Context or Coverup?

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Fellow Democrats,

At their June 17, 2021 meeting, the Culver City Council passed a resolution apologizing for the City’s history of racial discrimination and committing to explore reparations. The vote was 3-2, with Yasmine-Imani McMorrin, Daniel Lee, and Alex Fisch in the majority and Albert Vera Jr. and Göran Eriksson in the minority.

The City then commissioned a Historical Context Study from Architectural Research Group, (ARG) to support the project with professional documentation of relevant aspects of the city’s history. This was presented to the Council March 18, 2024. Vera and Eriksson were part of the majority which voted to accept it. McMorrin abstained. What happened?

In the 2022 election, the balance of power on the Council shifted heavily to the right, with Dan O’Brien joining Vera and Eriksson in a conservative majority, aided by over $600,000 in campaign spending by billionaire landlord and developer Michael Hackman. ARG crafted their report to be acceptable to their ultimate audience: the new Council. They chose to present a story of progress whose blemishes were offensive acts by individuals rather than systemic injustices and which are a thing of the past, potentially calling for amends but definitely not for transformation.

Apparently even this was too much for City staff, who deleted many names from the report, leaving some people described only by their job titles: Mayor, Police Chief, etc. These names include: Michael Tellefson who, while City Attorney during World War II, directed the city’s volunteer air wardens to promote housing segregation as they enforced curfew and lights-out rules; Steven Gourley who, while Mayor in the 1990s, called for the first President Bush to close the US/Mexico border; and Council Members Michael Balkman, James Boulgarides, Ed Wolkowitz, and Albert Vera Senior who, along with Gourley, voted in 1993 to support the Culver City Police Department hiring Timothy Wind, one of the LAPD officers fired for beating Rodney King. Wind’s name was also stricken from the report, although after thousands of articles, dozens of books, and several documentaries it is decidedly too late to protect him.

All these names can be easily found online. They are in the archives of the Los Angeles Times, Culver City’s local papers, the City’s own records, and recent writing by John Kent and myself. Most of these sources are cited in the draft Historical Context Study. 

There is a park named for Tellefson. The Council Chambers are named for Balkman. Gourley and Wolkowitz are still active in local politics. Albert Vera Jr. was elected to City Council in 2020 on the slogan “A Legacy of Leadership.” The City cannot address its legacy of injustice without identifying how it has been passed on and to whom.

For example, the Historical Context Study is clear that, once overt racial housing segregation in the form of redlining and restrictive covenants was banned, it was replaced by de facto segregation in the form of single-family zoning. Because family wealth is unequally distributed racially, due in part to historic housing segregation, requiring people to qualify for a seven-figure mortgage to live in most of Culver City effectively perpetuates segregation. However, council members Vera and Eriksson have opposed every attempt to end exclusionary zoning. How can the City begin to repair harm while continuing to inflict it?

Ted Cooke’s name was also among those stricken from the report. He was the City’s longest-serving Police Chief, from 1976 to 2003. The report includes an anonymized account of him sexually harassing employees. It does not mention his practice of giving concealed carry permits to celebrities, including Robert Blake, who later shot and killed his wife, or that he ran a private security company which enabled him to give extra work to favored officers and was a perfect vehicle for local people to pay for more (or less) police attention.

However, talking about individual corruption can be a distraction from addressing systemic discrimination. It is relatively simple to identify and compensate the victims of Cooke’s sexual harassment and to train City staff in appropriate workplace behavior. It is much more complex to measure and correct the harm his department did and continues to do.

During Cooke’s tenure Culver City police were known for targeting Black and Brown drivers in what is called racial profiling, pretextual stops, or DWB (Driving While Black). This reputation persists, as confirmed by a survey conducted in 2020 by Raimi & Associates, the City’s General Plan consultants. In the 1980s CCPD officers, speaking at the Senior Center, described this as “shaking and baking” “suspected gang members.” In other words, they harassed people who “don’t look like they belong here.” While police have become less candid about these acts of explicit bias, the department continues this practice and attempts to justify it through regular press releases with photos of tables covered with drugs and weapons confiscated during pretextual stops. Their intended message is that racial profiling keeps us safe. This has continued without pause since Cooke’s era, as almost any issue of the local free papers will demonstrate.

In 2020, responding to nationwide calls for public safety reform after the police murders of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, and many others, the City commissioned two studies of policing: a descriptive one by the Center for Public Safety Management and an analytic one by Solidarity Consulting. Additional studies of CCPD pay and of the demographics and impacts of misdemeanor arrests were conducted by two UCLA research groups: the Criminal Justice Program and Million Dollar Hoods. The Solidarity Consulting recommendations were ignored, as was the UCLA work. Only the CPSM report was linked from the CCPD website. However, Chief Manny Cid made some gestures towards reform, including ending pretextual stops for minor equipment violations and having CCPD begin participating in the State Attorney General’s Racial Identity Profiling Advisory (RIPA) Board’s reporting process several years ahead of schedule. The Historical Context Study ends by celebrating these decisions, along with the elections of the City’s first two African-American City Council Members: Daniel Lee and Yasmine-Imani McMorrin, as signs that the City has decisively moved on from its racist past.

Unfortunately, that is not what happened. The report does not mention that, during the summer of 2020, the Culver City Police Officers Association assessed each of its members $450 to hire Public Safety Association Consultants to fight reform. They produced online videos attacking activists including local historian John Kent (whose work is cited in the Historical Context Study), School Board President Kelly Kent, and UCLA Law Professor Noah Zatz. Later that year they erected the city’s first-ever political billboards and sent out mailers, both of which featured progressive candidates Freddy Puza and Yasmine-Imani McMorrin with red “X”s over their faces. Candidates Vera and Eriksson were the beneficiaries of this threatening negative campaigning against the city’s first openly LGBTQ+ and Black female Council candidates.

As part of the 2020 social justice reckoning, the City added a Rethinking Public Safety element to its General Plan update. I had the honor of working on this task force, alongside MacArthur Fellow Kelly Lytle-Hernandez, filmmaker Joy Kecken (The Wire, Kindred), and other notable community members. The draft element we produced was tossed aside by a 3-2 Council vote this spring, with no discussion of its contents. Vera, Eriksson, and O’Brien were the majority, Puza and McMorrin the minority.

Cid’s decision to formally end some pretextual stops was reversed by his successor Jason Sims in late 2023, with the support of Council Members Vera, Eriksson, and O’Brien. The Historical Context Study’s happy ending was undone before the draft was even submitted. If ending pretextual stops was a landmark of racial justice, what does that make those responsible for resuming them? This change was not only formally reversed; it never really happened. Cid’s order was only a facade to deflect criticism. It had no measurable effect. The RIPA data shows that, regardless of the policy on pretextual stops, CCPD has consistently been one of the worst departments in the state for disproportionately stopping, searching, arresting, and using force on people of color.

The draft Historical Context Study protects those responsible for past injustices and denies that present ones exist, allowing our city’s shameful legacy to continue. We deserve better.