DA declines to charge SMMUSD board member after police investigation

Board member Oscar de la Torre wants an apology from the Santa Monica police. The SMPD says there is no need for one and the investigation was justified.

By Jonathan Friedman / The Malibu Times

Last Thursday, Board of Education member and social activist Oscar de la Torre’s picture was on the front page of a local Santa Monica newspaper next to a headline stating he was under investigation for felony child endangerment. One day later, he was hosting a press conference to announce the District Attorney’s Office had chosen not to file any charges stemming from de la Torre’s alleged role in a racially charged after-school fight between Santa Monica High School students. De la Torre, who has hired an attorney, is now going on the offensive with a demand for an “investigation of the investigator.”

The Santa Monica Police Department conducted a four-month investigation of a fight between a Latino youth and a black youth that took place in an alley 100 yards from the Pico Youth & Family Center, a de la Torre- run facility that offers programs for at-risk youth. The fight was caught on cell phone videos, which were obtained by the SMPD. A 44-page report written by Sgt. Dave Thomas of the SMPD alleged de la Torre failed to intervene early enough in the fight and unlawfully allowed the battle to continue, only intervening once the scuffle had concluded.

But de la Torre told a different story at the press conference. He said he was alerted to the fight when it started, and immediately ran to the scene where approximately 40 people surrounded the two fighters in what he described as a racially charged atmosphere.

During a video that lasts a little under one minute, which de la Torre showed during the press conference, racial slurs can be heard coming from the crowd. De la Torre can be seen apparently attempting to intervene when the fighters both hit the ground (allegations in the police report said he was refereeing). He then backed away when they stood up. When they went to the ground a second time, de la Torre again walked toward the youths, and this time the fight cleared. De la Torre said that after the fight he had the combatants shake hands, and one of them is now a member of the PYFC.

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“I did what a responsible person would do and what I thought was the best that I could do being that I was by myself and being that I had certain information that I knew that things can turn very bad and very ugly with that crowd and in the fight,” de la Torre said. “Fortunately nothing happened that could have happened and fortunately it did not escalate further than what we see in the video, and that both young men were able to have peace afterward.”

De la Torre said one of the two fighters is a known affiliate of a Santa Monica gang. The SMPD also alleged this in its report.

Throughout the years, de la Torre has had conflicts with SMPD officials, including Sgt. Thomas, over policies regarding youth violence intervention and other issues. At the press conference, he demanded an apology from the department, and said if he does not receive one, he will consider “other options.”

Sgt. Jay Trisler, spokesperson for the SMPD, said in a telephone interview that the apology would not be given.

“The way that we look at it, we have a duty to protect the children of the community,” Trisler said. “Information came to us. We investigated it carefully and thoroughly, and after a four-month investigation in which we interviewed witnesses and Mr. de la Torre and doing a search warrant, we felt there was enough information to seek determination by the District Attorney’s Office.”

De la Torre and his attorney, Wilfrido Trivino Perez, carefully avoided a direct accusation of the police for conducting a politically motivated investigation, but they said it was a possibility. De la Torre noted the investigation began shortly after he announced his intention to run for a seat on the City Council (he later decided to seek a third term on the Board of Education). A position on Santa Monica’s governing board would place de la Torre among those in charge of Police Department funding and allow him access to all kinds of information.

“I would think that me being given that type of power based on the track record and the comments that I have heard in the past by certain elements in the Police Department, I think there is some reason to believe that this attack is politically motivated,” he said.

His attorney has submitted a notice to the City of Santa Monica asking for an “investigation of the investigators.” He is also looking into whether there were Fourth Amendment violations in the investigation because, among other issues, highly sensitive documents were “rummaged through” when the search of the PYFC was conducted.

Trisler said there was no political motivation for the investigation.

“The Santa Monica Police Department is an apolitical organization,” he said. “We believe the investigation should have taken place. There was enough information to seek a filing.”

Regarding the District Attorney’s Office declining to file charges, Trisler said, “I don’t think it’s a matter of disagreeing with them. They’re the ones who are going to prosecute the case. We just present the facts and the information of the case.”

This is not the first headline-grabbing conflict de la Torre has had with the SMPD. Five years ago, following a series of racially charged conflicts between black and Latino students that forced Santa Monica High to go into lockdown, de la Torre brought two men on campus that then-Police Chief James Butts and others in the department said were known gang members. They said his bringing the men on campus nearly caused a riot and bothered several black students. De la Torre was nearly arrested that day.

De la Torre said at the time the two men were former gang members who had become successful businessmen. He said he brought them so they could talk about how they got away from gang violence and turned around their lives.

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