Several protests against police violence have been held in Santa Monica since George Floyd was killed. (Matthew Hall)

Santa Monica City Council voted Tuesday to begin the process of reforming the Santa Monica Police Department and reallocating some department funding to crime prevention programs.

Residents and business owners have criticized the department’s approach to a May 31 protest against police violence in downtown Santa Monica, saying SMPD focused on confronting peaceful protesters rather than stopping the looting, vandalism and arson happening a few blocks away. As of Wednesday morning, nearly 60,000 people had signed a petition asking the city to fire Police Chief Cynthia Renaud. 

On Tuesday, a dozen residents told City Council that money should be reallocated from SMPD to fund social programs, a demand gaining traction across the country in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police. 

The council voted to explore various police reforms, open an independent review of SMPD’s response to the May 31 unrest and create a Black Agenda to address systemic racism in Santa Monica.

Council members asked city staff to present a plan on June 29 to reallocate some money from the police department’s budget, which would comprise 30% of the city’s $348.2 million discretionary budget next fiscal year, to fund crime prevention efforts, including youth programs. 

Nearly $5 million of SMPD’s $103.8 million budget will be set aside for the Office of Emergency Management’s public safety communications operations, which are moving to SMPD from the city manager’s office. Excluding that function, SMPD’s proposed budget is $98.9 million — a 0.6% increase from last year.

Residents questioned why SMPD had not been asked to cut costs while the city reduces funding to social services, youth programs and libraries amid a steep drop in tax revenue caused by the pandemic and recession. As proposed, the department’s total payroll will be $98.5 million next fiscal year — an average of more than $230,000 per employee — with 228 sworn officers and 196 full-time staff to cover a city of 8.3 square miles.

Jon Katz, president of the Santa Monica Democratic Club, urged City Council to defund SMPD in order to free up funds for programs that serve Black and Latino residents. He pointed to Los Angeles’ move to reallocate $150 million away from the Los Angeles Police Department and Minneapolis’ decision to dismantle its police department following the murder of George Floyd.

“We saw how (SMPD) used its robust funding last weekend, deploying tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful Santa Monica residents,” he said. 

Six people have been killed by police in Santa Monica in the last 20 years, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis that found 80% of the 900 people killed by police since 2000 were Black or Latino. 

Two of the people killed in Santa Monica were Black, two were Latino and two were white. According to census data, the city’s population is 4.4% Black, 16% Latino and 64.3% white. 

Isabel Storey, a member of the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica, said mental health and drug addiction specialists would be better equipped than armed officers to handle many situations. 

“(SMPD’s) budget is the highest in the region and its officers are the highest paid by far,” she said. “Functions performed by police could be better performed by other professionals.”

Other residents said SMPD should return to a model of community policing, in which officers would patrol by foot rather than in cars and devote more time to building trust with the community. Several asked the city to create a police review board made up of citizens with the power to investigate uses of force and potential misconduct.

City Council members said any new training or reform efforts coming out of its existing budget and that some funding should be reallocated to prevention programs such as the Santa Monica Police Activities League, an after-school program mainly serving Latino youth from the Pico neighborhood. PAL, although well-received by current participants, has recently been the subject of lawsuits alleging the sexual abuse of dozens of children in the 1980s and 1990s and in the early 2010s.

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich said investing in programs like PAL helps the police integrate into the community and added that officers should be involved in the city’s work to improve racial equity. 

“I, for one, believe we should be moving more toward a community policing model and less toward a militaristic model,” she said.

The council voted to adopt the Obama Pledge, which requires police departments to review its use of force policies with input from residents. The city would then report findings from the review and reform policies accordingly. 

City staff will also explore implementing 8Can’tWait, a series of measures to restrict use of force, and work with community leaders to create a Black Agenda to address systemic racism in Santa Monica. 

Some residents said police reform without a significant reallocation of funding away from the police would not result in meaningful change.

Rachael Gross, a local preschool teacher who grew up in the city, said the officers who killed George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and other Black people worked for departments that had already adopted many of the 8Can’tWait policies, such as a ban on chokeholds and shooting without warning. 

Gross said the study that 8Can’tWait is based on is flawed, using less than a year of data and comparing police departments in different cities instead of the same department before and after adopting policies restricting the use of force. 

Black Lives Matter and other advocacy organizations are now supporting 8toAbolition, which proposes defunding police and reallocating resources to housing and community programs.

“Police officers ignore policies they don’t want to follow,” she said. “Divesting from the police and investing in programs that better serve the public is not too radical, and it isn’t impossible. Putting a few policies into place might be quicker and easier, but it won’t create fundamental change.”

Several Black residents expressed support for the Black Agenda and said the city and non-black Santa Monicans must commit to fighting racism in not only policing, but also health, housing, education and employment. 

Pico neighborhood resident Angela Scott said the city should also establish a diverse police review board, defund and demilitarize the police department, deploy officers on foot and invest in youth and community programs. 

“We are hurting,” Scott said. “Implicit bias, marginalization and deceit have brought us to this crossroads. Now is the time to do the right thing.”

madeleine@smdp.com

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