Why Did Santa Monica Police Focus on Protesters Instead of Looters?

As angry residents call for the police chief to resign after last Sunday’s chaos, a Santa Monica Police executive officer explains what went down—and what didn’t

It’s been just over a week since looters had a field day in Santa Monica, invading or defacing more than 150 businesses and causing millions of dollars in property damage. Hundreds of people were arrested, but in the minds of the many people critical of law enforcement’s response, May 31 will go down as the day the Santa Monica Police Department abandoned its citizenry and ceded its streets to lawlessness. In the days that followed, Santa Monica Police Chief Cynthia Renaud seemed unable to grasp the magnitude of grief and anger coming from the community. As of today, more than 57,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling for her resignation.

At the heart of the matter isn’t what the police did, but rather what they didn’t do. Critics charge that it was a massive tactical blunder. Police appeared to be caught largely off guard despite there being the precedent of the prior evenings’ events in the Fairfax District. Even if police couldn’t have foreseen that looters would cross the 405 for their next spree, people have been critical of the decision to focus the bulk of the force’s attention on a peaceful protest happening blocks away. That allocation of resources and manpower led to the SMPD finding itself outmanned in stopping the looting as it unfolded. The SMPD leadership contends that the force was dealing with a “three-pronged issue”: the protest, the unlawful assembly within that protest, and the looting itself, which created a perfect storm for the most dramatic scenes to unfold. In an open letter to the city following Sunday’s unrest, Chief Renaud stated, “My first responsibility is to protect the lives of people in our community, and on Sunday, my priority was preservation of life and protection of the city.”

Last Friday, inside a locked-down and heavily guarded police HQ, I had the opportunity to speak with the SMPD executive officer Joseph Cortez, who attempted to shed some light on the department’s handling of the unrest.

Was there a tactical decision made to let the looting happen because you guys didn’t have enough people? Or, were you trying to protect certain strategic areas? There were police guarding Santa Monica Place right next to where the looting was happening. I witnessed the looting first hand and I’m curious—why didn’t you stop it?

This is a tactic [used by looters] that is relatively new to what we have seen in normal or in previous civil unrests [and] the days prior from having our officers get called to Beverly Hills. And luckily we got called to Beverly Hills [for the intel it provided]. So, we got some sort of information that, well, this is a protest. You have your normal antagonizers in the protest. But then there was the looting going on there. And it doesn’t just come to people right away that this is what’s going on because we’re still in the process of making decisions of how to handle the protests, which were a normal protest, which we want to facilitate and not be heavy handed or disallow something to happen that is their constitutional right. So, then they started to set fire in the Fairfax District, which is normal of civil unrest, but it’s definitely not something we would tolerate. And then they burned down specifically the substation of the LAPD in the Fairfax District. So, you start wondering, are they targeting the police? There was a lot of data that’s coming in. Data sets were coming into the police departments around the Southland, Southern California area. So, the [police] tactics that were employed, were all being developed the morning of this planned, peaceful protest in Santa Monica…. But prior to that morning, in even in the midst of this chaos, we weren’t really understanding that, well, this is organized. Because every civil unrest, yes, there’s some anarchy, there’s some civil disobedience, then there’s violence. And then there might be some arson there. But the flow of events with this was completely new to us and for us at the Santa Monica Police Department.

Weren’t you guys monitoring Twitter? It was completely lit up with talk of looting.

Personally, I was not. I can only speak to what the police department was getting information about that morning. I believe we kept getting the same poster, over and over and over again, about there being protests in Santa Monica.

But, I knew there would be looting because it was on Twitter. And, then I contacted my editor. I was like, shit’s going to go down. And lo and behold, bam, they were in there trying to get into Third Street Promenade. And you guys had tactical units guarding Santa Monica Place, obviously, because that’s a high-value property.

Santa Monica Place actually contacted someone here and asked, “Hey, should we close off our entrances or not?” Based on what they were watching on TV and they were told, “Absolutely, if you wish but it’s your decision.” We didn’t demand that they do that. We didn’t order them. We were still in the mindset that we’re having a peaceful protest that got canceled. “But if you feel it’s necessary, go ahead.” And that is kind of what we had in mind. And when it comes to the tactical decision to let them loot, there was no tactical decision to let people loot. But the Santa Monica Police Department places a higher priority on life and public safety. When the radio traffic is, “We have a person with a gun”— and there were a couple of these—we arrest the people with the guns. We arrested violent people. And so, the decision was to start dealing with the public safety aspect of it first until we got more reinforcements, then we could handle the looting. But we have to do an after-action review and find out if our tactics were lacking in any way.

“The decision was to start dealing with the public safety aspect of it first until we got more reinforcements, then we could handle the looting.”

For three hours there were no police in there. I mean, there were police, in that area, but they remained behind that fence in Santa Monica place.

I don’t know if you have pictures or videos of that; I believe you do. That’s going to help us with our “after-action review” of the tactics that we use and why they weren’t moved.

They could see that there was looting going on at the Vans store. There were eight police in riot gear next door, in front of the Nike Store. And it felt to me like they were putting a preference on protecting Santa Monica Place because perhaps it was more of a high-value property than the other properties.

