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Downtown Officials Reject Calls to Replace 'Safety Ambassadors'

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By Jorge Casuso

June 6, 2022 -- Downtown officials last week rejected a call by Councilmember Phil Brock to replace Downtown "safety" ambassadors with security guards.

In an Opinion piece, Barry Snell, Board chair and interim CEO for Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM), said the program launched last year has been effective ("The Solution is Not Eliminating Ambassadors," June 6, 2022).

The "Safety Ambassadors" -- who began patrolling the Downtown in April 2021 -- have come under attack from some property owners who say they are not doing enough to deter anti-social and criminal behavior.

"Recently, there have been calls to eliminate our dedicated, effective, compassionate and loyal ambassadors," Snell wrote. "We are here to say that this is not on the table."

Snell said Downtown officials will extend the contract with Block by Block, an industry leader hired in 2007 to provide ambassador services to the Downtown.

Block by Block, Snell said, "has a tremendous wealth of experience and have provided valuable insights as it pertains to addressing quality of life issues and homeless outreach.

"We have used those insights to make adjustments to deployment schedules and staffing levels so we can be more effective," he wrote.

The final details of the extended contract with Block by Block are "being hammered out," said Kevin Herrera, DTSM's Senior Marketing & Communication Manager.

"We are looking at our Ops (Operations) Plan and determining which features of the ambassador program (maintenance, hospitality, safety, etc.) we would like to staff more or less," Herrera said in an email.

Snell' Opinion piece was issued after Brock sent a letter responding to Downtown activist landlord John Alle and copied to top Downtown and City officials ("Brock Calls for Get-Tough Approach to Promenade's Homeless Problem," May 2, 2022).

In the letter, Brock echoed the frustrations of landlords and business owners who complain that not enough is being done to curb the anti-social behavior of some of the homeless who live on Downtown streets, alleyways and parking garages.

The actions outlined in Brock's letter focus on cracking down on those who violate existing laws and include replacing the safety ambassador team with "a high quality, armed, private security force and (placing) both armed and unarmed details of the SMPD" in the Downtown.

In his Opinion piece, Snell noted that those who call for eliminating the Safety Ambassadors "are clearly not aware of all the facts."

"Our Safety Ambassadors are specially trained to patrol Third Street Promenade, sidewalks, and alleys addressing quality of life issues, acting as a deterrent to unwanted behavior and activity, and responding to incidents called in by businesses and patrons," Snell wrote.

"DTSM operates a dispatch center to help triage calls and relay valuable information to our friends at the SMPD.

"All ambassadors observe and report unwanted or criminal activity. But they cannot enforce the law. Only police officers can do that," Snell wrote.

Police Chief Ramon Batista announced last month that the department has added two sworn officers and two public safety officers assigned to the Downtown area seven days a week.

It also has assigned two officers to "quality of life issues at the bus stops in the downtown area," Deputy City Manager Anuj Gupta said in a community update Monday.

In addition, public safety officers "will continue to perform overnight checks of the parking structures in partnership with private, contracted security officers," Gupta said.

The "Safety Ambassadors Program" launched last year was the fifth expansion of DTSM's contract with Block by Block, which initially focused on maintenance and hospitality ("'Rapidly Expanding Downtown Program Adds 'Safety Ambassadors,'" March 31, 2021).

After the Expo rail line opened Downtown in 2015, the ambassador program was expanded to Lincoln and the area around the station on Fourth Street and Colorado Avenue.

Two years later, in 2017 it was again expanded under a City contract to include two downtown-adjacent parks -- Tongva Park and Palisades Park. The following year Reed Park was added after residents complained the homeless had taken over the park.

In 2018, DTSM launched a team of Quality of Life Ambassadors "trained to address growing issues of homelessness, anti-social behavior, and criminal activity in the district," officials said.

Under the latest expansion last year, all Safety Ambassadors must have a valid “Guard Card” issued by the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Service that requires ongoing training and certification.

They also must be certified in first aid and CPR within the first 30 days on the job, Downtown officials said.

"We believe that a layered approach to addressing public safety and homelessness is the right one, and that includes maintaining our multifaceted Downtown Ambassador Program," Snell wrote.

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