PICO BLVD — Following a four-month investigation, Santa Monica police believe they have enough evidence to charge school board member Oscar de la Torre with felony child endangerment in connection with a fist fight between two high school students.
Police believe de la Torre, who runs a nonprofit organization that aims to reduce youth violence and is running for his third term on the school board, broke the law by appearing at the scene of a fight between two Santa Monica High School students and allowing it to continue, court records and interviews show.
De la Torre, who has long been a vocal critic of the police department and the school district for their treatment of minority youth, is the executive director of the Pico Youth & Family Center, which provides mentoring and other services to at-risk teenagers and receives funding from City Hall. He has denied all wrongdoing in connection with the fight.
Police say they’ve obtained cell phone videos taken of the scuffle, which took place March 16 in an alley near the youth center, that show de la Torre was present during the incident and “failed [in] his duty to take some action, verbal or otherwise, to prevent the physical endangerment as well as prevent the juvenile delinquency,” according to a court record that details the police investigation.
Detectives presented their evidence against de la Torre to prosecutors last week, said Sgt. Jay Trisler, a spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office is reviewing the case and has not decided whether to charge de la Torre with a crime.
Reached on Wednesday, de la Torre said he acted responsibly to break up the fight once he was sure it was safe to intervene, after about a minute had passed.
After learning a fight was taking place in the alley, he said he left his youth center and rushed to the scene, where a crowd of about 40 students had gathered around a black youth and a Latino youth, who were preparing to fight.
He said he was unable to immediately step in because the large crowd presented a potential danger.
One of the fight participants was known to have affiliated with a gang in Santa Monica, according to police records, and de la Torre said at the time of the fight he believed “the potential for weapons [and] the potential for an escalation of violence [was] real,” in part because the spectators were “hostile and polarized along racial lines.”
The child endangerment investigation and the potential charges, de la Torre said, are “a political attack disguised as a public safety concern.”
“There’s certain elements in the police department who don’t like accountability and who want to ensure that people like myself who speak out against abuse are silenced,” he said.
Trisler denied the accusation that politics played a part in the investigation.
“It’s us being given information regarding an incident. We did follow up [and] felt that there was enough information to present the case to the District Attorney’s Office,” he said.
The SMPD and de la Torre, though, have clashed before, most notably in 2005 when the police accused him of bringing former gang members onto Samohi’s campus in a misguided attempt to diffuse racial tensions after fights had broken out at the school. De la Torre denied the individuals were gang affiliated.
In a 44-page report on the child endangerment investigation that is on file at Los Angeles County Superior Court, SMPD Sgt. David Thomas describes de la Torre as someone who “condones youth settling their differences by facilitation and affording them an opportunity to ‘fight it out’ in a boxing ring” and who may have let his “old school” mindset take charge when he observed the fight in the alley breaking out.
Thomas based his description of de la Torre on conversations with the school board member and former SMPD Capt. Alex Padilla, among others.
Instead of taking action to stop the fight, de la Torre “merely observes the fight without intervention, and watches the fight develop, continue, and escalate in its injury risk potential,” Thomas wrote.
One of the two male participants in the fight received a bloody lip in the incident, according to police, but neither was seriously injured. Neither of the boys has been charged with a crime.
In the report, Thomas also faults de la Torre for failing to call 911 when he learned a fight was taking place. According to official records, de la Torre told police he asked a youth center staff member to call police but no call was ever made. Thomas also includes in his report an excerpt from a recorded conversation in which de la Torre is quoted as saying, “The bottom line, it happened, it went down, and if police would have gotten there, at a minimum both kids would have gotten arrested … . You tell me that’s more of a solution than what actually happened?”
De la Torre, though, said it was “a ridiculous claim” to assert that he would condone organized fist fights as a means to solve disputes and cited his record as a peace activist.
“My old school ways are very well documented and they have more to do to with consistent organizing for peace and teaching non violence to youth,” he said.
In one of the videos of the fight which Thomas describes in detail in his report, the fight ends after 59 seconds with de la Torre seen in the frame standing between the two fighters.
Thomas stated in his report: “de la Torre finally intervenes at the very end, when serious bodily injury was highly likely due to [one of the participants] being thrown to the pavement.”
De la Torre, though, said he played a key role in ending the fight and said it might have continued had he not stepped in. After the fighters separated, he said he asked the two boys to shake hands, which they agreed to do, in order to diffuse tensions. Neither video tape, apparently, captured the events that took place after the fight ended.
“I did the best that I could with the information that I had going into that conflict,” de la Torre said.
He added: “If stopping a fight is worse than ignoring the conflict, then I don’t know where that leaves us.”
In attempting to make his case, Thomas also argues that de la Torre had special responsibility for one of the teenagers involved in the fight because the individual was a regular participant in a mentoring program at the center. The report says de la Torre, “in his adult and mentor capacity of the PYFC, had de facto care/custody of at least one minor present” and so was particularly obligated to prevent the delinquency.
Police executed a search warrant at the PYFC on June 30, court documents show, and obtained records showing one of the boys involved in the fight had a long attendance history at the center.
PYFC’s de la Torre, though, said that as executive director of the PYFC he is involved mainly with administration and has little direct contact with youths who attend mentoring programs.
Both minors who were involved in the fight were suspended from Samohi. Since both live outside of Santa Monica and attend school on a permit, the school district placed the boys on probation, which means they could lose permission to attend Samohi if they engage in a future fight.
It’s unclear when prosecutors will make a decision about whether to charge de la Torre. An attempt this week to reach the prosecutor who received the SMPD’s evidence, Amy-Hannah Broersma, was not successful.
Meanwhile, de la Torre said he’s retained a lawyer and may consider legal action against City Hall and the SMPD in connection with the investigation. He said he believes Thomas has “a personal agenda” and is working “in collaboration with other city and potentially school officials to accomplish a political goal of defaming my character and discrediting the youth center.”
“I love the city of Santa Monica and it would hurt me tremendously to take legal action against the city that I love, but this malicious prosecution and this abuse of police investigative powers must be confronted and justice and the truth will prevail,” he said.