A Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member has welcomed an independent review of a police investigation that alleged he may have put youths in danger by not immediately stopping a fight.
Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould announced late last month that he authorized the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review to evaluate the investigation involving school board member Oscar de la Torre. The assessment by the outside entity comes after the county District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges against de la Torre following the completion of a Santa Monica Police Department investigation of possible child endangerment.
The four-month investigation was initiated after police obtained cell phone video footage of a fight de la Torre witnessed between two Santa Monica High School students near the high school in March. Police spokesman Sgt. Jay Trisler said that to ensure accountability for child safety, an investigation was conducted of the incident in which the youths’ personal safety was in danger and de la Torre was the only adult present.
De la Torre, who is also the executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, was accused of child endangerment for not immediately intervening in the fight. Neither of the youths was seriously hurt.
Following the district attorney’s refusal to file charges, Santa Monica police Sgt. Dave Hunscke said Police Chief Tim Jackman requested an impartial review of the investigation to determine if the case was handled properly and if anything needed to be done differently in the future.
“We’re very confident that we did everything correctly but to have another person reviewing (the case) never hurts,” Hunscke said.
But de la Torre has blasted the investigation, calling it “malicious” and a sham, and alleging that police abused their powers to defame his character. He said he also called for an outside review and believes this is the first time in city history that such a review of police practices has been authorized.
“This is an historic event, and my hope is that there will be greater accountability and public scrutiny on a city department that has the power to take away our freedoms and our liberties,” de la Torre said of the review.
“Let the truth be our compass and let justice be our focus in this investigation.”
The Office of Independent Review, a civilian oversight group, was created by the county Board of Supervisors in 2001. The panel of six attorneys headed by Michael Gennaco normally investigates matters under the Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction and has performed work for several cities, Santa Monica officials said.
City spokeswoman Kate Vernez said the police investigation will be “reviewed for legal and procedural perspectives to determine if it was handled properly and what, if any, changes in practice or procedures would be appropriate for the future.”
De la Torre, who announced he plans to run for re-election in the fall, believes that the allegations were politically motivated. He defended his actions to The Argonaut, saying he first told a staff member at the office to call 9-1-1 and when he went to the scene he tried to be “overly cautious in insuring there were no weapons and that the violence would not escalate due to my intervention.”
“I did the best that I could with the information that I had, and if someone has a handbook on how to handle that type of conflict I would like to see it,” said the school board member, adding that upon breaking up the fight, he asked the two students to shake hands.
De la Torre said he would be willing to drop his public criticisms of the police actions if they issued an apology.
But Trisler defended the investigation, explaining that after police reviewed the evidence, normal procedures were followed including interviewing witnesses and obtaining a search warrant. A judge had determined that there was probable cause and issued a search warrant for police to obtain additional evidence, he said.
“In this case, information was carefully and thoroughly investigated which culminated in the district attorney review,” a police statement said.
Hunscke noted that the police unit assigned to the case specifically works on investigations of crimes involving city employees or elected officials.
De la Torre said he believes the independent review will conclude that police acted wrongly in their investigation.
“I think the review will find that police used bias and discriminatory practices with malicious intent to assassinate my character,” he said.
Hunscke declined to respond to any criticism and said the department will instead wait for the results of the review.
“We will allow the independent review to speak for itself,” he said.