Reform: A new report questions police reform efforts in Santa Monica. Courtesy image

On Saturday evening, Nov. 12, just before 6 p.m., Santa Monica Police Department (SMDP) officers were filmed struggling to restrain a man in the courtyard of the Pacific Plaza Santa Monica apartment complex at 1431 Ocean Avenue.

A video posted on social media shows two officers attempting to subdue a third man; in the course of the skirmish one officer draws a baton and forcefully hits the third man in the legs several times. The video, shared on local television news and across social media platforms, comes at a time when public safety reform is back in the forefront of minds in Santa Monica.

The incident brought renewed attention to the local police department just days before the Public Safety Reform and Oversight Commission was scheduled to present a series of reports and recommendations concerning public safety in Santa Monica during the Tuesday, Nov. 15, Santa Monica City Council meeting.

The reports focus on implementation and status of the May 2021 after-action report on the events of May 31, 2020 — the protests and simultaneous looting of downtown. The report, compiled by police oversight specialists OIR Group, included 44 recommendations, of which 29 had been completed as of September, according to the latest report; the remaining 15 were underway.

A 26-page report included in the staff report for the Tuesday council meeting lists the status of each recommendation. Some were easy to execute, like ensuring “read receipts” are included in intelligence briefings to ensure they are received or incorporating reminders for officers to turn on body-worn cameras during crowd incidents. Others had a longer lead time, like developing a mechanism to track the number of less-lethal munitions used by individual officers and revising the use of force policy as it applied to less lethal crowd control situations.

“We appreciate the progress that SMPD has made in implementing the 44 recommendations and look forward to receiving additional information regarding implementation of the outstanding recommendations as it becomes available,” the September OIR report states.

Further details from an October update detailing the ways SMPD handles complaint investigations indicated OIR felt the department was responsive to queries and willing to work with the Oversight Commission so far in the process. The report “noted a mix of strengths and limitations,” and concluded that the group’s “review of the most recent completed SMPD investigations showed them to be fundamentally sound in ways that correspond to achievement of those positive results”; however, they also “noted recurrent – and readily fixable – issues that merit the Department’s attention.”

Among the handful of improvements the reform and oversight commission requested was a change in the body-worn camera policy that currently directs officers to shut off cameras at their discretion to avoid filming witnesses and victims without their consent. The commission would like to see that policy eliminated and only have cameras turned off in private moments such as while officers are meeting with their families or using bathroom facilities.

While written indications prior to the Tuesday meeting seemed to indicate a trend toward compliance and collaboration between the oversight commission and the SMPD, the relationship remained strained.

City Council was set to meet behind closed doors on Tuesday to discuss pending litigation the Santa Monica Police Officers Association filed against the City. The Association is bent on the removal of several commissioners whom it claims have not completed necessary training (the members in turn complained that training was not made available to them). 

In addition to the legal proceedings, the meeting is also happening days after Stanford Law School Center for Racial Justice released a scathing review of police oversight activities in Santa Monica, under the direction of former Commission Chair George Brown.

Brown, along with Santa Monica residents Robbie Jones, Nat Trives, Craig Miller, Angela Scott, Mark Morgenstern and Michele Wittig, contributed to a series that purports to examine “how the city’s move toward embracing civilian oversight and police reform started with promise, only to be met with immediate, intentional resistance.” Miller and Scott are current Commissioners on the oversight body.

Alongside several written essays, the Stanford series also includes a nearly-15-minute-long video entitled “Why Can’t Police Reform Work in Santa Monica?” 

That video appeared on YouTube not long before local TV news station KTLA re-posted a social media video onto the site, featuring two SMDP officers attempting to subdue and repeatedly striking a third man, whom the Department later said was believed to be homeless and had been attempting to fight security and police officers and refusing to leave private property.

In a statement following the release of the video showing the altercation, SMDP spokesperson Rudy Flores wrote the department was dispatched on a call “regarding a male who was being disruptive and refused to leave the property multiple times.” Prior to police arriving at the Pacific Plaza apartment complex, Flores wrote, the suspect, later identified as 29-year-old Aren Kehind Taylor, had allegedly attempted to fight a private security officer on duty at the complex.

“SMPD Officers made contact with Taylor. During the contact, Taylor attempted to walk past the officers and back into the property,” Flores wrote. “Taylor approached the officers in an aggressive manner and spat at one of the officer’s face before throwing a cup with liquid, striking the officer on his chest and taking a fighting stance.” 

Flores then went on to detail the scene that played out on the video, stating that after several moments of grappling, “officers were becoming fatigued and opted to pin Taylor down until additional officers arrived and were able to help take him into custody.”

The SMDP statement also claims Taylor made several seemingly incriminating statements as he was walked to an SMPD transport vehicle, including saying, “I tried to fight the police intentionally.” 

The department was not able to provide body worn camera evidence showing the incident, including the statements SMPD says Taylor made, by Daily Press deadline; a public records request was pending with the City of Santa Monica.

LA County Sheriff’s Department database information lists Taylor as a 27-year-old Black male with black hair and brown eyes. Taylor was charged with a felony and scheduled to appear in Superior Court on Tuesday; he is held on $50,000 bail. Details on Taylor’s charges were not immediately available.

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