Commissions and Omissions

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Fellow Democrats,

After writing last month’s column on how Culver City’s Historical Context Study diluted and suppressed information on the city’s history of systemic racial discrimination and protected the people responsible for particularly offensive acts, it occurred to me to put that study and my essay in a larger context, to discuss some notable governmental reports and how they have revealed and concealed systemic issues.

The Kerner Commission Report represents the classic paradigm. It was ordered by the Federal government in July 1967 while Detroit was on fire from civil unrest, then completed and published the next March, shortly before the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. drove even greater destruction. The Kerner Commission’s chair and namesake was the Governor of Illinois. New York City Mayor John Lindsay was its vice chair and one of its most liberal members, alongside NAACP head Roy Wilkins. The other members included the Atlanta Police Chief and the head of the AFL-CIO, among other pillars of the establishment. The analysis they produced appeared bold, warning in its most famous passage that: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and argued that the unrest in Detroit, Watts, and elsewhere was produced by residents’ experiences of racism. The reforms proposed were slightly ahead of what the Johnson Administration was doing but were largely procedural rather than systemic such as calling for racial integration of police departments rather than a rejection of the paramilitary model created by LAPD Chief William Parker.

In this model, the transformative energy of a crisis is channeled into an elite panel, who move the Overton Window analytically to the left but practically to the right by proposing more modest solutions than those demanded by activists. Lacking the authority to write legislation or policy, much less enforce accountability, bodies like the Kerner Commission can serve as an inoculation: injecting a small dose of the virus of critique into the body of the system to prevent a full-on infection.

On May 31, 2020, around 8000 people marched in downtown Santa Monica in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, protesting the police murders of George Floyd and others. Police were unprepared and chose to aggressively confront nonviolent protestors while ignoring organized groups of thieves who took advantage of the distraction to loot stores.

Let’s rule out, for the sake of argument, the possibilities that police consider challenges to their power a greater threat to public safety than bulk thefts in broad daylight or that they allowed the looting to happen so that the protests would be associated with it and thus discredited. What happened next was almost as incriminating as those scenarios.

SMPD promised an internal investigation, to be completed by August. They paid a company called Field Command, consisting of two former LA County Sheriff Deputies who were friends of the Police Chief, $25,000 to conduct it for them. What kind of internal investigation is done by external consultants? We may never know. The draft turned in by Field Command was heavily revised by SMPD, then submitted to Acting City Manager Lane Dilg. She was offended by this tampering and rejected the report, but protected the police by not telling the City Council anything about this draft, according to Los Angeles Magazine’s essential reporting. She covered up the cover up. The Council then ordered a second outside review without knowing a first one existed. By the time that report appeared, in May 2021, both Dilg and SMPD’s Chief had moved on to other jobs. There were no consequences for SMPD’s choices on May 31, 2020 or for their and Dilg’s interference with the inquiry. In fact, the outcome was an increase in resources and authority for surveillance and suppression of activists

At their February 15, 2023 meeting, the LA City Council approved a motion by Member Katy Yaroslavsky to conduct a full audit of the implementation of LA Municipal Code section 41:18, which bans sitting, sleeping, and other uses of public space by people without homes. The report was submitted that November and has been suppressed since, although it leaked to journalists in March and the summary is available online. It confirms the findings of the study conducted by UCLA’s Luskin Center in March 2021 on the outcomes of the Echo Park Lake sweep and shows that progressive critics such as DSA, Black Lives Matter, Nithya Raman, Mike Bonin, Hugo Soto-Martinez, Eunisses Hernandez, et al, have consistently been correct, while the political establishment to their right has been shoveling money into systems which actively harm those most in need. Like the initial SMPD report, the 41:18 audit is being buried because its results threaten the status quo.

In January 2021 the State Attorney General’s office began an investigation of the LA County Sheriff’s Department. On April 24, 2024, journalist Cerise Castle, who has done the definitive work on deputy gangs and other forms of corruption in LASD, reported that the AG’s report has been presented to LASD, the County Supervisors, the County Inspector General, and the Sheriffs’ professional association, but kept from the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission and the public. The last time the AG investigated a law enforcement agency was in 2020. Then, the Kern County Sheriff reached a settlement agreement with the State and the report was never made public. Castle’s reporting suggests a similar outcome is likely for LA. Again, a damning report will be suppressed, and we see how thoroughly law enforcement has protected itself from oversight, transparency, and accountability.

