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PART II -- What Went Wrong?
By Jorge Casuso
June 11, 2020 -- On Sunday, May 31, a little over an hour before calling for the National Guard, Police Chief Cynthia Renaud arrived at Santa Monica Airport in a California Fire Department helicopter.
Over the weekend, violence had broken out in demonstrations around Los Angeles, and a peaceful protest was scheduled to begin in Santa Monica at noon that day.
When Renaud arrived at Police Headquarters at around 11:30 a.m., an operations plan had been drawn up earlier that morning by two of her captains.
The plan laid out the strategy to police the peaceful protest on Montana Avenue, which police intelligence indicated had been canceled.
Over the next hour, events would take a dramatic turn as thousands of protesters -- communicating mainly on social media -- began streaming into the city and spilling onto its streets.
In an interview with LA Magazine posted Tuesday, SMPD executive officer Joseph Cortez acknowledged the force was not prepared for what was coming.
"I think we were definitely out-manned overall," he said. "And we brought in five times as many police officers for a peaceful protest than we usually would have in the city on a Sunday.
"And if it had stayed a peaceful protest we would've been well staffed," Cortez said.
By 12:30 p.m., the Chief had called the the State to request that the National Guard be deployed to Santa Monica.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Over the past week, The Lookout interviewed four former top SMPD officials who helped coordinate some of the Department's largest operations over the past 30 years.
The two others asked that their names not be used but noted that they received their information independently of each other after speaking with officers currently on the force.
The four former officials agreed that the protests and looting that swiftly spun out of control Sunday afternoon could have been foreseen given the violence in Beverly Hills -- where SMPD lent mutual aid -- and across Los Angeles that weekend.
"It's the kind of thing you anticipate," said Miehle, who headed operations during the 1992 Rodney King riots and the protests at the 2000 Democratic National Convention (DNC).
"Saturday's events in Beverly Hills should have caused the immediate activation of everybody."
With the full force deployed early on and an operations plan in place that anticipated potential violence, the unruly protests and rampant looting the gripped Santa Monica on May 31 could have quickly been contained, the former officials agreed.
They noted that during past tactical alerts, squad cars had been stationed at main "ingress and egress" points into the 8.3 square-mile City -- particularly on the Boulevards and the 10-Freeway ramps.
"You start monitoring buses, traffic and carloads of people," said Miehle. "When you see suspicious vehicles you start making stops.
"People get the point."
In a remote meeting with Chamber of Commerce members last Thursday, Renaud said that Santa Monica's borders were too porous to secure and that vehicles cannot be indiscriminately pulled over and searched.
At 2:30 p.m., approximately half an hour after the looting began, the 10-Freeway exits were closed.
"We have to facilitate a peaceful protest," said City spokesperson Constance Farrell. "You close it when there's violence.
"Only Caltrans can close down the freeway," Farrell added. "We are government, and we have to go through the process."
In addition to securing entry and exit points, officers needed to be deployed to guard the Downtown business area targeted by looters, the former officials said.
The looting was concentrated along 4th Street, which was the hardest hit stretch, and along Broadway in or near the Downtown.
"You need to have officers assigned to the most vulnerable parts of the city, mainly the businesses," Miehle said. "The point isn't to take 200 officers and shut down the entire city.
But "you need the manpower on scene to show that you have the people to handle it, and you will."
That strategy proved effective Sunday with Santa Monica police sealing off the Third Street Proenade, which was by and large left unscathed by the looters, the former officials noted.
On several occasions, Chief Renaud has said that there weren't enough officers to post in front of every business, even after additional SMPD forces were deployed and reinforcements from other law enforcement agencies were called in.
"There were more businesses than police officers, and we were clearly overwhelmed by these large crowds," Renaud told the Lookout last week.
"It was so frustrating to watch that we could not be everywhere at once."
Gallinot, who helped develop operations plans for major events before retiring in 2003, said no one expects officers posted outside every businesses.
