Essay: What Killed Police Reform in Santa Monica?

Essay: What Killed Police Reform in Santa Monica? Start with Fear.

Marc Morgenstern

Marc Morgenstern is an Emmy Award-winning former journalist who served on the Public Safety Reform Advisory Committee that drafted Santa Monica’s blueprint for police reform and oversight. As a 15-year resident, Marc also served as chair of the Santa Monica Public Library and president of the neighborhood association for the Ocean Park district. In this essay, he recounts how a manufactured “crime wave” with racial overtones helped stall the city’s reform efforts.

Outraged by the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis and deadly police actions against Black people nationwide, hundreds of protesters were marching in favor of public safety reform and oversight in my hometown of Santa Monica, California. They followed the typical route for demonstrations in this famously progressive city: down Ocean Ave. to the iconic Pier. Several times a year, similar protests would be escorted by SMPD officers and disband without incident in time for brunch. On this particular Sunday—May 31, 2020—police fired on the very people they were sworn to protect.

Plastic bullets flew into the crowd, along with tear gas and flash bang grenades. The onslaught injured many protesters and helped set off a night of looting, arson, and mayhem. During the citywide curfews that followed, I watched from my window as National Guardsmen massed a block from the beach and helicopters churned overhead. The image shattered our view of Santa Monica as exceptional—surrounded by Los Angeles, but protected from its problems. Instead, our city reeled out of control, its police overwhelmed and unable to halt the chaos.

This was not supposed to happen here.

You’d expect a crisis like this to heighten the outcry for police oversight and reform— already building rapidly across the country—and for a time it did.

By June, the City Council had formed a Public Safety Advisory Committee, on which I served, to solicit community input and recommend reforms. Our Committee sessions were heartfelt, even sharp at times. The give-and-take profoundly changed my understanding of racial bias in local policing. As a white man, I’d never fully grasped our African American community’s fear for self and family in almost every encounter with law enforcement. Now, I heard about how a white man sipping coffee in his parked car was considered taking a break, while a Black man doing the same thing was routinely marked as suspicious by 911 callers. I wondered if I ever made such a thoughtless and baseless assumption.

By September, our Committee surprised the City Council with a detailed 48-page report. They unanimously accepted our recommendations to revise use of force policies, update dispatch procedures, expand roles for non-sworn officers and mental health specialists, revamp training, and establish a permanent Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission. City Council also funded a nonprofit to address “implicit bias, and ways community members could join together to advance anti-racism in Santa Monica.”

“Our actions are an acknowledgment of and apology to all those who’ve been hurt by systemic injustices,” then-Mayor Kevin McKeown announced. “We can’t change the past, but we acted tonight to assure a better future.”

But after seizing the George Floyd moment and uniting across racial lines to address public safety and police accountability, two-plus years later, Santa Monica has lost all momentum for police reform. I count three main reasons why:

First, entrenched city institutions immediately resisted. The police officers’ union sued, seeking to end the new Commission—or failing that, water down its oversight powers and influence the selection of commissioners. City staff dawdled in drafting the new law. City Council delayed choosing Commission members and providing resources for it to run. SMPD leadership apologized for their failures on May 31 while announcing that they’d already fixed them anyway.

Second, under the pandemic lockdown, Santa Monicans turned inward. Big problems out there like police reform or racial justice took a back seat to just surviving. After the May events, I’d joined my neighbors to sweep up broken glass and board up smashed storefronts. But maintaining common cause for complex policy changes—let alone across racial lines—proved much tougher during COVID.

Third, the most powerful (and unexpected to me) reason behind stalling police reform was a purported “crime wave.” As a former journalist who produced TV newscasts in the L.A. market, I know how crime coverage reliably grabs viewers and users. At times, I confess, we overdid it. But this “crime wave” was different: it was declared by City Council candidates, reinforced by police union messaging, and megaphoned by news and social media. In overt or subtly encoded ways, they seemed to be blaming the homeless population, which happens to skew towards Black individuals.

Essay: What Killed Police Reform in Santa Monica?

One city council candidate wrote an op-ed demanding: “this runaway [crime] tide must be harnessed. Whether the cause is the Expo [transit] Line, the open beach, or extreme tolerance of unlawful activity in our parks, streets, and alleys…Something has failed in our town. It doesn’t matter whether it is due to drugs or mental health issues.”

In another op-ed article, the police union said: “The notion that ‘low-level’ offenses do not matter, engenders an environment for crimes in our community that escalates rapidly… advocate and demand for a safe and clean City of Santa Monica.” Pursuing a “safe and clean City” has often been repeated as a euphemism for arresting more unhoused or otherwise pushing them from local streets.

Anyone who went online or picked up a newspaper also found constant reinforcement of crime run amok. The leading local paper, the Santa Monica Daily Press, featured a daily log of police calls for service, a weekly tally of arrests, and frequent highlights of particular cases across page one, often featuring suspects described as homeless. Other news outlets also used crime as reliable click bait.

SMPD fed out those crime stories through its own press releases and Twitter and Facebook posts. Social media such as Citizen and NextDoor joined the anecdotal echo chamber. One recent post recounted: “For the third night in a row, an ‘unhoused’ person has broken into our yard. The most recent disturbance (early this morning around 1 a.m.) includes a giant Black man … This is really terrifying and disgusting. We feel violated.”

The most cynical part of me concludes that the 2020 “crime wave” was manufactured to inflame public fear, increase resources for the police who promised to address it heroically, elect certain candidates, and divert attention away from true public safety reform and oversight.

The problem is that the official numbers didn’t support any dramatic increase in crime during the core COVID years. Crime actually dropped substantially during that period. SMPD data, calculated at our request, shows arrests of unhoused individuals down about 58 percent in 2019-21. As shelters closed for health reasons and diversionary programs paused, more of the unhoused took to the streets where they were more visible than ever. That made me, like many of my neighbors, feel uncomfortable and even unsafe at times. It’s easy to assume that the unkempt or erratic people sleeping on the sidewalk are also the ones behaving criminally. But community discomfort is not a crime wave.

Now, emergency COVID provisions restricting some policing of the homeless are largely gone. The SMPD has ramped up arrests of the unhoused by 20 percent annualized this year, with lower-level crimes such as vagrancy, drug abuse violations, and public nuisance accounting for the majority of them. Sixty-three percent of all arrestees in the first half of 2022 were unhoused, which is even more astounding given the city’s homeless count of 807. One police officer told me: “Quality of life crimes are the ones people see…Our community’s threshold for homeless crime is now zero.”

It is not a long leap to find racial overtones to crimes identified with homelessness. L.A. County’s broader homeless count found that Black citizens make up less than nine percent of total population, yet account for 28 percent of the unhoused. “Homelessness is a byproduct of systemic racism resulting in generational poverty…and the inability to access housing,” said Margaret Willis of Santa Monica’s Human Services Department. “Race plays into people’s perceptions of safety.”

Now, two years after Santa Monica leaders voted unanimously to accept public safety and oversight and reform, change is finally back on the front burner. Candidates in a new City Council election are actively debating whether to “re-fund” the police and hire more sworn officers to solve a new so-called homeless “crime wave.” The police union, not surprisingly, has dedicated its ample campaign war chest to those who support expanding the $100 million-a-year police budget. It’s also lobbying hard to remove pro-reform members of the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission.

Candidates arguing for more effective, humane, and racially-just policing now boast their own megaphones, as well. One of them recently wrote: “reversing Santa Monica’s barely-begun attempts to reimagine public safety just two years removed from the slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery will just perpetuate the status quo, which we all know has failed us.”

Photo source: Crime Watch screenshot from Santa Monica Daily Press website.