonstrators on Ocean Avenue with tear gas and rubber bullets–is that officers could not sufficiently bring about law and order in our business district. There was an element of taking out that frustration on these law abiding demonstrators who are upset over policing in America. And the dynamics that led to the missteps by the police department on May 31, those are every bit as much in place today. And until we fundamentally address what went wrong, until we create a system where future police chiefs will know what they can’t get away with … my biggest concern is that Santa Monica will pull out the May 31 playbook, will use it again, and that it will be every bit as successful at blunting the truth and misleading the public.

Where has there been the most resistance to reform efforts? Why do you think this is the case?

As a former union organizer myself, and as one who believes very strongly in the right of public employees to organize, I am in awe of the Santa Monica Police Officers Association. I am in awe of their effectiveness. But there may be such a thing as being too effective. And I think that the efforts of the Santa Monica Police Officers Association to continue to advocate for a system wherein only the police can police the police puts them on the wrong side of history. It also causes natural allies of organized workers like myself to be leery and concerned. Because they’ve crossed the line from advocating for the interests of those working men and women (as police officers) into seeking to dictate the city’s policy relative to policing. And that is not the proper role of a police union.

What should happen in Santa Monica to help the city’s residents achieve the goals of having a system of public safety that is fair, safe, and equitable for everyone?

I think the number one challenge facing this commission is to find a way to operate in a manner that is different from every other commission. (Not only) different from every other commission in the City of Santa Monica, but different from every other police reform commission in cities around the country. Because they mostly don’t work. And if most commissions intending to achieve police reform and oversight fail–as most do–then we ought to be finding better ways to operate differently from most commissions, not to mirror them.

My interest in serving on the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission, and my aspiration as a commissioner, is to cause this commission to live up to the name it was given by the city council. We should be about genuine reform. We should be about meaningful civilian oversight. That’s what our city needs. That’s what cities throughout America need.

And I hope that Santa Monica can be a place that can figure out how to make that all work and become real and not just words, but something that the community can rely on.

This interview, part of the On The Ground: Santa Monica series, has been edited for length and clarity.