In the Image sculpture in Santa Monica.
Photo by Mariella Rudi

Is This Santa Monica Watchdog Group Doing More Harm Than Good?

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A controversial Instagram account is calling on the city to clean up its act.

A 7-foot-tall, bearded homeless man landed in the heart of Santa Monica in late November, and no one knew why. Most people knew who put him there — artist and activist Ed Massey dropped the sculptural portrait, titled “In the Image,” at the corner of 26th Street and Wilshire Boulevard.

“Good people — progressive to conservative, secular to religious — are confronted by the issue every day,” the sculpture’s description reads. “Yet, few know the stories of the homeless with whom we come in contact. What don’t we know of those we pass without a glance? What could be their potential contributions? What does the sculpture evoke or say about us?”

The Instagram watchdog group @SantaMonicaProblems wants to fill in some of the blanks.

Before most news outlets got the chance, the social media account blasted the figure to its 16,000 followers, quick to point out not what it represented but what it replaced — a sculpture of a family frolicking and holding hands at the fore of the historic Millard Sheets “Pleasures Along the Beach” mosaic.

This juxtaposition between well-to-do families next to the sick and dying is the kind of content @SantaMonicaProblems thrives on. The account reports on “crime, news and other issues plaguing the City of Santa Monica” on Twitter and Instagram. One swipe is an emotional seesaw, leaping from funny to grotesque to insensitive to bone-chilling. The account features images of hypodermic needles, defecation, encampments, individuals having mental breakdowns, public intoxication and reports of breaking and entering.

Created in March by a frustrated native, @SantaMonicaProblems has evolved into an underground team of researchers, video editors and community managers digging up crime reports and interviewing first-hand sources.

Thanos himself, a.k.a. actor Josh Brolin, threw his weight behind the account when he reposted @SantaMonicaProblems’ response to getting blocked by Santa Monica City Council member Ted Winterer on Twitter. “It appears that Santa Monica City council member, Ted Winterer, did not enjoy the photos and videos of open meth use, people shooting up in our parks, public defecation/urination and various other issues plaguing Santa Monica that were tweeted at him,” the post read. “We can assure you, Ted, that Santa Monica residents don’t enjoy seeing these things in our city either, but ignoring it on social media, and blocking your constituents will not make it go away.”

For years, social media has been used to raise public awareness around the homeless experience in Los Angeles. These efforts have usually featured stylized portraits accompanied by a sobering quote from the homeless subject, all to “give a voice to the voiceless.” Today, it seems the online community has grown weary of virtue signaling and latched onto something more loaded, more partisan, more angry.

The Santa Monica account and its contemporaries like @StreetPeopleOfLosAngeles and @LAHoodLife represent a trend in content that documents the homeless experience in unsympathetic, sometimes hostile tones.

Engagement is high. Comments border on NIMBYisms and Make L.A. Great Again rhetoric, but scapegoating city officials is the most common thread. Language has become increasingly aggressive both on and offline, marked by a swell in anti-homeless violence and harassment across the city.

At a glance, it’s easy to dismiss @SantaMonicaProblems as exploitative, conflating crime with the homeless and using hyperbolic, inflammatory imagery and text to support the reinforcement bubble that Santa Monica has gone to hell in a sand bucket. Just look at their highlights section featuring collections titled “Da Pier🎡,” “Da Promenade🛍️” and “Poop💩.” But talking with an account manager — who some would call the enemy — reveals an even-keeled, informed and tenacious intent behind the daily social media efforts.

For a beach city with more than half a dozen local newspapers, it’s this nimble, omnipresent Instagram account that’s reclaimed the narrative, generating news tips and fanfare from thousands to raise public awareness and hold city leaders accountable.

@SantaMonicaProblems agreed to talk to Los Angeleno on the condition of anonymity and over DMs out of safety concerns. “I get threats daily, so I have to lay low … the less people know about me, the better,” they say.

Your account is growing every day, gaining more followers and tags and mentions by the minute. Why do you think the public has latched onto your account? Is it citizen journalism? Or an outlet for the everyday frustrations and anxieties of life on the Westside?

The local media leaves a lot to be desired, and some of this is due to their inability to report because of police scanner encryption. They simply don’t know when crimes are taking place. Now, when major events take place, such as the bomb scare, we find that people reach out seeking information or they provide information, including footage while on the scene. It’s as though we now have eyes and ears all over the city. This has become a forum for others to receive and share information in a city that is really lacking transparency, but we also have followers all over the world now who are simply shocked at the state of things.

What can people expect when they hit that follow button?

Local news, information regarding crime and local criminals, some shocking videos or photos and maybe some comic relief.

What’s the mission of @santamonicaproblems?

While initially, it was to bring awareness to the issues residents are facing daily, it has evolved into a source of information for crime and other incidents that are not reported by local media. Due to the City of Santa Monica encrypting Santa Monica Police Department and Santa Monica Fire Department scanners, information about crimes that are occurring has been scarce. What information we do receive has been carefully selected by SMPD’s public informationdepartment.

With the help of multiple team members, followers who report incidents when they see them and a few sources in certain agencies, we are able to provide information that otherwise would never reach the local media.

How is your content produced? Is it mainly user-submitted?

Most of what you see is user-submitted, while some of the content is produced by our team. The reports on local criminals and their backgrounds are all done by us and actually take quite a bit of researching. However, sometimes we will hear of an incident from a follower, check the arrest logs to learn of the individual and begin researching them from there. We also post reports from other social media platforms such as NextDoor, Ring and Citizen as these often provide first-hand accounts of crimes that we wouldn’t have otherwise known about (for instance, burglaries).

