The Santa Monica City Council approved a $745 million budget last week, and while the council fell down several rabbit holes related to public safety, the discussion came up short on new action for the local police department.
As presented to the council, the budget adds six police officers and one police sergeant to expand the Homeless Outreach Program team, invest in technology to improve community safety, improve patrol and security services at the Pier, Beach and Downtown, including a new transit safety officer program for Big Blue Bus (BBB). and returning staff to the Santa Monica Animal Shelter.
Councilman Phil Brock was the first to speak above and beyond the proposals, proposing to expand private security options downtown to ease the burden on police officers and expand the police budget by about $500,000.
“I know our city’s police department still feels under control, residents still feel their case, businesses still feel their case,” he said. “So whether it’s public service officers or additional private security forces from Good Guard or Cover Six downtown, in addition to parking lot coverage, we need to try to provide some type of coverage at least on weekend nights in Palisades Park between Colorado and California, and on Ocean Avenue, etc., because that’s also police coverage.” It frees up officers to take on urgent cases around town.
Brooke said targeted enforcement downtown is starting to show results and has identified several options for funding increased police spending. However, he reduced his proposed increase to $200,000, but the request did not move forward.
A proposal to divert money from the animal shelter and increase martial arts training for officers was defeated.
Some civilian workers have been cut from the shelter during Vivid, the city’s largest cleanup unit, and Battista said officers are currently filling the gaps, but the system is costing the city overtime pay and furloughing animal control officers. I don’t want to do two jobs. The budget was increased by $85,000 to hire up to three part-time staff to help with the situation and move some of the money to the technology budget.
A proposal to spend $20,000 on expanded Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training was floated to take some money out of the budget’s grand plan. It comes from the city’s Public Safety Improvement and Oversight Commission to address overuse and reduce workers’ compensation claims. However, the city manager and police chief said workers’ comp or excessive force complaints are not major challenges in the current department, and Brazilian jiu jitsu is already part of officers’ training.
In response to several council questions, Police Chief Ramon Batista said the department has the funds it needs for this year, but is looking to improve the department’s situation in the future with officers and assets.
Chief Battista said the department is using hundreds of thousands of dollars in inexpensive technology, such as advanced security cameras, to increase efficiency and free up human officers to respond to more serious incidents.
However, the department has some big-ticket items on its wish list, including establishing a new crime intelligence center to help analyze data to determine more efficient use of police time.
Battista said he is asking for $6 million as part of a larger grant program to police departments statewide aimed at retail theft cases.
“So this grant gives us more than start-up money to get us going, it allows us to run the program for a period of time,” he said. “During that time, our city’s finances will start to improve and we can take it from there.
Battista said serious crimes are up about 7 percent, but the rate of growth has been cut in half and those reductions are due to changes the department has made.
“I believe that the way we have been budgeted so far and given overtime to deal with these high crime areas has helped us get to the point where we are downsizing.” 911 calls for service, in addition to the proactive actions of the officers, I’m seeing an increase in arrests of criminals and a decrease in calls,” he said.
He said the department has been making progress by hiring enough officers to fill 218 out of 221 posts after years of understaffing. However, there are about 50 retirements in the next two years.
Councilman Oscar De La Torre asked if the chief needed more resources to enforce the Metro line and Metro from the sheriff to the newly formed Metro Police Department on the streets.
Battista said he has met with Metro and is working to create policies that don’t just allow individuals to enter Santa Monica after the late night service, and create a fare enforcement system if people board a train in Santa Monica without a ticket.
He said SMPD does not have primary responsibility for crimes on Metro, but under current procedures, local resources are diverted to any calls.
“The biggest question we’re asking right now is for the sheriff’s office to be present and accountable for the calls for service that come from the platform,” he said. Because as it stands today, most of the time the Santa Monica Police Department responds to the scene for victim care and then we have to wait for LASD services to arrive. And sometimes those arrival times take so long that our officers even receive the call and then hand it over to LASD detectives to follow up on the investigation.
After about 15 individuals came to the last meeting to advocate for more public safety information and measures, a handful of residents returned to the theme on June 27.
Councilor Lana Negrete said that the department has been budgeted as much as possible until the city fully recovers from the epidemic and is being forced to spend money in other areas, such as the millions of dollars related to the child abuse of a former city employee.
“And I want to point out that our police department is not always supported by the same community that has been clamoring for more police right now,” she said. “Let me repeat, this police department is not supported by a community that is asking for more police right now. And let me sit with that for a minute. Please know that you are doing everything and reacting in a very different climate. They have become social service representatives. With crime and drugs on our streets, they are dealing with everything from homelessness to mental illness. So I want all of us to understand that we are doing the best we can with our limited staff.