Consider also the City of Santa Monica’s handling of the case of Eric Uller. While working for the City’s IT department in the 1980s, Uller ingratiated himself with the officers running the Police Activities League. He used this access to children and affiliation with the police to abuse hundreds of boys over three decades, then killed himself the night before his trial. Santa Monica has paid out record settlements to his victims who have come forward, on the condition that there will be no further charges or investigations. Every Santa Monica program will be impacted by the cost of these settlements for years to come, with the initial batch of payments borrowed against affordable housing funds, but the extent to which SMPD and PAL staff ignored red flags or were complicit in Uller’s crimes will never be known and no one will be held accountable. The settlements are both restitution and hush money. The City’s reasonable desire to protect itself from being bankrupted by litigation also protects the guilty, many of whom wore badges.  

Last month’s column described how Culver City Council Members Albert Vera Jr, Göran Eriksson, and Dan O’Brien, City Manager John Nachbar, and Police Chiefs Manny Cid and Jason Sims have worked in various combinations over the last four years to bury, dilute, and undermine studies that threatened conservative hegemony. This month I’d like to expand on two cases.

When Culver City’s City Council faced the challenges to police power coming out of Black Lives Matter and other abolitionist groups in the summer of 2020, City Manager Nachbar recommended they commission two studies: one assessing CCPD organizationally and one assessing its social impacts. The Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) and Solidarity Consulting respectively were hired for these projects. When the reports came in, they were treated as opposing viewpoints: one written by police, the other by a progressive social scientist, even though they were given different assignments and produced texts appropriate to those assignments. The CPSM report is essentially descriptive, a prose version of the department’s mission statement, organizational chart, and budget, while the Solidarity report applied the work of scholars such as Alex Vitale, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Barry Friedman, and Kelly Lytle Hernandez to the local situation and proposed specific major policy changes. CPSM’s representatives understood the assignment and declined to comment on policy questions at Council meetings, deferring to Solidarity.

The Warren Report may be the most ambitious government report in history. One of the most beloved American Presidents was murdered in broad daylight, by a strange man who was himself killed two days later, live on TV, by a mobbed-up nightclub owner, before he could be tried. Lyndon Johnson created the Warren Commission to make sense of this trauma. It was chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and included national legislators from both parties, as well as former heads of the World Bank and the CIA. That may sound like a gathering of the Illuminati now, but the intention was to get the most authoritative figures possible together to agree on a narrative, in order to maintain a unified consensus reality. This may not have been successful, as the countless alternative versions highlighted by the fictionalized works of Don DeLillo, Oliver Stone, and James Ellroy show, but it is the model for every major crisis report since, up to the January 6 Select Committee. In times of crisis, the experts gather to get the facts straight so the community can agree on what happened and what should be done. Culver City did the opposite of this. Rather than attempting to establish a shared understanding of the problem, or even a common body of data, City Manager Nachbar chose to create a “they said/they said” situation which allowed everyone to choose the “facts” and “experts” that supported what they already believed.

What mattered about the CPSM report was not what it said but that it was police assessing themselves at a moment when that authority was in question. The CPSM team was almost entirely police chiefs. Police have long demanded the power to evaluate themselves. If you submit a complaint about CCPD on the City’s Fraud, Waste, and Abuse hotline, you will be contacted by someone from CCPD. Complaints about any other City department go to the City’s Fraud, Waste, and Abuse team. 

The events of 2020 should have changed this. The Minneapolis Police Department’s initial statement on the murder of George Floyd, entitled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” should have been enough for no City to allow a police department to ever issue another press release and for no journalist to publish one without independent verification. “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction” should live in infamy alongside “The Sound of Children Screaming Has Been Removed” but instead liberal cities such as Santa Monica and Culver City hired cops from more conservative areas to evaluate their police. 

