City Councilmember Phil Brock believes that public safety Downtown is at a crisis point and wrote in an email that he supports dissolving the current Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. Board and replacing the safety ambassador program with armed private security and more SMPD personnel. 

The email was composed in response to Downtown Santa Monica property owner John Alle and sent to the DTSM Board, City Manager David White, DTSM Interim Executive Director John Harris, and Brock’s fellow ‘change slate’ City Councilmembers Christine Parra and Oscar de la Torre. 

“I fully support the removal of the safety ambassador team as currently constituted and that they be immediately replaced by a high quality, armed, private security force and both armed and unarmed details of the SMPD be placed there,” wrote Brock in the email, later adding “I will support a dissolution of the current board of DTSM.”

While Brock said he was not aware that John Alle would circulate this email widely, he stands by his written statements. 

“I want to make this clear: this email I sent was not in support of John Alle. You know, he is as I said Chicken Little; he is complaining so much that people have stopped listening to him, but his pictures, the photos he sends are valid,” said Brock. 

Alle is a downtown property owner and a vociferous critic of DTSM and the City’s handling of public safety and cleanliness Downtown. He has sued the City over its maintenance of the Promenade and routinely shares photos of trash, drug use, crime and homelessness on the Promenade and in downtown parking lots and alleys.

DTSM is a non-profit organization in charge of maintaining and promoting the downtown business district. It operates through a combination of city funding and a tax assessment on downtown property owners. It is governed by a 13 member board which includes the City Manager or his/her designee, six members elected by property owners and six members appointed by City Council.

“The Downtown Santa Monica board is not predominantly composed of stakeholders in downtown and I think that’s become a problem because the majority of the board is either not property owners or merchants in downtown who are experiencing the issues each and every day, so it comes back to the DTSM board and seems… that they look at it, they evaluate it, and they do nothing, and it is really a crisis in downtown,” said Brock.

Currently the number one and number two positions at DTSM are vacant as Interim Executive Director Mackenzie Carter left the organization on April 15 on the heels of former CEO Kathleen Rawson’s Jan. 21 departure. Barry Snell is the Board Chair and acting Chief Executive Officer.

“Lately, DTSM has expanded its scope to include homeless outreach and public safety as the Board felt these areas were of extreme importance and that the City required added support. But ultimately, combating crime is the responsibility of the City and police department,” said Snell. “We encourage Councilman Brock to focus his energies on the City’s performance of its duties, the chief being the protection of life and property.”

DTSM contracts with Block by Block for its ambassador program, which provides information to visitors, daily maintenance services and assistance to homeless individuals. The safety ambassadors were added to the program in April 2021 and are meant to respond to quality of life offenses, relay public safety information to DTSM Command Center Dispatchers and stay on site until emergency responders arrive. 

Phil Brock said that these unarmed ambassadors are not effective at deterring theft or quality of life crimes. 

“I had a discussion with property owners downtown over the last week and they’re desperate for security that will work for them to make sure the shoplifting is stopped, to make sure that they’re not losing merchandise through shoplifting and aberrant behavior is not chasing their other customers away,” said Brock.

Brock proposes doing away with the safety ambassador component of the overall ambassador program and diverting the funding to armed private security, which he said is inspired by the security in Beverly Hills’s Golden Triangle. 

According to DTSM’s 2021 to 2023 Fiscal Year Budget, the ambassador program costs $5.3 million annually. This is broken down into $2.36 million for hospitality ambassadors, $1.82 million for maintenance ambassadors, $1.06 million for safety and quality of life ambassadors and $58,500 for the dispatch center.

He would also like to see more SMPD personnel stationed in the downtown area, but acknowledges that the department is currently understaffed and sees private security as a temporary solution. 

“The challenges faced by staffing shortages has required that we reallocate existing staff while prioritizing the hiring of additional sworn and non-sworn personnel,” said SMPD Public Information Officer Rudy Flores. “We continue to put forth a robust recruitment and retention plan aimed at bringing the most qualified individuals on board to help us with our short and long term goals. While we work on filling vacancies, we have been able to strategically place our personnel in patrol operations, including downtown, to increase our presence in the community.”  

City Councilmember Lana Negrete said that private security would not be her first choice for improving public safety downtown, but added that she wouldn’t rule it out without further research. 

“I think that armed private security would not be at the top of my list, but I understand the concept behind it,” said Negrete, later adding “we’re basically saying we don’t have enough police, so we need private security guards to act as police officers. Well, I think most of us know that becoming a security guard and becoming a police officer are two totally different things.”

Negrete also said she would like to see more SMPD officers stationed downtown and in particular wants to see a more robust activation of the SMPD kiosk on the Promenade with police officers and community service officers using the space to directly engage with people on the Promenade.

Additionally, Negrete said she would support creating a specific downtown task force composed of SMPD officers and staff from appropriate city departments to work collectively on addressing concerns around homelessness and public safety. This idea was inspired by the Pier task force, which is composed of representatives from SMPD, SMFD, Public Works, Code Enforcement and the City Attorney’s Office and focused on health and public safety concerns related to unpermitted vendors. 

Both Negrete and Brock’s ideas are theoretical at this point and have not been agendized for Council discussion.

Clara@smdp.com