Santa Monica’s blue polo-clad community ambassadors could soon be replaced by private security guards as part of an initiative discussed by Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM) Board this week to address safety and crime-related concerns in the area.

At a special meeting on May 2, the board voted to approve moving forward with a proposal for DTSM to use the nearly $1.7 million currently funding the Ambassador Program to hire a private security company to help police patrol the downtown.

The ambassadors have had a presence in Downtown Santa Monica since they were hired over 10 years ago through DTSM’s contract with the company Block by Block. The services they provide have evolved over the years, including cleaning, maintenance and hospitality among others, however, DTSM Board Chair Eric Sedman, who presented the private security proposal, said they do not fulfill the current needs of the area.

“Where we are today is at a point in society where the ambassador program is not capable of dealing with the safety issues that we have and that has to be corrected,” he said. “The City does not have the revenues to do what needs to be done within the city and they need our help and the police need our help.”

Sedman said he had been in talks with Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) Chief Ramon Batista and that the department would be willing to oversee the program. At a previous DTSM meeting, Batista told the board that the downtown district is understaffed with only 11-12 officers patrolling the area when he said he would like to have at least 20. Sedman said he feels DTSM could step in to fill this gap.

“So what I’m saying here, by DTSM contracting for private security, is to be able to provide a supplemental multiplier for the police chief in his deployment of the downtown services unit,” Sedman said. “So what would happen is all of the engagement, rationale, all of the manner in which they act on the street, everything that would be done would be dictated by Santa Monica Police…all we would be doing is saying essentially, we’re funding the money, we’re going to sign the contract, these are going to be your people, you’re going to have the interface and they’re going to be reporting directly to you [SMPD].”

Multiple local business owners spoke in favor of the plan, including Susie Romano, a Santa Monica property owner who is a resident of Beverly Hills said she has seen changes there since the City of Beverly Hills hired security company Covered 6 in late 2021 to help police patrol the area.

“Having this extra security is really important,” Romano said at the meeting. “A, it makes the residents feel a little bit safer and the business owners, B, it’s a deterrent for people to do things – there’s still things going on in Beverly Hills, but it’s definitely calmed down a little bit.”

She said she would like to see a similar approach in Santa Monica.

“We cannot let this continue to see the vandalism, the feces, the needles, how do we expect people to want to come here and live here and pay property taxes and pay business taxes and want visitors to come? I mean, it’s got to be cleaned up.”

However, Santa Monica resident Jon Katz, who also spoke at the meeting, was opposed.

“I really spend a lot of time in the downtown area with my son, with my wife, with many guests who come in from out of town,” he said. “We spend a lot of time on the Promenade, we interact all the time with the Ambassadors Program and I feel very strongly that it is a good system for Santa Monica and the downtown area. I’m frankly more concerned about the safety risks that could come from private, potentially armed guards.”

Board member Ericka Lesley also expressed reservations.

“I’m concerned about racial profiling. I’m concerned about anything where people are targeted on our downtown streets because of the color of their skin, or just because they look like they’re homeless, or us [DTSM] being sued because somebody just looks like they don’t belong here, these are the problems that we have with private security.”

While most board members expressed support for the plan, many said that they did not feel it falls within DTSM’s responsibilities and that the City of Santa Monica should ultimately be the ones taking on the contract and footing the bill. Other cities, including Beverly Hills, fund private security programs directly.

However, it was widely acknowledged among board members that this is unlikely to happen in Santa Monica in the near future.

“Would I love for the city to pay for this? Of course. Do I think that it’s the private sector’s responsibility to pay for security in the public space? I do not,” said board member Michele Aronson. “But I also know that we’ve been talking about this for at least six to nine months now and I do also believe that the City does not have the ability, today, to hire the additional security that it needs to create a safer environment downtown.”

The Board voted to agree to fund the program for a limited time with the hope that the City will take it over in the future. In order to move forward, DTSM must amend its agreement with the City to include security services, which Deputy City Manager Anuj Gupta said he believed could happen as soon as June when the City Council is scheduled to review DTSM’s budget.

The details of the plan, including the number of guards, to what extent they are armed and deployment schedules will then be discussed and determined.

Grace Adams is a graduate of Loyola Marymount University where she studied Spanish and journalism. She holds a Master’s degree in investigative journalism from City, University of London. She has experience...