A report released on Feb. 7 by the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review took issue with some of the witness interviewing techniques, witness follow-up, and report writing conducted by the Santa Monica Police Department (SMPD) when they investigated Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board member Oscar de la Torre for child endangerment.
However, the report did find “it was appropriate for the SMPD to initiate an investigation into the alleged actions or non-actions” of de la Torre.
The police’s child endangerment investigation began after a cell phone video was brought to the attention of Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School Superintendent Tim Cuneo. The video which revealed the presence of de la Torre at a fight between two 17-year-old Santa Monica High School (Samohi) boys. The fight occurred in an alley near the Pico Youth and Family Center, of which de la Torre is the founder and executive director.
Between 20 to 40 teenagers watched as the two teens fought for nearly a minute. After some glancing punches and wrestling, the two fell to the pavement, at which point de la Torre emerged from the crowd to break up the fight, along with one bystanding Samohi student. As they arose, the fight resumed and both de la Torre and the other intervening youth backed away. A few moments later, the fighters fell to the ground and de la Torre again intervened and the fight ended. Neither of the participants was seriously injured or charged with a crime.
What is disputed here is whether de la Torre acted soon enough. SMPD thought the question was worth looking into and brought child endangerment charges against him. The charges could have resulted in a felony.
In October 2010, the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review (OIR), which is composed of six attorneys who review cases from around the county, became involved in the politically sensitive matter of looking into the SMPD’s investigation at the request of Santa Monica’s City Manager, Rod Gould.
“(The) OIR report confirms that malicious intent and bias fueled a sham investigation. The investigator’s conduct threatened my freedom, threatened to make me a felon, and threatened to end my career in youth services,” de la Torre told the Mirror.
When de la Torre was told about the altercation the day of the fight, he said he “rushed out [of his office] and told his staff to call the police.” He was concerned because one of the youths involved was connected with his center and had been the “victim of an attempted homicide at Virginia Avenue Park” five months earlier.
Explaining his rush, de la Torre said he had the ability to get to the fight scene quicker than the police. He noted that the way he is trained to deal with street conflict is a lot “different than how the police would have resolved” the situation, implying that the police would have made arrests. “They are not trained to bring resolution to conflict. They are trained to follow the law.”
Conversely, de la Torre’s method involved intervening when he believed it was safe enough to do so, he said. After ending the conflict, de la Torre points to getting the youths involved to shake hands as a way to defuse tensions with the other youth who were present at the fight. In his view, he “acted like a true peace officer” but ended up facing possible felony charges while there was “no reprimand to the young people that were fighting.”
The police concluded their investigation by asking the District Attorney’s office to charge de la Torre with child endangerment, but the prosecutors declined to do so.
Oscar de la Torre believes the investigation was politically motivated and feels its timing caused him not to run for a Santa Monica City Council seat last November because of his concern of a possible character attack. He said there was precedence for this type of attack because it happened to former city council member Tony Vasquez when he ran for re-election in 1994. De la Torre said Vasquez’s character was attacked by a union campaign literature two weeks before the election and that caused him to lose. In the most recent November election, de la Torre ran for a third term on the school board and won.
In 2005 he also had problems with the police after he brought former gang members on Samohi’s campus to calm things down after a riot broke out there, which was believed to have been sparked by tensions between Latino and black youths.
“In both of these cases where the police have a conflict with me, it involved Latino and black fighting,” de la Torre said.
When the Mirror asked SMPD’s public information officer, Sgt. Jay Trisler, if the investigation was politically motivated, he noted that the superintendent gave information to his department and it was “appropriate” for them to investigate – which the OIR report also stated.
Trisler emphasized that his department will be “implementing all the recommendations that were recommended in the [OIR] report.”
The report highlighted specific concerns in the police department’s investigation techniques, including advocating a point of view and feeding information to witnesses. These concerns do not comply with the “just the facts” orientation of common investigation practices.
“…This type of counseling has the potential to come off as merely an attempt to recruit the parent and juvenile to adopt the investigator’s theory of the investigation … The gratuitous use of these techniques can create the appearance of bias and put the effectiveness of police investigations, and the public confidence in them, at risk,” the report notes.
Additionally, the report suggested that the police should have made a greater attempt to obtain a potential piece of evidence, as well as conduct more follow up reports with witnesses. For instance, the police interviewed the only other person besides de la Torre who intervened in the fight. This interview contained information that corroborated a significant part of de la Torre’s defense, but was omitted from SMPD’s main report on the incident.
“The report itself contained an unusual mixture of facts and advocacy, and was not a dispassionate rendering of the facts … ” The issues identified here may have contributed to the belief … that the investigation was not objective,” the report said.
Although the report describes these areas of concern, it also indicates an understanding of the circumstances of the police and its confidence in the police department to effectively implement the recommended changes. Most markedly, the report includes the finding made by an independent judge that probable cause existed and that a crime had been committed.
The report recommended that SMPD develop a detective’s manual so that detectives know what principles and best practices to use when conducting investigations. It also suggested better training on interviewing techniques for witnesses, including considering witness bias and documenting it, and being cautious about providing counseling and advice when conducting investigative interviews of minors and parents.
Additionally, the report recommended SMPD develop a report writing manual to “emphasize report writing in the department’s training curriculum,” and establish a standard report format for unusual cases. Lastly, the department should “implement a more robust review process” especially in the case of sensitive or high profile cases.
Sgt. Trisler’s comments echoed those made by SMPD Chief Timothy Jackman in a Feb. 7 City of Santa Monica press release accompanied by an OIR report. “We are committed to following the recommendations of the report entirely,” he said. “We will be moving swiftly to ensure implementation.”
But that isn’t enough for de la Torre, who is asking for an apology and compensation for the legal fees he incurred because of the police’s investigation. This seems unlikely as reimbursing legal fees for police investigations would be an expensive precedent to set. Additionally, neither the City nor SMPD indicated they planned to apologize to de la Torre.
City Manager Rod Gould told the Mirror that, “while I do not plan to demand an apology from SMPD the chief and I agree that we intend to fully implement the recommendations” made by the OIR.
In terms of compensation for legal fees, Gould said, “we do not talk about litigation potential or otherwise in the press.”