"There's no way officers can stand at every door," Gallinot said. But, he added, "If you have a reactionary force, you can disperse the crowd."
Said Miehle, "As soon as the looting starts, you close down that area. You look for people fleeing.
"You have police officers on each end of the block and in the alleys making arrests," he said. "The looters will go the other way."
The officials interviewed by the Lookout questioned why police had not used drones to track the flow of looters Chief Renaud said were "hopscotching back and forth," leaving areas when police arrived and returning when they left.
In her talk with the Chamber, Renaud said that the aerial surveillance provided by LAPD proved to be a "game changer," but she has not addressed whether drones were also used.
After viewing footage of looters swarming stores unchecked for hours, one former top-ranking police official became convinced that officers were told not to make arrests.
"It kind of speaks for itself," the former official said. "The officers looked the other way.
"Squad cars drove by the looters and didn't stop. They were within 25 yards of people committing crimes.
"If you had arrested just three people," he said, "everybody would stand down. You do it from the beginning."
Executive Officer Cortez told LA Magazine that "there was no tactical decision to let people loot.
"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," Cortez said.
"But we have to do an after-action review and find out if our tactics were lacking in any way."
WHERE WERE THE COPS?
As looters smashed windows, tore through plywood and emptied rows of stores before fleeing in getaway cars, a large battalion of officers was engaged in a standoff with protesters near the entrance to the Santa Monica Pier.
By then, the peaceful demonstrators had mostly dispersed, and by mid-afternoon the confrontation had became more violent.
Protesters lobbed smoke bombs, rocks and bottles at police, who responded by spraying tear gas and firing rubber bullets at the ground from an armored vehicle.
"We had to make a tactical decision to preserve life and safety," Renaud told the Chamber members. "We knew that if we let that crowd go, they would go Downtown and it would be explosive."
Television footage shows that the police formed skirmish lines at both ends of the demonstration, a tactic that former officials questioned.
"It took so many officers to have them boxed in," said Gallinot, who worked on operations plans for The Fourth of July Fireworks that drew hundreds of thousands to the Pier.
"Why box them? That's a good question. I don't understand that," Gallinot said. "You always give them an out, so they can disperse."
As the demonstration grew more violent, the Chief was faced with a "terrible dilemma," said Mayor Kevin McKeown ("Police Faced "Terrible Dilemma" During Looting Rampage, Mayor Says," June 4, 2020).
"Think about if the officers had charged into the Downtown and tried to stop those looters," McKeown said.
Lt. Cortez told LA magazine that police had evidence that the Pier -- a century old wooden structure that is a world famous landmark -- was being targeted by the demonstrators.
"We know that they were targeting the Santa Monica Pier," Cortez said. "It’s just an amazing symbol. And if they had the opportunity. . .
"We caught two people with Molotov Cocktails," he said. "They were carrying gasoline. We were dealing with a real, impending threat."
On Wednesday, The Lookout requested copies of any documentation filed by police regarding the seizure of the two Molotov Cocktails and the suspects who were apprehended.
As of Friday, it had not received a response from the City or Police Department.
Before the violence ended, reinforcements would arrive from law enforcement agencies in the cities of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Culver City, Redondo Beach, Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.
In total, some 300 law enforcement officers were "completely engaging" in Santa Monica that day, Renaud told the Chamber.
"We were busy all night until 2 or 3 in the morning," she said. "We fully understand it wasn't enough and that we let you down."
The National Guard troops the Chief had requested between 12:20 and 12:30 p.m. were tied up with violent protests in LA and did nor arrive until eight hours later, she said.
By then, a curfew had been put in place and Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva had arrived in Santa Monica dressed in tactical gear accompanied by his deputies.
"Right now, they're just acting like terrorists," Villanueva told ABC-7. "They're trying to instill fear and just damage property and loot.
"And we're going to separate them, and we're going to start arresting them in mass, and that's what we're going to do for the rest of the night."
Asked if he had a message for the looters, Villanueva said:
"Simple. We're coming for you."
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