If it seems as though you can’t go more than a couple of days without hearing about how Santa Monica is a crime ridden hellhole, you’re not alone.
In just the past couple of weeks, dozens of residents spoke at “open comment” at the City Council about their crime, Downtown Santa Monica is moving forward with a plan to replace unarmed ambassadors with former military armed security, and the Santa Monica Daily Press published a piece of propaganda that compared the city to “a paradise lost combination of “Clockwork Orange,” “Zombie Apocalypse” and “Network.” SMDP editor Matt Hall then ran a story about the people showing up to comment while making zero mention of the fact that a Daily Press opinion columnist was the ringleader of the people showing up at the council meeting.
The recent happenings follow a trend both nationally and locally, a propaganda campaign designed to make people feel less safe and more likely to embrace more funding for police, stricter laws and enforcement and now the armed private security program. Santa Monica even has its own fake polling firm that partners with the media to mainstream an image of an electorate that is far more conservative than its own.
The fear campaign has an impact on local policy. At last week’s meeting, the Board of Directors for Downtown Santa Monica Inc. (DTSM Inc) voted 10-0 with one abstention to move forward with a proposal to replace some of the Downtown Community Ambassadors that have been in place with a handful of armed private security provided by Covered 6, the same firm that has a contract with the City of Beverly Hills. The contract between DTSM Inc and Covered 6 would be $1.7 million.
Currently, the agreement that allows DTSM Inc to provide governmental services in the downtown area forbids the hiring of armed security. The City Council would have to agree to this change. But with two Councilmembers already speaking in favor of the program at last week’s DTSM Inc meeting (Phil Brock and Lana Negrete) and another who backed investigating the possibility of an armed private security firm in recent years (Oscar de la Torre), it’s likely such a measure will pass. The Council is scheduled to vote on approving the DTSM Inc operations budget at its July 18th meeting.
So why would the City Council approve a plan to bring on armed private security instead of just hiring more officers? One likely reason is cost. In a May 4th Daily Press article, SMPD Chief Batista is quoted as saying he would like to have 20 officers patrolling the downtown area, but currently has either 11 or 12. But faced with a budget crunch, it’s unlikely the city will be footing the bill for new officers anytime soon.
Another possible reason is that SMPD is currently experiencing a high level of vacancies. The department has a plan to fill these positions over time, but it’s certainly easier and faster to bring on private security where the guards have paid for their own training than it is to find officers who meet the department’s standards and then train them before activating them for duty.
Unlike police actions, DTSM Inc, not the city, would be liable for any legal action taken because of the security officers. In addition to its contract to buttress police in Beverly Hills, Covered 6 has private security contracts throughout California and the world. There have not been any major judgements against the firm for excessive force.
The second reason is that private security, even armed and trained private security, is less expensive than police officers. In a thread on Twitter, a local activist examines the costs and salaries of guards who graduate from Covered 6’s training program (not all of whom are employed by Covered 6 afterwards). Using Covered 6 created documents, the tweets demonstrate that their security guards are paid far less than what can be expected for even a newly hired officer with the SMPD.
While there are many macro-economic reasons that the Promenade has seen decreased foot traffic and revenue, everything from a global pandemic to America’s fading image in the world leading to decreased tourism to Amazon to some strange decisions made by the city; for the last couple of years the focus has been on homelessness and crime.
John Alle, who is currently locally famous as “the guy who put up the Santa Monica Is Not Safe sign”, has been trying to see more officers with guns on the Promenade for years. In July 2021, Alle gave a private tour of the Promenade to then LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and begged the Sheriff to become a presence in the downtown area. While the Sheriff technically has authority anywhere in the county, he never made a serious move to police Santa Monica even after Alle offered to pay the Sheriff’s office for their patrols.
While Alle’s stunt drew an icy response from the city, it wasn’t long before his idea started to get a warmer response. Just months later in September, Alle hosted a forum on homelessness where Villanueva was a panelist and both Councilmember Brock and Councilmember de la Torre attended. Both Councilmembers seemed amenable to the Sheriff bringing his roadshow to Santa Monica. For his part, Villanueva blasted the Ambassador program that DTSM Inc is now planning to scale back in favor of armed security as a waste of money.
In the meeting last week, Brock spoke in favor of the DTSM Inc proposal arguing that armed security is needed to make people feel safe and comfortable in the Promenade. This is a drastic change in strategy for the Promenade from its pre-pandemic planning process. But again, there has been a drip over the years that preceded the current sea change.
In 2019, DTSM Inc unveiled Promenade 3.0, a plan to reinvigorate the Promenade as “Santa Monica’s Backyard.” The consultants for the project, RIOS, wrote about the need to make the Promenade not just safe but FUN. Central to the 2019 design were brightly painted seats and all sorts of seating options: boxes, benches, swings, and more. By May of this year, all of the benches were removed.