DOWNTOWN — Prosecutors have declined to charge school board member Oscar de la Torre with a crime after reviewing evidence that the Santa Monica Police Department said proved he committed felony child endangerment in connection with a fist fight between two high school students.
At a press conference Friday afternoon, de la Torre said the investigation, which was first reported by the Daily Press Thursday, into his role in the fight was “an abuse of police practices with a malicious intent” and called on City Hall to open a probe to determine whether the police investigation was proper.
He said police officers may have launched the investigation in order to prevent him from running for a seat on the City Council. A vocal critic of police practices in the past, he said some officers may have wanted to keep him off the council, which determines the department’s funding.
A two-term school board member, de la Torre had previously announced he would run for a seat on the council but decided not to enter the race, instead opting to seek a third term on the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board.
He also serves as the executive director of the non-profit Pico Youth & Family Center, which offers mentoring programs for at-risk youth and receives funding from City Hall.
Calls to the District Attorney’s Office were not returned.
The investigation into de la Torre stemmed from a fist fight between two Santa Monica High School students that took place March 16 in an alley next to the youth center.
After learning a fight was breaking out, de la Torre left the center and rushed to the scene, where he said a crowd of about 40 students was gathering around two boys engaged in a fist fight. He said he waited to intervene until he could gauge whether it was safe to step in. Police, though, said he “failed [in] his duty to take some action, verbal or otherwise, to prevent the physical endangerment as well as prevent the juvenile delinquency.”
Two cell phone videos of the conflict, police said, showed de la Torre allowed the fight to “develop, continue, and escalate in its injury potential.”
In a statement on Friday, the SMPD acknowledged the district attorney had declined to file charges against de la Torre but defended its investigation into his role in the fight.
“The Santa Monica Police Department has a duty to protect the children of this community. In this case, information was carefully and thoroughly investigated which cumulated in the District Attorney review,” the statement read.
Sgt. Jay Trisler, a spokesman for the SMPD, denied police investigation was politically motivated.
At the press conference, held at the PYFC, de la Torre and his attorney, Wilfredo Trivino-Perez, said they are considering filing a complaint against City Hall alleging police officers broke the law by conducting an improper search of the youth center in the course of their investigation.
“There were no credible facts presented to get a search warrant. Nevertheless a search was [conducted],” Trivino-Perez said. “Confidential information was looked through, rummaged through and confiscated. And that is a clear violation of my client’s rights.”
Santa Monica City Attorney Marsha Moutrie on Friday said she did not believe de la Torre had a viable case against City Hall.
“I’m not particularly concerned about the city being held civilly liable, but we’re always saddened by and attentive to any allegation that someone makes that they have been unfairly treated by the city government,” she said.
The search warrant police obtained was legitimate, she added: “The search was approved by a judge and I assume that the approval was appropriate.”
de la Torre played a video of the fight at the press conference, saying the footage, which lasted about a minute, showed he acted appropriately.
“The whole incident lasted less than a minute and I did what a responsible person would do and what I thought was the best that I could do being that I was by myself,” he said.
After the fight ended, he said he was able to encourage the two boys involved in the fight to shake hands, diffusing tension among the crowd.
“I brought a peaceful resolution to the conflict — more than that I ensured that what was happening in the crowd did not escalate and no one was hurt,” he said.