By Andrew Gumbel
Who’s responsible for the Santa Monica Police Department’s disastrous failure to anticipate and confront the meltdown in public order on May 31, 2020? To read last month’s keenly anticipated independent report by the OIR Group into the Black Lives Matter protest and the concurrent looting spree that ripped our city apart, the answer appears, at first glance, to be everyone and no-one.
In assessing the performance of the police’s top leadership in the crucial planning phase, starting the night before, the report alludes to “a collective under-reaction to the various signs suggesting that a much more comprehensive law enforcement presence than usual would be needed.” A significant number of SMPD officers at different levels strongly disagree with that assessment, however – and have now broken ranks to share their misgivings with this reporter.
Read the fine print, these officers say, insert the names that the report leaves out, and what you see is that the two SMPD captains with the most operational experience, Thomas McLaughlin and Saul Rodriguez, get unfairly dinged, even though they foresaw the risk of major trouble and pushed hard to deploy as many officers as possible. They didn’t under-react at all, the officers insist; rather, they and the rest of the department were undermined by Cynthia Renaud, then the police chief, and further let down by Darrick Jacob, at the time her senior captain, to whom the report largely gives a free pass.
Why does this matter? Renaud is of course long gone, pressed into retirement last October and replaced on an interim basis by her predecessor, Jacqueline Seabrooks. But Jacob is still very much in the picture. Renaud promoted him to deputy chief a month before her departure, and he is now viewed in political circles as a leading candidate to take over the top job. That alone makes his performance on the worst single day in Santa Monica’s history worthy of closer scrutiny.
Assessing the truth as an outsider is no easy matter, not least because relations between Jacob and the captains are reported to be strained, and all have their loyalists in the ranks. The account below is based on multiple viewpoints, not all of them in agreement on everything, but all finding fault in some fashion with the OIR Group’s narrative and in some instances coinciding with information from public records and other non-police sources.
Michael Gennaco, the OIR principal, did not push back against any of the officers’ objections, even when they directly contradicted his team’s findings. (“We… do not intend to get into a debate at this juncture,” he said in response to a point-by-point invitation to comment.) Gennaco acknowledged, meanwhile, that his team had “multiple communications” with Jacob, since the deputy chief had been the department’s point person on the report, and did not refute an allegation made by a number of officers that Jacob thereby had an unusual opportunity to shape the narrative in his favor.
Jacob did not challenge any part of this account either. “Everyone views the events of May 30th and May 31st in hindsight and through their own lenses,” the deputy chief said in a written statement after reviewing the details, but provided no such lens of his own.
The crucial events begin on the evening of Saturday May 30, five days into a national uprising over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. While the protests in the Los Angeles region were largely peaceful, the police response was violent in places. Serious episodes of looting and vandalism, meanwhile, consumed first the Fairfax district, then Beverly Hills, where two SMPD patrol cars were smashed and burned that night.
Santa Monica eventually sent members of its SWAT team to Beverly Hills as reinforcements, but without the express approval of Chief Renaud, who was out of town, or of Jacob, who according to a number of sources wanted to defer to the chief. (Renaud later claimed that she had designated Jacob as acting chief in her absence, but if she did so, the message did not appear to get through.) Several officers in and out of the SWAT team understood at the time that Renaud and Jacob disapproved of the deployment, which rankled them as they viewed it as essential.
Later that night, with word that a protest in Santa Monica had been called for noon the next day, Captains McLaughlin and Rodriguez got on the phone with Chief Renaud to discuss what to do. The call was amplified through a phone speaker, enabling a number of other officers at headquarters to listen in.
According to three people who either heard the call or were told about it immediately after, McLaughlin wanted at least 100 officers on duty, starting at 8 or 9 in the morning. Renaud, however, had a tendency to resist large deployments, seeing them in many instances as a waste of money, and initially suggested deploying no reinforcements at all. She wanted officers on standby at home instead.
McLaughlin and Rodriguez pushed back hard, saying that officers who lived in Palmdale or Thousand Oaks would be in no position to respond from home if an emergency broke out. Renaud reluctantly consented to just 20 extra officers — and no SWAT members. She also insisted that they come in no earlier than 11 a.m. and work a four-hour shift. “I’m not paying people to come in and stand around,” she was overheard saying. (Renaud did not respond to a voice mail message inviting her to comment.)
When the call ended, there was a clear understanding, according to those listening, that Jacob would oversee the necessary arrangements when he came into work early the next morning. Another captain, Candice Cobarrubias, would join him later, while McLaughlin and Rodriguez would not come on shift until the afternoon.
For reasons that nobody I spoke to could elucidate, neither Jacob nor Cobarrubias fleshed out a formal plan to deploy the admittedly meager forces at their disposal. Since neither was on the call the night before, it’s possible they received poor or insufficient instructions. “They were supposed to pick up the baton from where McLaughlin and Rodriguez left it,” one source who heard the call said. “That clearly didn’t happen.”
Some people, including Gerardo Leyva, the head of the Santa Monica police union, place the blame for any shortcomings more on Renaud than her captains. “It was all precipitated by Cindy because she cared about budgets, not public safety,” Leyva said. “She set the tone, and others were just doing their best to follow her lead.”
Renaud was in transit for part of the morning, returning to Santa Monica only for the tail-end of a late morning briefing. Once back, she made a baffling decision to send the two captains on duty into the field to talk to protest leaders (which, I was told, would ordinarily be the job of a sergeant) instead of having them direct operations from headquarters.
The pair was variously seen at the corner of Montana and Ocean, where a rudimentary skirmish line was quickly surrounded by protesters on all sides, rendering it useless, and at the corner of Colorado and 4th, where they were within eyeshot of the looting at Van’s shoe store but, according to two city council members who saw them there, did nothing about it.
Jacob’s internal critics do not begrudge the fact that he and Cobarrubias followed the chief’s perplexing orders to wade into the crowd – she was, after all, the chief. But they say that as soon as the situation spiraled out of control, which was almost immediately, the two captains should have rushed back to the operations center to take charge.
The OIR Group report sheds a rather different light on this timeline. McLaughlin and Rodriguez come under fire, first, for failing to debrief the officers returning from Beverly Hills to understand the extent of the trouble there. (Not true, say my sources; the SWAT team was in touch with headquarters all night.)
Then they are upbraided for failing to ensure “that even the rudiments of an ‘operations plan’ were in place” before they went home on May 30. (Not fair, my sources say; the expectation was that Jacob would put the plan together when he came in early on Sunday morning. “In our wildest dreams,” one officer involved in planning told me, “we never thought they wouldn’t finish putting together what had been started.”)
About Jacob’s activities early on May 31 the report is strangely silent. It talks about the actions and reactions of four lieutenants, a sergeant, and Cobarrubias, but not the man in charge. Why not? Michael Gennaco offered this less than satisfactory answer: “An investigation into issues of individual performance, accountability, and blameworthiness was not the focus of this project.”
The officers I talked to certainly don’t discount the OIR Group’s work. They, like the city’s civilian leadership, broadly accept its policy recommendations and are eager to enact them. But as one of them put it: “Conveniently or inconveniently, some very important facts have been left out… displacing some of the responsibility.”
And those facts matter. Santa Monica residents deserve a proper evaluation of Darrick Jacob’s performance last May so we can determine whether he has the experience, temperament and judgment to be chief – or, for that matter, deputy chief, at a time when there’s no more important task than ensuring we never suffer a similar debacle again.
Andrew Gumbel is a Santa Monica-based reporter and author. You can read his previous investigative pieces about May 31 here and here, and listen to an Inside the Daily Press podcast about the OIR Group report here.