DOWNTOWN — School board member Oscar de la Torre is calling on the Santa Monica Police Department to conduct a thorough evaluation of cases handled by an investigator whose tactics were called into question by an independent review board.
de la Torre is also demanding an apology from the SMPD and would like to see personnel changes “to restore the public trust that has been lost due to police misconduct.”
The investigator, Sgt. Dave Thomas, was a key figure in a 22-page report issued Monday by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review (OIR), which was hired by City Hall to evaluate an investigation into de la Torre and a fist fight between two Santa Monica High School students.
In the report, a panel of attorneys called into question Thomas’ tactics, saying he included too much of his own opinion during the investigation, possibly influenced witnesses and gave the impression to some that he had already determined a crime had been committed before concluding the evidence gathering process.
The report stated that the SMPD was justified in moving forward with an investigation even though the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office ultimately declined to file charges against de la Torre.
“As Americans, we need to protect our freedom and ourselves from the abuse of public officials,” de la Torre told the Daily Press Tuesday. “The OIR report confirms that there was malicious intent and bias that fueled a sham investigation funded by taxpayer dollars to deprive me of my freedom, to assassinate my character, to ruin my career and to take me away from my children.”
The SMPD investigation into allegations of child endangerment by de la Torre was sparked by grainy cell-phone videos of a fight between two 17-year-olds on March 16, 2010 near the Pico Youth & Family Center, a nonprofit run by de la Torre that offers after-school programs and gang intervention counseling.
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.”
Police Chief Tim Jackman would not comment on de la Torre’s requests. In a prepared statement issued Monday, Jackman said he would be “moving swiftly to ensure implementation” of recommendations made by the OIR.
City Manager Rod Gould said he was “very comfortable” with the report’s findings and recommendations and there are no plans to issue an apology.
“I am reassured that the SMPD was justified in conducting the investigation and referring the results to the District Attorney,” Gould said. “That said, the city of Santa Monica is a learning organization and will certainly improve our investigative techniques and report writing as a result.”
Some of the recommendations made include developing a detective manual to train investigators to comply with best practices, and more instruction on report writing. The SMPD does not have a detective manual or other written guidelines for investigators, according to the OIR report.
Gould said OIR investigators told him that most police departments do not have detective manuals, “but it is a good practice that we will adopt.”
de la Torre said the report raises questions about Thomas’ character and said other investigations could have been compromised, leading to false charges being issued.
“It’s highly likely there are individuals whose freedom was taken away based on improper police investigations,” he said. “The residents of this city deserve good government.”
de la Torre was especially concerned about the police chief’s decision to not further investigate claims that the school board member tried to dissuade witnesses from cooperating with the investigation. de la Torre denies speaking with students about the incident saying that if there was something to those allegations it should have been investigated further. He points to this as further evidence that the investigation was bogus.
The chief decided not to pursue the allegation because of concern for what it could do to the students involved and the high school community. What was troubling was that the allegation remained in Thomas’ report.
The OIR report stated, “the problem is that the allegation remained in the report and the subject of the allegation [de la Torre] … was not afforded a full investigation through which to ‘disprove the allegation.’”
de la Torre said the investigation into the fight forced him to abandon a run for City Council. Instead, he ran for a third term on the school board and won. He believes the SMPD investigation was politically motivated.
“The message that this sends to people is don’t get involved,” he said. “Look at what happened to me.”
Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager, said the total cost of the OIR report should be under $30,000, however, a final invoice has not been received. Work through the end of November totaled just over $12,000.
A copy of the OIR report is available on City Hall’s website at www.smgov.net.