I do not know about that. I don’t believe that there was a specific priority made to protect Santa Monica Place because it was of higher value. I don’t believe there was any specific criteria at all.

So, were they just outmanned—is that it?

I think we were definitely outmanned overall. And we brought in five times as many police officers for a peaceful protest that we usually would have in the city on a Sunday. And this was for a peaceful protest. And if it had stayed a peaceful protest we would’ve been well staffed.

There’s criticism that if you hadn’t been focused on arresting peaceful protesters the police could’ve used their resources on the looting and brought the situation under control.

That has all been posted and it’s definitely being looked into. But we don’t have all of our 750 body-worn camera videos in yet. The news videos have been asked for and we need to see if what we did was appropriate. And everyone needs know. Was it appropriate or did we do something wrong? And again, I don’t have all those answers right now. But that’s what I want, immediate answers. I’m just as impatient. But I wish these protests would take a pause. I’m not saying to pause the movement. But we’re on our heels with all of this. I just want to have the time to be able to take a deep dive on Sunday.

What do you think that would accomplish?  

I think it is going to be very healthy for us. But that’s a tactic that could be used against us right now, which is to keep us on our heels. Just like we usually try to keep people on their heels. So, they have the upper hand in some ways.

At a certain point in the afternoon, when the looting reached its crescendo, there was a collective realization that nobody’s coming to stop us. It was then that it spread full on to both sides of the street and people realized we can take whatever we want.

That’s powerful. And that’s going to be something I’m excited to hear about in our after-action review and see where the resources could’ve been deployed correctly. Were we able to get the police we needed to the city quickly enough? What was stopping that? What was up? There’s so many questions that we don’t have answers for today that I ultimately want.

What will this after-action review look like so you can change your tactics in the future so this doesn’t happen again?

The overall after-action review is going to be a three-pronged approach. One prong is the criminal side. We need to make sure that the we have joined the L.A. Safe Streets Task Force, which is us, the Los Angeles Police Department, the district attorney’s office, the FBI, the ATF and the fire department. And what they are doing is going back through all videos and we’ll match that with people’s reporting with the criminal side. There’s also the problem of our planning tactics. Were there policies that were in place that prohibited or enabled things to happen or not happen? And then after that, the reviews provide to the command staff and the command set make recommendations and we go forward with either training, education, change policies, change of tactics.

So really, on Sunday, no one had put the pieces together that this was an organized action and you weren’t expecting the force in which the looting happened because you thought this was just an offshoot of the general civil unrest that comes from protests like these?  

What we believed happened on Sunday, was that there was a three-pronged attack happening. Well attack is the wrong word, there was a three-pronged issue. One was the protest. The second was the violence within that protest. So, a lot of people might not know we allowed the peaceful protesters to separate from the unlawful assembly. And they walked Montana. They ended up on San Vicente, so that was part of it. Then we were having the unruly, unlawful individuals who ended up setting fire to police cars and smashed windows at the courthouse and were trying to set it on fire. We know that they were targeting the Santa Monica Pier. It’s just an amazing symbol. And if they had the opportunity…we caught two people with Molotov Cocktails. They were carrying gasoline. We were dealing with a real, impending threat. And then we had the looters. And I don’t think in in the complexity of this issue we’re dealing with, there was the time or the ability to understand what we know now.

“We know that they were targeting the Santa Monica Pier. It’s just an amazing symbol. And if they had the opportunity…we caught two people with Molotov cocktails.”

Do you think that some of the more violent unrest and property destruction was part of a larger plan by the looters to draw fire and divide and conquer?

So that’s a theory that we are definitely exploring and it makes it easy to connect the dots. But in the complexity of this issue, I am wary to start connecting the dots too early on this. But in the end, it makes sense and believe it’s a valid theory to look into.

But they seem like different things, the idea that these are anarchists versus organized criminals posing as anarchists.

This is where it gets so complex. Were they working cahoots? Were they talking, communicating? And that’s in the laundry list of questions that are being asked, because I think we need to start uncovering these questions. Are they exploiting the civil unrest or manufacturing civil unrest? We have this amazing case study with Sunday. But we didn’t see this level of organization downtown on Friday night. But there were fires. Things were breaking down. But it’s the Great Man syndrome of having all the answers. We’re going to start on Thursday, real small, takeover a little bit of the freeway and then we’re going to put our foot in a little deeper into the pool, and soon enough we’re diving in. And if that was all choreographed—if so, holy cow.

That’s some kind of criminal mastermind.

That’s a mindset that I’d love to have our investigators uncover. Put it into print, put into video, put it into everything so we can spread the word about this isn’t normal street gangs or this isn’t normal, you know, chaos and feel this. If that is true, if that is true and again, I don’t want to ever be misquoted. But if that is true, that is some well-organized crime. It is. It really is. It’s stuff you read about in fiction and if that is true and there’s a mastermind choreographing this in Los Angeles County, I would actually really love to meet that individual, hopefully in jail.

RELATED: What I Saw from the Midst of the Looting in Santa Monica

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