CITY HALL — The Santa Monica Police Department’s investigation into school board member Oscar de la Torre’s actions during a fight between two teens was appropriate, as was sending the case on to prosecutors, according to a report released Monday by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review (OIR).
However, the lead investigator’s actions were questionable, his report containing “an unusual mixture of facts and advocacy,” the report stated.
The findings were presented to city officials by OIR chief attorney Michael Gennaco, according to a press release issued by City Hall. The release did not include the total cost to taxpayers for the report. City officials could not provide that information by presstime.
While OIR recognized that it was appropriate for the SMPD to initiate the investigation and refer it to prosecutors based on video evidence and a judge’s decision to issue a search warrant, the report found problems with the lead investigator’s interviewing and report-writing techniques.
“[O]ur critical eyes noted that certain interview techniques were employed, such as advocating a point of view and feeding witnesses information, that do not comport with the ‘just the facts’ orientation of common investigative practices,” the report stated. “In addition our review found that there could have been more follow up with witnesses … [and] the report contained an unusual mixture of facts and advocacy, and was not a dispassionate rendering of the facts.”
The OIR made recommendations to address these issues, focusing on best practices in investigative and interview techniques, report writing, training and supervision.
“We appreciate the work of Mr. Gennaco and the OIR in conducting this independent and thorough review,” Police Chief Tim Jackman said. “We are committed to following the recommendations of the report entirely. We will be moving swiftly to ensure implementation.”
de la Torre became the focus of an SMPD investigation in March of 2010 after he showed up at the scene of a fist fight between two Santa Monica High School students near the Pico Youth & Family Center, which he runs. The center receives funding from City Hall.
Police argued that de la Torre had failed to intervene in the fight promptly based on a cell phone video taken by a bystander that showed him stepping in after about a minute. Detectives presented a felony child endangerment case to the District Attorney’s Office, but prosecutors declined to press charges.
After public outcry that the police investigation may have been politically motivated, City Hall hired OIR to review the police department’s work on the case.
A frequent critic of the 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, de la Torre had considered a bid for City Council in November but instead ran for and won a third term on the school board.
de la Torre could not be reached for comment on the OIR report.
OIR 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.