It’s been one year since Santa Monica businesses were ransacked by looters and local protesters were doused with tear gas near Ocean Avenue on May 31, 2020. But the memories of the infamous day still remain in the minds of many residents, some who said it changed the trajectory of the city forever.

As hundreds of people protested against police violence on May 31, 2020, looters used professional tools to bore three-inch wide holes in businesses across downtown Santa Monica and Main Street. In total, nine fires were set during the chaos, and the OIR Group, which was tasked with completing an after-action review of the day, confirmed the different accounts of excessive use of force that have been reported by residents.

“We saw, for example, a baton strike used against an individual who was seated on the ground. We saw uses of the pepper ball, another less-lethal munitions tool, against non-aggressive subjects who were fleeing the area. We observed a takedown of some passers-by who were not being immediately aggressive and were in fact trying to leave the area,” OIR Group’s Teresa Magula said during a City Council meeting held earlier this month to discuss the events leading up to, during, and after May 31.

At the time, police officials said more than 400 people were arrested and more than 150 businesses sustained significant damage. In the 365 days since though, downtown Santa Monica has mostly recovered from the destruction, the Public Safety Reform & Oversight Commission has appointed a Chair, and a 121-page report completed by the OIR Group released earlier this month has described the day as “a wholesale failure.”

A number of different factors contributed to the day spiraling out of control relatively quickly, according to OIR Group staff, who noted if the department had been differently situated on Saturday or even early Sunday, then they potentially could have blunted some of the destructive acts and highly mitigated the looting.

“But nobody picked up that ball and ran with it in a coordinated and cohesive way … Meanwhile, the chief was making her way from Northern California down to Southern California and she would arrive at headquarters at about 11:30 in the morning. And by then, everybody was very much behind the curve,” OIR Group’s Stephen Connolly said as he described the operations plan for the day as extremely limited in scope and detail. “Again, while nobody knew what was going to happen, there were a lot of ways to make reasonable predictions about what could happen.”

SMDP contacted all members of the current council and those in office last year. Only former Councilmember Ted Winterer commented on the events of the day.

“It was a horrible mess and the report makes it very clear,” Winterer said.

He said he felt a sense of helplessness as the crisis emerged.

“The city charter doesn’t allow an individual council member to give any direction whatsoever to the city manager and we’re not allowed to give direction to the police chief. So, it’s not like I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, you need to divert some of your officers,’ so that was frustrating because, in the aftermath of it, a lot of people blamed the Council because they sort of assumed that we were driving the decisions that were being made that day… Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Winterer added he and his fellow Councilmembers had heard of similar protests and disturbances in adjacent cities but they had been assured by former Chief of Police Cynthia Renaud at the time that preparations were being made and she was confident that the police department would be willing to handle any situation that arose.

“That was wrong, though,” Winterer said, moving to speak on what he views as a massive blunder by Renaud.

Officers who had been in the field in Beverly Hills arrived back in Santa Monica early Sunday morning and said they were very concerned with what they had seen and they were surprised that the department had not ramped up, based on the general information and just the way things were going. Winterer believes their accounts were enough to trigger Renaud’s return to the city but she wouldn’t arrive back in town until early Sunday morning.

“That was a terrible decision on our part, so that’s the first thing I would have changed. And then if I had the authority, I would have made sure that when I was told that everything was in order and we were prepared for the worst-case scenario that was really the case because that’s not how it turned out.”

Michael Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who headed the team that completed the report, said earlier this month that it’s important for residents to remember the May 31 riots and protests were an unprecedented event in Santa Monica, which is a community that has largely thought that protesters were never going to come to its side of the 405.

“I think,” Gennaco told Council this month, “that the enormity of the individuals who were out to protest and the enormity of the individuals who came into your city to take advantage of that activity to steal, loot and burglarize was overwhelming and unprecedented; and the department underestimated the likelihood that would occur because it has never occurred before.”

“It just seems like there was a breakdown this day,” he added.

This point has been repeated many times in the last year.

“I think it’s clear from the report, there’s a complete breakdown in leadership and in preparation,” Winterer said this week.

The current iteration of Council largely agreed when they questioned the OIR Group about the lack of body cam footage available from the day.

No matter one’s thoughts about or experiences on that day, May 31, 2020, will always be remembered as a dark day in the city’s history, Winterer said, “and I don’t think anybody’s proud of the way the police response went down. I don’t fault the rank and file at all because they were out there doing the best they could, but I do hope that there were lessons learned.”

The former Councilmember believe the newly established oversight commission will only help address the deficiencies that have come to light.

“The oversight commission is long overdue and should help to address a lot of the shortcomings of the way May 31 was handled. I also think that SMPD realized their errors and are learning,” Winterer said. “I think the department was humbled by the way things went down and morale took a big hit, but I think that they’ve determined that they will be better the next time around, because they’ve took a hard look at themselves and tried to find ways to do a better job, particularly in the areas of intelligence.”

Brennon@smdp.com