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Council Beefs Up Security at Pier, Downtown Parks

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By Jorge Casuso

May 24, 2023 -- The City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to approve two contracts totaling nearly $2 million to beef up security at the Pier and at three Downtown parks.

Councilmembers approved the contracts after pulling the items from the consent calendar, which is routinely passed with little comment, and spending nearly an hour in sometimes heated debate.

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First, the Council approved a five-year contract with Downtown Santa Monica, Inc. (DTSM) to provide Park Ambassador services at Palisades, Reed and Tongva Parks at an annual cost of about $1.5 million a year.

Several Councilmembers focused on the safety ambassadors currently stationed at Reed Park, which has become a gathering place for the homeless.

"We have a huge homeless issue at Reed Park, and when I walk through there, I haven't seen a safety ambassador engaging with anyone," said Councilmember Phil Brock.

Staff noted that safety ambassadors at the park had referred 73 homeless individuals to social services in January and February, up from 56 referrals last year.

In addition, staff said the safety ambassadors reported 3,804 engagements with the homeless in the first two months this year, up from 1,450 engagements last year.

Councilmember Christine Parra, who like Brock ran on a public safety platform in 2020, said she was concerned when she parked by Reed Park to walk her child to school at Saint Monica's.

"I never ever see an ambassador making the rounds during pick up or drop off when the parents are walking their children to and from their cars, and I think that is very critical.

"People there are not just loitering, they are acting in a way" that makes its clear they are suffering from mental illness, Parra said. "Often I'm concerned and scared for my child."

The Council also voted unanimously to extend a contract with CA Panther for security services on the Pier from July 1 through December 31 -- at a cost of $327,969.

The contract adds one unarmed guard to the seven guards and a supervisor who staff the entry and exit points to the Pier and help code enforcement crack down on illegal activities by vendors, some of them operating without permits.

Councilmembers Caroline Torosis and Jesse Zwick questioned the need for the unarmed private officers when there are police already patrolling the pier.

"I'm concerned about hiring, when City staff is already doing the work," Torosis said after asking if the guards were union members and diverse.

Zwick agreed. "I worry that if we fixate too much on the illegal vending of fruit," the "overstretched" police force may not be able to address "some of the other major issues happening in our city."

Their comments reignited the lengthy and heated debate over vendors that took place at a Council meeting two months ago ("Majority of Council 'Offended' By Street Vendor Discussion," March 22, 2023).

Brock said the vendors posed serious health and safety risks that went far beyond the illegal vending of fruit ("Council to Consider Banning Risky Vendor Activities," August 18, 2021).

Parra had Officer Carlos Madrid confirm that several code enforcement officers had been assaulted by unlicensed vendors and needed security escorts and bullet proof vests.

County Health officers also had to be protected by security when they visited the Pier, Madrid said.

"We have taken control of the Pier and the situation," he said. "There's a reason we've had to implement all these things."

Parra noted that vendors were sometimes the victims of "robberies, strong armed robberies and thefts," and that it was "critically important" to make sure that they and all visitors to the pier are safe.

"My family and I were assaulted there on our anniversary May 5th,' Parra said, "so this is personal."

Both contracts will be paid for with funds generated by Measure CS, a bed tax hike approved by voters in November that will pump an estimated $4.1 million a year into the general fund.

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