Formed in the wake of racial justice concerns raised by the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and SMPD’s poor handling of the May 31 riots, the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission (PSROC) has big goals for change. But so far, that change has been off to a rocky start.
Challenges faced by the commission led former Chair George Brown to resign in February and in March Commissioner Luis Ramirez also stepped down. Despite this turnover, current Chair Derek Devermont is optimistic about the future of the commission and feels that the Commission has both accomplished work already and has several impactful initiatives underway.
The PSROC was established in January 2021, but commissioners weren’t appointed until April 27. Their work was then delayed in August when the City issued a temporary freeze on many of the commission’s powers while the City Attorney’s Office negotiated a settlement of an unfair labor practices suit filed by the Santa Monica Police Officers Association.
Commissioners have yet to deliver a long promised response to the OIR Group’s analysis of the May 31 riots to Council. Additionally, some commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that it took a year for a promised inspector general to be hired by the city and appear at a meeting. The inspector general has the ability to look at confidential SMPD documents and provide the commission with the information necessary to conduct investigations and develop recommendations.
After previously speaking out about several of these challenges, Brown ultimately resigned citing obstacles from the city and police department that he felt inhibited the commission’s effective functioning.
“I believe that a significant number of the current City Council members aren’t as committed to the positions taken by the City Council in the summer of 2020. And they’re not as committed to having appropriate civilian oversight over the Santa Monica Police Department and they have actively, I believe, done things to undermine the ability of the civilian oversight commission to be effective. But they’re not the only ones. People inside the city, people inside the police department and the police union have all worked to make it more difficult to achieve the ends of civilian oversight,” said Brown.
Brown also said that he felt the Police Officers Association had undue influence over some of Council’s later appointments to the commission, which he feels undermines the commission’s independence. He additionally said he felt undersupported by City resources and frustrated by what the appointed inspector general was and was not willing to do on behalf of the commission.
Another commissioner, Luis Ramirez, resigned in March. In his resignation letter he said was primarily resigning due to his inability to meet the time commitment of serving on the commission, but added that he feels “the city council and city need to be clearer on the expectations/powers it has for the commission and the work that needs to be done.”
The new Commission Chair Derek Devermont feels differently.
“I think the commission has done some work. George Brown’s theory that we weren’t getting anything done I don’t think is accurate,” said Devermont. “The hearings that the accountability committee had with regards to complaint processes has activated Santa Monica PD to start reforms in the way they track and handle complaints.”
According to Devermont, the police department did not have a formal system for tracking complaints that supervisors don’t initially deem as policy complaints. The accountability committee is also working on recommendations for SMPD’s body cam policy. Another project he is excited about is an effort to improve the delivery of Brady evidence from Santa Monica to the District Attorney’s office for investigations of police misconduct.
Devermont also said he does not feel unsupported by the City.
“I think every commission of Santa Monica probably wants more funding. I would challenge anyone to find me another commission in the city, Santa Monica, that has its own inspector general,” said Devermont. “We’ve been given more resources than any commission as far as I can tell in Santa Monica history.”
Craig Miller, another commissioner on the PSROC, said that he was particularly proud of the work done to complete the commission’s report on the OIR Group’s investigation into the May 31, but said that he, like Brown, is frustrated that this report has yet to make its way to City Council. Miller has great respect for George Brown and can see where his frustration came from, but believes that the commission can still do meaningful work.
“Our City Council made a great choice in appointing George Brown to help lead Santa Monica toward the kind of better and more fair policing we need,” said Miller, later adding “He came to see, up close and personal, what he felt was an insincerity in the city’s approach. I still serve on this commission, and I am striving to reach a different conclusion.”