Santa Monica Has Made a Mess of Investigating Last Spring’s Public Safety Disaster

Thousands of dollars were spent on a report on what went wrong the day looters ransacked the city, but it never saw the light of day
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Not only did Santa Monica police lose control of public order during a chaotic day of looting last May, according to new information that has surfaced since Los Angeles published a detailed expose of the debacle, the oceanside city has made a considerable mess of the aftermath, too.

Documents obtained via public records requests and new interviews reveal that Santa Monica hired two seasoned veterans of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, now working as private consultants, to conduct a postmortem and recommend corrective action within weeks of the police department ceding control of large swaths of the city to opportunists who ransacked hundreds of storefronts with impunity. An underprepared and understaffed police department had focused its attention on a largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protest near the oceanfront and failed to respond to emergency calls from hundreds of panicked residents elsewhere who were fearful for their property and their personal safety.

The veteran sheriff’s deputies soon found serious flaws in the Santa Monica police leadership from the lieutenant level up, according to a source familiar with their findings, and were particularly concerned with the performance of a captain who deputized for the chief for several days while she was out of town. The consultants also saw serious problems with the department’s intelligence gathering, planning, and deployment.

Until now, though, none of their findings about the events of May 31—or even the existence of their investigation—have seen the light of day.

The consultants, operating under the name Field Command, typed up their findings and shared them with a lieutenant reporting directly to the police chief. Under the terms of their contract, this was exactly how they supposed to write the post-mortem (known officially as an “after-action report”)—in conjunction with the police department. But the details of their findings never made it into a draft report that the lieutenant submitted to city leadership in early August, either, according to a number of sources close to the situation, because they were considered too damning to commit to writing, or because city leaders were worried about legal exposure, or both.

When the city’s top executive, interim city manager Lane Dilg, saw the heavily truncated draft report, she found it so poor she “threw up all over it,” according to one person she confided in. That person, who requested anonymity to protect his relationships, says Dilg didn’t just reject the report, she suppressed it altogether. Interviews with several of Santa Monica’s seven elected council members make clear that they were never told about the report, nor were they told that Dilg’s staff had approved spending of up to $25,000 for a postmortem many of them had been clamoring for and would now never see.

At the time, Dilg and her staff blamed the police department and its then-chief, Cynthia Renaud, for failing to pull together the after-action report they had been promising since June. The reason, council members (and this reporter) were told, was that the department was overwhelmed with the day-to-day challenge of performing its core duties at a time of continuing public unrest and a surge in the COVID-19 pandemic. As relayed by Terry O’Day, then the city’s deputy mayor, the department found it couldn’t “build the plane and fly the plane at the same time.”

This was, however, untrue.

The breakdown in communication was most painfully apparent at a council meeting on August 25, when three council members demanded an independent review to do a job that, as far as they were aware, the police department had failed to do. Sue Himmelrich, who led the initial charge for a quick accounting of what went wrong on May 31 and has since become the city’s mayor, told the meeting it was important to “get some people in there to get it done”. She specifically called for outside experts to help the police pull together their information and reach some initial conclusions.

Neither Dilg nor George Cardona, the city attorney who had approved the hiring of the two former sheriff’s deputies as a member of the city spending review committee, let Himmelrich know that the very thing she was demanding had already happened. In her public comments that day, Dilg said: “It’s important the community have transparency and accountability around what happened.” Yet she offered no transparency at all about the investigation she’d just quashed.

Dilg refused to give point-by-point answers to a list of questions from Los Angeles. Instead, her office issued a carefully worded general statement that acknowledged the hiring of the outside firm—saying it was Chief Renaud who made the call—but provided few other details. Asked if she had misled council members or the public, Dilg offered no reply. (Dilg has announced she will be leaving her job in the spring, for unrelated reasons. Chief Renaud, meanwhile, was pressed into early retirement last October.)

Santa Monica’s handling of the aftermath of its public safety disaster has been thrown into sharp relief by the reverberations from the violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. It has not gone unnoticed in Santa Monica government circles that the chief of the Capitol Police and the sergeants-at-arms in the House and Senate quit right away—not five months later as Renaud did. Nobody gave the Capitol Police a “strong A” for their performance, as Dilg gave the SMPD, and nobody came out the next morning to declare “a bright and beautiful day,” as city officials did in a jarring news conference at the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier on June 1.

The greatly increased threat of far-right extremist violence around the country has also underscored the urgent need for Santa Monica, like other jurisdictions, to get its security house in order. The Proud Boys, implicated in the charge on the Capitol, made appearances in Santa Monica in 2017 to harass a Committee for Racial Justice set up in the wake of the violent white supremacist march in Charlottesville, so the city has specific reason to worry.

