CITY HALL — Santa Monica officials have agreed to conduct an independent review of police actions during a four-month investigation into whether school board member Oscar de la Torre committed child endangerment in connection with an after school fist fight between two teenagers.
Prosecutors last week declined to file charges in the case, prompting criticism from de la Torre and others that the investigation may have been politically motivated.
A frequent critic of the Santa Monica Police Department who runs a non-profit that offers programs for at-risk youth, de la Torre denied any wrongdoing in connection with the fight and called the investigation “an abuse of police practices with a malicious intent.”
A two-term member of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education, de la Torre had considered a bid for City Council in November but is instead running for a third school board term.
City Manager Rod Gould on Tuesday afternoon responded to de la Torre and other members of the public who had criticized the police department’s actions with the announcement that he had retained the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review to look into the police department’s investigation of the school board member.
The police investigation will “be reviewed for legal and procedural perspectives to determine if it was handled properly and what, if any, changes in practice or procedures would be appropriate for the future,” according to a City Hall press release.
The Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review is a civilian oversight group established by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 2001 to investigate matters under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department.
The six-attorney panel is a private contractor for the county and also takes on cases for municipalities.
Reached on Tuesday, de la Torre, who had called for an independent review, said he would reserve judgment of City Hall’s announced review until he sees its results.
“This is the first time in history that I know that a grievance against the police has ever led to an investigation so I’m not sure about what to expect,” he said. “What I can say is that for the past four months my freedom and my liberty were threatened so I believe the highest level of public scrutiny is required to restore our faith in our government, especially our police department.”
He said he hopes the review also looks into the extent to which school district officials were involved in the investigation.
According to City Hall, Police Chief Tim Jackman requested the independent review.
Sgt. Jay Trisler, a spokesman for the department, said he couldn’t recall a similar review in the SMPD’s history but said there was no indication the de la Torre investigation was mishandled.
“I don’t think the investigation was done improperly or it was handled improperly. We did a careful and thorough investigation,” he said.
“If the Office of Independent Review identifies practices or procedures that could be better handled in the future, then the department has the opportunity of implementing those.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Michael Gennaco, the Office of Independent Review’s chief attorney, said his group would conduct a “top to bottom review” of the SMPD investigation “to see whether it was consistent with best practices.” His office will review documents and interview participants involved with the investigation and likely issue a public report detailing its findings, Gennaco said. No timeline for the review was announced.
He said he expected a contract for his group’s work to be completed this week. City Hall did not release information about how much the contract for the review is expected to cost.
The incident that prompted the police department’s investigation occurred March 16 in an alley about a block from Santa Monica High School and next to the Pico Youth & Family Center, the non-profit that de la Torre runs.
After learning that a fight was breaking out, de la Torre rushed to the scene of the fight.
Police said cell phone videos taken of the fight showed de la Torre failed to break up the fight, instead allowing it to “develop, continue, and escalate in its injury potential.” Because of his role as executive director of the PYFC, police said he had an obligation to step in and break up the fight.
De la Torre said he spent about a minute assessing the situation and the crowd of about 40 students that had gathered before taking action.
Police based a large part of their case against de la Torre on a cell phone video they obtained from a bystander that appeared to show de la Torre stepping between the two fighters after 59 seconds, when the fight apparently stopped.
Though not shown in the video, de la Torre said he was able to get the two boys involved in the fight to shake hands after it ended.
On Tuesday, de la Torre said the review of police practices in the case should offer an opportunity to push for additional scrutiny of police activities.
“I think it’s time to talk about a police commission in the city of Santa Monica and also the role of our police union in electoral politics,” he said.