Cynthia Renaud has served as the police chief in Santa Monica, California since May 2018. She spent the first 20 years of her career with the Long Beach, California Police Department and served as police chief in Folsom, California from 2011-2018. Chief Renaud spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about COVID-19, demonstrations, looting, and police reform.

Chuck Wexler: How has COVID-19 impacted your department and your community?

Chief Renaud: When COVID-19 hit, the city shut down and businesses shut down.  There were a number of layoffs throughout various city departments. The budget cuts, fellow employees getting laid off, and the city shutdown really creates an odd aura in a city like ours, which, on any given day, normally has about 250,000 people in it because of tourism. Suddenly driving around and seeing no people has a bit of a psychological impact. For police officers in particular, especially in the early days of COVID when so little was known about it, the health scare was different. Police officers are accustomed to coming to work every day knowing that we put ourselves in danger and might get hurt or not go home that evening. But for the first time, we were faced with an enemy that we might bring home to our family members, including spouses, children, and elderly parents. It was really difficult to make sure I was keeping the department safe, so that they felt they were keeping their families safe. 

We did several things. We contracted with hotels in the area in case we had an officer who was exposed or contracted it. We set up trailers at the airport for officers who didn’t think they’d been exposed or had contracted the virus, but did not want to go home between their workdays. We completely changed our deployment model. We put everyone into patrol pods, with the same sergeant and officers working together every day. We physically deployed them from different spots throughout the city. They had cars assigned to them that were washed and cleaned every day, and we gave them as much equipment as possible to keep them as safe as possible. Even with that, there was a struggle with morale in the organization. 

We’ve now gotten into some sort of a rhythm. We have people here who have been exposed and have quarantined. We have people who have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered. We’ve had no deaths from the disease.

As with everyone worldwide, we’re getting a little better at living with this every day until we can find a solution.

Wexler: Have you learned lessons during this first phase of the pandemic that will help you if there’s a second phase?

Chief Renaud:  I do think we’ve learned lessons in the first phase that will help us. We have a deployment model and template. We have identified best practices for keeping equipment clean and sterilized, and for segregating work teams from each other. 

We’re currently working to be as proactive as possible with getting people to take their flu shots and do what they can to protect their health leading into the winter months. 

Wexler: Tell us about the demonstrations and looting you had in Santa Monica.

Chief Renaud:  We really had the convergence of multiple separate events in our city on May 31. The first was those protests, like we’ve seen nationwide after the death of George Floyd. Most of the protesters were very loud and expressing themselves, but they were doing so without violence. We had several protests occurring in our city, with hundreds of people at multiple locations. 

At one location in particular, individuals within that protest incited violence. They attacked our police officers. They threw rocks and bottles, chunks of concrete, and incendiary devices. The officers needed to work to quell that violence, and that took some time. Those are the things that we’ve seen nationwide, and that we’re equipped and trained to handle.

What took us some time to adjust to was the massive influx of vehicles into our city. There were cars riding in caravans, rented cars from out of state, and people from out of the area and the state who communicated and coordinated through social media, texting, and meeting in parking lots to set plans. They were highly mobile and highly coordinated, and they came into the city with the intention of going anywhere the police were not, in order to commit massive acts of commercial burglary. It took us time to free up our resources, because there were protests and violence associated with the protests. 

Through the mutual aid system, by the afternoon we had about 325 officers in the city, along with our police department fully deployed. With the help of the LAPD airship, which gave us situational awareness overhead, we were able to interdict, stop the looting, and get it pushed out of the city. But it took time and our city suffered greatly that day. 

After that tactic left us, it went to Long Beach. It’s the same tactic that hit Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke about the influx of cars and vans, riding in caravans, targeting stores, and going anywhere the police were not. So that tactic has occurred in other cities that struggled with it the same way Santa Monica did. And there were about 20 more cities in California that had protests, rioting, and looting on May 31. On June 1, nine of those cities were struck again. The Santa Monica Police Department made 48 arrests on June 1, and we stayed in a tactical deployment mode until June 8. 

We’ve been working with protests in the city and handled other situations that could have potentially turned into looting but did not, because of  what we learned from May 31st

Wexler:  Were there connections between the groups looting in different cities?

Chief Renaud:  They were absolutely connected, which we know through the criminal cases that we’ve made since May 31. Many of the same suspects who hit our city immediately went down to Long Beach and looted there. They simply looked for opportunistic places where police were occupied with securing the rights of peaceful protesters and violence from those protests. They went to any location in the city where our officers were not present.

Wexler:  Did the people you arrested for looting have extensive criminal records, or were they opportunists?

Chief Renaud: It’s a mix of both. Some certainly have extensive criminal records. Some have gang affiliations. But there were also those who were caught up in the moment.