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The retired sheriff’s deputies from Field Command, Sid Heal and Richard “Odie” Odenthal, both had solid reputations and broad experience as emergency operations managers when Chief Renaud approached them in mid-June. But their hiring also raised questions. Heal acknowledged that he and Renaud were personal friends, and he asked at the outset if hiring him was appropriate.

“The chief didn’t blink an eye,” Heal said in an interview. “We had an agreement, that there would be no sacred cows…She didn’t care what the answers were but she wanted to know.”

It may not have worked out so smoothly in practice. According to Heal, Renaud was more than happy to receive verbal briefings but was skittish about what would appear in writing. In an email written in late June, Heal proposed Field Command’s standard template for analysis: identifying issues one by one, presenting a detailed discussion of each, and concluding with recommendations. Soon after, though, the firm heard via their main point of contact, Lt. Joseph Cortez, that this format was not going to work.

“The impression we had was that [the city] might not want to have it said right out there, in case what we wrote was used to sue the city,” Heal said. “We had pages and pages of notes we’d crafted… . In some cases we had names of people who were involved. Typically in after-action reports they leave out names. In this particular case, though, it was obvious [who was at fault].”

Heal and Odenthal gave the notes to Cortez, who “paraphrased” them, in Heal’s parlance, to such a degree that the end result was all but useless. The source familiar with Dilg’s thinking said she found the report to be “garbage.” “It wasn’t thorough. It didn’t have tight reasoning. It was just piece of puffery,” the source said.

Dilg did not take issue with this characterization—and neither did Heal. “I don’t know about the puffery part, but otherwise I would agree with that,” Heal said. “Joe [Cortez] did the paraphrasing, and he did it at the direction of somebody.” Heal said he did not know who directed Cortez, but he added: “I know he talked to the chief a lot.”

Renaud could be reached for comment.

cynthia renaud santa monica police
Former police chief Cynthia Renaud

Santamonica.gov

Dilg, in her statement, said that Field Command’s materials had been forwarded to the OIR Group, the independent organization now working on a fuller and more expensive report on the events of May 31. That report is not expected before April—11 months after the events in question. It is not clear, however, if Dilg ever saw Field Command’s detailed notes alongside the “paraphrased” report she found so badly wanting. If she did, it is also unclear why she chose not to publish those findings in response to considerable pressure from council members and an unnerved Santa Monica public.

One problem may have been that Field Command was too willing to lay blame on Renaud’s deputy, Captain Darrick Jacob, who’s since been promoted to deputy chief, and not willing enough to blame Renaud, who left town to attend her daughter’s high school graduation and did not return until the morning of May 31–three days after the graduation ceremony. The city’s fire chief and head of dispatch were also out of town, despite safety concerns associated with protests that had continued to grow all week across the Los Angeles region. Another issue may have been a reputation Dilg has in certain quarters for holding her cards close to her chest, even in less fraught circumstances. “Lane is singularly defensive on these things,” said a former Santa Monica city official who worked closely with her in her previous job as city attorney. “I’d say that being more forthcoming is more honest… and more credible than the stonewall. Part of the stonewall is also protecting some people underneath the chief.” (A different city official took issue with this characterization of Dilg, preferring to describe her as someone who believes in “thoughtful transparency”.) Field Command ended up receiving $22,000 for its services. Renaud and Cortez were still sending each other edits of the report in late September, but by then Heal and Odenthal were long gone. “I remember thinking, what’s up with that?” Heal said. “It wasn’t going to cost them any more to let us finish. They could always throw the report away then.”

With Renaud now out of the picture—and replaced on an interim basis by her predecessor, Jacqueline Seabrooks—the spotlight is now more squarely on the ranks below chief, the ones of most concern to Heal and Odenthal.

Los Angeles sought to obtain email and text correspondence from Santa Monica’s four captains on the days around May 31, only to learn that a search of the city server had come up empty in all categories except their official city email. A prior request for Chief Renaud’s communications revealed evidence of text traffic involving the captains, suggesting they may have failed to upload their personal texts to the city server as required by the city in accordance with the California Public Records Act.

Los Angeles asked if the city was considering disciplinary action against the captains for violating the rules on the retention of electronic communications, but the city did not reply.

To read Santa Monica Mayor Sue Himmelrich’s letter to the editor in response to the above story, click here. Los Angeles stands by its reporting.


RELATED: Inside the Santa Monica Police Department’s Botched Response to May’s Looting Spree


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