File photo.

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside.  Saturday, June 27, 2020

Ignited by the now infamous death of African-American man George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 — where video captured by a bystander seems to indicate Floyd’s death was caused by a police officer’s knee on his neck until Floyd could no longer breath — calls have swept the nation for a rethinking of the role of police and how we promote public safety.

How will this play out in Santa Monica, if at all? Based upon recent City Council meetings, there are strong indications that our City Government is a willing participant on that path – and that our Interim City Manager Lane Dilg gets it and is thinking strategically to help ensure it happens.

At last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, several community members made eloquent and passionate appeals to redirect funding from the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD), towards non-policing forms of public safety and community support, including social services, housing, and other community resources. This was all in the context of passing revisions to the City’s 2019-2021 biennial budget, made to address the City’s major budget deficits resulting from the COVID-19 public health and related economic crisis.

In that budget, while funding for many City services were significantly cut back or eliminated, the SMPD’s proposed budget was increased 0.6% from last year (aside from an additional one-time expense to move the Office of Emergency Management from the City Manager’s office to the SMPD.) Watching the Council meeting, the logical question was “would the Council respond to local community members and the national ‘defund police’ debate to ask for redistributive cuts to the SMPD budget right there and then?”

Complicating the issue was that California state law requires cities (and other local government agencies) to pass a balanced budget by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year. In a perfect world, if a substantial refocusing of public resources was an identified public priority, the City Council would give direction to City Staff at the beginning of a regular two-year biennial budget cycle to identify cuts and different investments. But with the Floyd death happening less than a month before the Council’s June 23 final budget revision approvals, this wasn’t the ideal time frame or context everyone was operating in.

Deftly stepping into this void, Dilg announced that she was planning to convene a Santa Monica Public Safety Reform Advisory Committee that would “facilitate a community input process and review local, regional, and national proposals advocating for changes to policing and the ways that cities conceive of and allocate funds to achieve public safety.”

By suggesting such a robust process, Dilg put on the table that Santa Monica would take this issue seriously. At the same time, she successfully walked the fine line between being preeminently proactive in her role as Interim City Manager, but without appearing as the ‘eighth council member’ — a long-time expression by City Hall insiders and others in our community about when any City Manager appears to have forgotten the line between where their job ends and the job of the Councilmembers begins.

Dilg accomplished this by saying to the Council that they clearly could choose to authorize changes to the budget right there and then, or they could wait a few months and be informed by this community input process. Her suggestion didn’t come across as subtly manipulative, but instead as genuine. It was also timely, because even for Councilmembers who might have wanted to move more quickly, ‘what specifically did you want to cut and where did you want to redirect it?’ These are substantial questions that merit substantial analysis.

As a result of Dilg’s intervention, Council members felt free to explore with City Staff how the budget could be easily amended during the course of the upcoming fiscal year, in response to input from that community process. This was one of those moments where time stopped and everyone needed to be ‘real’. Dilg and the Council passed the test, because they committed to a serious, inclusive public process on re-envisioning public safety for our community, without grandstanding on an issue of such importance, in order to make a flashy headline about making immediate cuts.

Dilg had a few options on how the advisory committee could be filled. She chose a model where she would appoint the members and they would make recommendations to her, which would then inform her recommendations to the Council. This was astute because it helped meet the urgency of the moment and depoliticized the process.

Traditionally when the Council makes appointments to a temporary committee, first there has to be an agendized item at a Council meeting where the Council chooses from among different models of how many committee positions should be appointed and from what parts of the community; then begins a public application process, then comes an unavoidably politicized process where the Council makes those appointments.

All of this is bypassed by Dilg’s approach, which will get the advisory committee up and running quickly without any further Council action. Interested community members have until June 29 to apply via a form on the City website. Who should apply?

The application suggests needed debate won’t be short-cut: “Advisory Committee members should bring relevant knowledge and expertise as residents, advocates for racial justice and/or public safety reform, business owners, law enforcement officers or experts, mental health providers or experts, and/or social services providers or experts.”

Following this information gathering process, the advisory committee will “make recommendations to the Interim City Manager regarding (1) reforms to SMPD use of force policies to ensure best practices for policies, training, and application of force are followed, and (2) changes that should be made to the City’s budget, informed by calls for divest / invest strategies, to better achieve public safety and well-being for all in our community.”

This all follows City Council adoption on June 9th of a commitment to “Creating a Black Agenda to address systemic racism in Santa Monica” and to the Council’s signing onto the Obama Pledge and an exploration of “8CantWait” reforms designed to address police use of force policies.

Of course for meaningful and lasting reform to occur, those most impacted need to play a central and leading role in exploring solutions. In response to the Council directions of June 9, Dilg has already begun meeting with local Black community leaders. It was from those interactions that the germ of the idea to establish the advisory committee formed in Dilg’s mind, to ensure all key stakeholders are closely involved in the process. Dilg also envisions holding a town hall together with other ongoing public outreach before returning to the City Council with recommendations.

If this process of re-imagining public safety in our community is going to be successful and long-lasting, it will need to have collective input and buy-in. But to accomplish this collectively, we are going to have to better understand each other as individuals, and in our various roles and identities as human beings. Those various identities are our richness, but tragically have too often been used to divide us in often horrific, unjust and violent ways.

As we confront historic and ongoing racism and inequities in our society, there are going to be some difficult moments. That will be a good thing and tell us we are on the right path. It’s not clear where that path will lead. But it appears our community is seizing a once-in-several-generations opportunity to get there.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.