The content of the CPSM report mattered so little that City Manager Nachbar, Police Chief Cid, and Council Members Eriksson and Vera confidently put it forward as a refutation of the Solidarity report, because it represented police’s exclusive claim to judge themselves. They gambled that few people, if any, would read it. I did, and I can tell you that the contents, despite being signed by people with Thin Blue Line flags on their Twitter profiles, shamed CCPD.

For example, on pages 96-99, the CPSM report notes that CCPD was in the process of  creating a SWAT team, which was paused at the start of the pandemic. CPSM recommended against resuming this project, noting it would be “a huge burden to the agency” (98). Chief Cid defied this recommendation and, at the height of public concern about police violence, proceeded with this heightened militarization. 

    On page 129 the report mentions that CCPD had given incorrect numbers to the FBI for the Uniform Crime Report because “the Records supervisor did not understand the FBI criteria for Part 1 felony case clearance, which results in artificially high case clearance rate.” CCPD had falsely overstated their ability to solve the most serious crimes. CPSM did not state how far back this went, no one was held accountable, and no retroactive corrections were made.

On pages 34-35, CPSM found that CCPD sent out twice as many officers per call as most departments. When asked about this, Chief Cid explained it was an error created by miscommunication between CCPD and CPSM, but again, there was no accountability or correction. Do these failures represent indifference, incompetence, or sabotage?

During the 2020 reckoning, Culver City’s City Council asked Raimi and Associates, who were already working on the General Plan Update, to conduct a survey on perceptions of public safety in Culver City. The results were complex, because this is a complex issue. However, this survey just measured perceptions. The respondents’ feelings about CCPD do not change the facts, shown by the Attorney General’s Racial Identity Profiling Advisory Board annual reports that it is one of the most biased departments in the state for pulling over, searching, arresting, and using force against people of color.

Substituting opinion for fact is also the primary technique used to justify the conservative Council majority’s ongoing attempt to remove the protected bike lanes from Move Culver City. The City published monthly data on the project and more detailed reports at the middle and end of the year-long pilot. There was no shortage of public information, verified and compiled by City staff and consultants and it all showed that having a dedicated bus lane and a protected bike lane had enhanced the safety, speed, and popularity of public and human-powered transit with little effect on cars. The studies used cell phone data to track every car passing through downtown and found a maximum added delay of four minutes. Not average: maximum.

As the end of the pilot year for Move approached, it was clear all the evidence supported it continuing and expanding. However, Culver Steps developer and landlord Michael Hackman had spent over $600,000 to elect Council Member Dan O’Brien, creating a conservative majority committed to serving those, like Hackman, who blamed Move for increased traffic and diminished business revenues. How could Council Members O’Brien, Eriksson, Vera deliver for their backers when the data unambiguously proved them wrong?

Rather than simply ignore the evidence, they created alternative facts. The City commissioned a public opinion poll on Move, then the conservative Council majority cited it to justify undoing the project. Only Culver City residents were polled, and they represent a small percentage of Move users. It is offensive to put the feelings of the four hundred locals who answered the survey over the facts. It disrespects the City staff and consultants who worked on this project, and wastes the taxpayer money used to pay them. More importantly, it breaches our sense of a shared reality.

Unlike the Warren, Kerner, and other national commissions, the Move opinion poll was intended to destroy consensus, not create it. Rather than bringing people together to make decisions based on an accepted body of evidence, it degrades the status of that evidence. The feelings of a couple of hundred residents are given equal weight to data compiled and evaluated by multiple groups of experts. The poll does not demonstrate that Move is bad; it demonstrates that Move’s critics are misinformed. That proves they should be listened to less, not more.

Opinion polling is rare in Culver City politics, but watch for this substitution of feelings for facts in larger political contexts. A poll about whether Americans consider climate change a threat will tell you how Americans feel about climate change, but it says nothing about whether the climate is changing. City Manager Nachbar and Council Members O’Brien, Eriksson, and Vera are basing major decisions on errors of this type. I don’t know if they are cynics or if they have pulled the wool over their own eyes, but we require and deserve reality-based leadership.