Wexler:  Why are you bringing in an outside entity to conduct an after-action report?

Chief Renaud: I have two reasons for that. First, my community, my department, and I want this after-action report done as quickly as possible. The Santa Monica Police Department is the leanest model of a police department that I’ve seen, with 52% sworn and 48% civilian staff. So all my folks have collateral duties. We were in a tactical deployment until June 8 and have had additional protests and incidents since then, so we’ve been overstaffing and have all been working out in the field. I don’t have the staff to sit down and get this report written.

Most after-actions take about a year to produce. If you look at the Woolsey Fire, Los Angeles County hired someone and it took one year to get that report. When Stockton had their Bank of the West robbery, pursuit, and shooting, they hired someone and it took one year and one month to produce that report. So these reports take time.  And we had hundreds of police officers in the city that day, each of whom has a piece of the story. Every piece needs to be collected in order to produce the after-action. 

We also have 207 hours of footage from 800 body-worn cameras and police cameras; 2,100 hours of footage from 150 stationary cameras located throughout the city; 630 hours of footage from 45 traffic cameras; 77 gigabytes of video that has been submitted by the public; 14 hours of radio traffic; 729 recorded calls for service; and the list goes on. All that has to be reviewed and matched up with officers’ use-of-force reports and arrest citations. It is a massive amount of work, and we don’t have the staff time to get it done.

Secondarily, I think the independence and objectiveness that comes from an outside group are invaluable in this moment.

Wexler:  What reforms have been implemented in Santa Monica this summer?

Chief Renaud:  A reform committee was created separate from the events of May 31, in response to nationwide cries for police reforms. Santa Monica has long been known as a progressive city, so this was an issue that our city was going to take on quickly. 

We will be looking at our use-of-force policy. Separately, our city council called for an 11-member police engagement and accountability commission. It will be a standing commission whose members will be appointed by the city council. We have until mid-January to craft and bring forward an ordinance for city council consideration. We’re looking closely at Pasadena, which is a neighboring city that just implemented their own 11-member commission. We’ll combine that with the recommendations of the reform advisory committee, and we will bring recommendations that we think will work, are appropriate, meet the needs of the community, and are beneficial to the organization.

Oversight and advisory committees are an important part of Police Department’s connections with the community. When I was in Long Beach, Chief Anthony Batts formed an advisory committee that was a very positive communication and engagement effort. So I’ve worked with these before, and there are benefits and connections that can be made in both directions. In Santa Monica we’re working through the details, and it’ll be months before we know exactly what it will look like. 

Wexler:  Have you had budget cuts?

Chief Renaud:  Due to COVID-19, we lost positions in the Police Department due to attrition in almost all our categories. We reduced our budget by about $3.5 million. 

Nationwide there are some who talk about “defunding” police departments. The discussion here in our city council really rests on the idea of “divesting to invest” – considering if and where funds can be moved to support other programs that contribute to the city’s overall well-being, which then translates to public safety.

Out of the reform advisory committee and with council support, we’re looking at alternate dispatch models, most prominently known as the 3-1-1 call dispatch system, to determine if there are other community needs that can be addressed by someone other than a sworn police officer.

The budget implications out of this reform advisory committee won’t be decided until January. But I don’t think communities want less police or less safety. They want well-trained, professional police officers who are connected with their communities and serve in such a way that people feel safe when they walk, entertain, work, live, and play.

So I don’t know what form it will take here in Santa Monica, but my recommendations will all be geared towards what keeps our community and visitors safe. 

Wexler:  Have you seen an increase in resignations and retirements?

Chief Renaud:  I have not seen an increase. I’m having retirements, but they seem to be consistent with time in the profession and people’s plans.

But officers feel unsupported in this moment. They feel they’ve given the better part of their lives to serving the public, and they hang their heads right now because of the rhetoric.

At the same time, I went to lunch yesterday in the city, and as I was sitting outside I had three separate people stop me to thank my team for what we do. One gentleman told me he had goosebumps just thinking of what we do, and I could literally see the goosebumps when I looked at his arm. Another gentleman said we wrote him a traffic ticket three days before, and he still loves us. I hope it’s like this in every other police department. 

Wexler:  What’s it like to be a police chief right now? How does it compare to other points in your career? 

Chief Renaud:  I have had a terrific career, and I’m so fortunate for that. That terrific career has been punctuated by very challenging leadership times. 

With that said, every fiber of what I’ve been exposed to and learned is being drawn upon now to try to successfully lead this department and this city through this crisis. One of these days, I’ll look back and see mistakes I made and know how to fix them. But right now, every day is a new day and I try to do better than the day before, because there is no road map for the crisis we’re in right now. We’re creating this as we go, and it’s tough.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.