Police: The Oversight Commission is supposed to be a check on police. Holden Gering

Members of the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission (PSROC) called a special meeting to discuss what several members feel are barriers to the commission’s ability to carry out its responsibilities.

While commissioners held differing viewpoints on how well the City has supported its mission, it is the view of Chair George Brown and several other commissioners that a lack of resources and slow action from the City is holding back the commission’s work.

“We call this special meeting to alert our community, our city leaders that the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission is at risk of failure,” said Brown. “The reasons the commission may fail include that it has an inadequate support structure, it has got inadequate city staffing, a lack of expert input and advice from a trusted and independent source.”

The PSROC was formed in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protest movement and the police department’s failures in responding to the May 31 riots in Downtown Santa Monica. In January 2021, City Council passed an ordinance establishing the Commission and charging it with a wide reaching list of duties.

These include making recommendations regarding the SMPD’s policies, practices and budget; making recommendations for implementing best practices in community-oriented policing; collaborating with the SMPD to promote restorative justice and build trust between SMPD and community members; and providing recommendations on violations relating to disciplinary investigations.

To support its work, the Commission was given a City staff liaison and an Inspector General (IG). The IG’s role is to provide the commission with information needed to conduct investigations and develop recommendations. The IG is able to review confidential police documents and data and relay information back to the Commission as appropriate.

The City issued a Request for Proposal to fill the position and in October 2021 awarded a five year $700,000 contract to the OIR Group. The OIR Group was the sole applicant for the contract and the organization that prepared an after action report on the May 31 riots.

Since its establishment in January 2021, the PSROC has been off to a bumpy start.

It took four months for commissioners to be appointed and then a year until the promised IG appeared at a commission meeting. In the interim, an unfair labor practice charge by the Santa Monica Police Officers Association resulted in a temporary freeze on many of the commission’s powers.

When the Inspector General Michael Gennaco appeared in a Jan. 13 meeting, some commissioners were surprised to hear that he was opposed to completing the commission’s proposed assignment to prepare a study analyzing the best practices in managing protests in other cities.

Frustration with this discovery on top of the previous roadblocks led to the calling of a special meeting.

At the special meeting on Jan. 20, Gennaco provided a more detailed explanation of what duties were given to him in his contract and where he felt his expertise could be of most use.

“The only way that an oversight the group of entities can learn whether or not the policies are being practiced as expected in the field is for somebody to be able to access use of force reports, internal investigation, body camera footage relating to a response of police department officers to certain critical incidents, and see whether practice in the field matches up with the policy in play,” said Gennaco. “I think that is something that the most extensive reading on policy development can never get at.”

Gennaco said the review of other departments’ policies would be difficult for two reasons. Firstly, there is no independent metrics or simple manner to identify what agencies are currently practicing model policies. Secondly, in his experience most agencies keep their internal documents confidential and are reticent about sharing them with outsiders.

Gennaco emphasized his commitment to the commission and belief that reviewing internal SMPD documents, body camera footage, data and disciplinary investigations would be the most effective use of his time. He said if the commission insisted on the policy study he could assign it to one of his researchers.

Interim City Attorney Joseph Lawrence responded to the other key complaint that the commission is under-resourced.

“And this observation, as somebody who has been around the City of Santa Monica for quite a long time, is that the level of support that the commission is seeking is or would be unprecedented at the level of support that boards and commissions generally receive,” said Lawrence, adding that the economic chaos of the pandemic has unfortunately limited the funding the City is able to dedicate to its boards and commissions.

Commissioner Craig Miller said that he expects the commission to receive an unprecedented level of support given the trauma of May 31 and the difficulty of the task of police oversight and reform.

Brown also said that he believes the PSROC deserves more resources and that while he understands Gennaco’s logic, he is still interested in having the comparative policy research be completed.

“They (City Council) need to allocate financial resources sufficient for us to get the job done that we need to get done,” said Brown. “Otherwise, I fear that this commission will go nowhere, spin our wheels just like we’ve been spun the entire time of our existence.”

Vice Chairman Manju Raman pushed back on this viewpoint. She said the commission’s accountability subcommittee has already made a lot of progress and that Gennaco’s willingness to comply with commission instructions, even if he personally feels it is unwise, signifies that the commission is empowered.