Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Schools, not investigations - The felonious minute & the newsless news conference

I've seen my share of schoolyard fights in my years as a student and working with young people. After watching the video, I didn't think the scrap that took place in the alley between Lincoln Boulevard and Seventh Street near Santa Monica High School on March 16 was anything special — and certainly not anything a city that lost $7 million in school funding should spend time and money investigating.

Nobody seems to have thought this thing all the way through before rushing headlong into a course of action that put the Santa Monica Police Department in direct conflict with the city-funded Pico Youth & Family Center, where School Board member Oscar de la Torre is executive director and behind which the fight took place. Because of that, both sides come out looking foolish. And the real losers are the amazing young people the SMPD and the PYFC are supposed to be protecting and serving.

Somehow, footage of this minute-long, one round bout motivated the Santa Monica Police Department to conduct an investigation into the actions of de la Torre, who eventually broke up the fight and got the student-antagonists to shake hands. Based on the findings of that investigation, the SMPD chose to refer the case to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office for felony child endangerment charges against de la Torre for "fail(ing) [in] his duty to take some action, verbal or otherwise, to prevent the physical endangerment." With that, our local police department decreed that there is no such thing as an "innocent" bystander while pioneering the mind-numbing legal concept of the felonious minute of inaction.

I thought nothing would match the rank stupidity and pointlessness of that investigation until I attended de la Torre's "news conference" last Friday. Knowing that the DA was not going to bring charges against him, de la Torre and his attorney, Wilfredo Perez, told a gathering of reporters and supporters that the investigation was a giant waste of city resources — and immediately called for another investigation into the original investigation in order to determine the motives of the investigators. Also, they'd like an apology from the city. I could have sworn I saw a giant Chicano chip resting on their shoulders as they spoke.

The investigation itself makes our police look petty. The report presented to the DA describes de la Torre as a suspect and attempts to portray one of the two kids trying to hurt each other as a victim — of de la Torre. His supposed offense was that for about one minute, he "merely observes the fight without intervention, and watches the fight develop, continue, and escalate in its injury risk potential." Video footage of the fight shows any of a number of people who would also fit that description, yet de la Torre was singled out. Our police department's official position is that de la Torre (the man who actually mediated and made peace) should have stepped in one minute sooner. The argument is that de la Torre, who left his office when he heard a fight was going on outside, somehow had "de facto care/custody" of one of the young brawlers (for whom he is a mentor) and should have stopped the fight immediately in order to protect that kid from harm. Because he didn't, his minute of inaction constitutes a felony offense. Perhaps if he had stepped in after 30 seconds, it would only be a misdemeanor. We'll never know where that line is drawn.

The video and "news conference" made de la Torre look vindictive. He was totally vindicated, his name was about to be cleared, and he was in possession of a moral high ground that a freedom fighting community activist almost never gets to occupy. Yet he used the Pico Youth & Family Center as a set and the young people who use the center as props as he defended himself against charges that aren't being brought, bemoaned political conspiracy that doesn't exist, and aired grievances and grudges that can't be considered "news." And, of course, he wants another investigation.

It's clear from reading the report that lead investigator, Sgt. Dave Thomas, takes issue with some of de la Torre's stated views on conflict resolution and de la Torre takes issue with the role police sometimes play in criminalizing typical teenage rebellion in black and brown kids. It's also clear that a schism existed between these two long before March 16. It's a shame that neither of them was man enough to use this incident as an opportunity to teach our young people how to de-escalate (as opposed to escalate) tension.

My favorite family-friendly metaphor for this kind of thing is wrestling with pigs. They say you shouldn't wrestle with a pig because: 1) you get all dirty and 2) the pig loves it. Apparently these guys have been going at it for a decade and neither one seems to recognize that he needs the other. But with a multi-million-dollar shortfall to make up for the sake of Santa Monica's schoolchildren, our city can't afford to pay for these two pigs to play in the mud.


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