CITY HALL — Santa Monica police Chief Tim Jackman released an update on the department’s progress in reviewing its investigation and reporting standards in the wake of a botched probe of a school board member accused of child endangerment.
The paper, released on City Hall’s website on Tuesday, summarized the actions the police department has taken so far to comply with the seven recommendations laid out by the Los Angeles-based Office of Investigative Review to improve investigative and reporting standards within the department.
The genesis of the issue was a March 16, 2010 fight between two 17-year-olds in an alleyway near Santa Monica High School. School Board member Oscar de la Torre broke up the fight, but video evidence caused some to question whether or not he had waited too long to do so.
An investigation was launched by Sgt. Dave Thomas that resulted in no charges being filed.
Although the OIR report, ordered by City Manager Rod Gould at the behest of some community leaders, confirmed that the SMPD was right in pursuing the investigation, the agency questioned the method by which it was carried out, raising concerns about the motives behind the investigation. The report said Thomas included in his report “an unusual mix of facts and advocacy.”
It made seven recommendations to improve the police department, specifically developing a detective’s manual, more training on interviewing witnesses, establishing a standard report format, creating a report writing manual, considering witness bias in investigations, being cautious when offering advice to witnesses and implementing a more robust review process.
Gould and Jackman committed to a progress report on those seven goals within 90 days of the Feb. 22 City Council meeting.
Since that time, the department formed two committees — an investigative best practices committee and a report writing committee — to search nationwide for manuals and procedures that the SMPD could adopt.
The department took the counsel of experts from within the department, state and federal resources as well as the RAND Corp. and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to find the best materials, said Sgt. Richard Lewis.
“In that process, we were meeting and surpassing some of the standards set forth by other departments,” Lewis said.
SMPD plans to use its existing resource, the Lexipol System, which aggregates the latest laws, case decisions and law enforcement best practices, as its detective’s manual by breaking out a chapter as a standalone for officers that conduct investigations.
Those officers will receive a copy by Oct. 1.
The department also plans to host extra training in order to improve officers’ skills on interviewing witnesses.
It plans to keep its current style of report-writing, which is done chronologically through the incident, but will be reinforced in ongoing training that the department hopes will be completed by Oct. 1, according to the report.
That training will also include a section on witness bias.
Using the Palo Alto report writing manual as a guide, the department created a standalone report writing manual to help with consistency.
The department also uses an electronic service called the California Peace Officers Legal Sourcebook, which makes report-writing instructions available at any work station.
The department will also work to put better oversight on its Audit and Inspection Unit.
That unit is staffed by one detective and one sergeant, and the reports do not receive the same level of scrutiny as the other reports in the department, Lewis said.
Shuffling management staff to put an extra set of eyes on those reports may be a solution, Lewis said.
All costs for the proposed trainings and manuals are expected to be kept within the training budget for the year.
Although the work is not yet complete, Gould said he was pleased with the progress made by the police department.
“We took the Office of Independent Review report very seriously,” Gould said. “We’re committed to exposing our officers to more training in investigative technologies and report writing and the like.”
The changes didn’t satisfy the object of that original investigation, however.
“A deliberate abuse of police powers cannot be remedied with training, or changing reporting practices,” de la Torre said.
Revealing the results of a promised internal investigation into the investigator, Thomas, would be a step toward making amends, de la Torre added.
“More is needed to restore the public trust that has been lost due to the unethical behavior of Sgt. Dave Thomas and his supervisors,” de la Torre said.
The city manager has already stated that the inquiry into Thomas will not be made public.