Your page functions as a kind of modern-day crime blotter. Do you see the account as a public service?

Yes, because there have been multiple times that followers have messaged to express appreciation for having seen a familiar face from our account who they immediately knew to avoid, or were then able to alert the police. The fact is that our officers can only do so much. They arrest these criminals, but due to [lax crime laws, among other things], they’re back out [on] the street, in most cases, within days. This includes violent criminals. I feel that [with the Instagram account], we are all a little safer, can be alerted to a crime that’s occurring around us and recognize someone who has a documented history of crime and shouldn’t be on our streets in the first place.

What do you see as the most pressing issues facing Santa Monica today?

There are a lot of issues that are to blame for our current situation. One of the most pressing issues that we are facing is crime. We have experienced a 136% increase in violent crime, and a 64% increase in Part I crime over the course of only five years in Santa Monica (according to the FBI Unified Crime Report). But this isn’t the full picture as there are many crimes that go unreported by residents or that we don’t hear about due to Santa Monica’s decision to encrypt our police scanners. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for media to report on major crime events. This also creates a lot of alarm and misinformation when whole city blocks are on lockdown and helicopters are circling overhead, but no one knows why.

Then you have Prop 47, which was passed in 2014 and reduced many felonies to misdemeanors. This is why you see so much theft in our city. The property stolen has to be more than $950 for [it to be considered] grand theft, otherwise, it’s petty larceny and is typically only a citation. This also allows narcotics for personal use, which is why we see so much open meth smoking and folks shooting up heroin. Then, Prop 57 released certain felons from prison. Add to that AB 109, which transferred certain felony offenders from prison to county jails, that are now at capacity. This is why you’ll see someone get arrested, sentenced to 180 days, but get released the next day. The result of all of this is what you’re seeing in Santa Monica — criminals who commit crimes over and over again, with little to no consequences, who are terrorizing our city.

Of course, crime isn’t the only issue. We also have mental health and addiction issues, which, along with a criminal vagrant issue, are all being incorrectly defined as homelessness issues. Absolutely some level of homelessness is due to the high cost of living, but those are the individuals who don’t want to be on the streets, have no issues with drugs or mental illness and (unless disabled) would be able to hold a job. Then you have many wandering the street who are so out of their minds either due to drugs or mental illness, who need proper treatment if they’re ever expected to function in society or be independent. However, our city believes that putting these individuals in a free apartment will solve their problems.

Then, we have Martin v. City of Boise which determined that “homelessness” isn’t a crime, and our city has interpreted to the extreme. As mentioned, we don’t have a simple “I can’t pay my rent” homelessness problem, but [rather] crime, mental illness and drug addiction problems. We should be able to enforce anti-loitering laws, break up a bike chop shop in the middle of a park or enforce rules against smoking in public places, especially when it’s meth.

However, there’s so much concern for violating this case precedent when enforcing anything against a person if they’re “unhoused.” Crimes are crimes and we need to be treating them as such, regardless of who is committing them.

And what kind of solutions are you advocating for?

Repeal Prop 47 and AB 109. Start enforcing quality of life laws. The increase in the homeless in Santa Monica has more to do with individuals coming here for the weather, lax laws and a criminal-friendly lifestyle, and less to do with increases in rent. We need to work to get these individuals back to their families or friends who can help them turn their lives around (organizations like West Coast Cares have been very successful with this). Otherwise, they’ll continue living on our streets, doing drugs and committing crimes. [We need to] divert resources from those in our area who have truly fallen on hard times and need these services.

We also need new city leaders. Our current ones have been in control far too long and are notorious for excessive spending on pet projects that don’t address crime and safety (such as $800 million approved for combating global warming, just in Santa Monica). They also care more about image than truly cleaning up our city, having reportedly spent $8 million on a public relations firm.

[Editor’s Note: The city’s public information officer said this number was a mischaracterization of what the council approved on March 26, 2019 for “communications and outreach contracts,” seen in this staff report. It’s not money spent, but what could be spent. Contracts were given to 15 firms to potentially do work with the City, amounting to $2,610,000 for two years, with three additional one-year renewal options.]

Any hints as to who is behind @SantaMonicaProblems?

The account was initially started by a resident who has watched the city change for the worse and wants to see law and order restored. It has now grown into a team of several residents who all want to see the state of our city improve. We range in ages from late-20s to late-40s. One person is in the film industry, but the rest of us are just self-taught. They mostly help with gathering information and researching as those are the most time-consuming. I’d rather not say how many people if possible, because I’d like to keep the city guessing.

This interview has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.

It’s no secret that homelessness in Los Angeles has soared in the last five years, deeply impacting our city and daily lives. While solutions for the homeless epidemic are still up in the air, one thing is certain: we won’t solve the problem without working together. This is why L.A. Taco and Los Angeleno have partnered to share untold stories behind these issues in a month-long series that both shines a light on covert ugly actions from our fellow Angelenos and gives a voice to the voiceless.

Hundreds of Illegal Sidewalk Planters are Still Displacing the Homeless in L.A., 6 Months After the City Council Said They Would Investigate – L.A. Taco

Surviving for Two: Pregnant and Homeless in L.A. – Los Angeleno

Are Vigilante Groups on Facebook to Blame for the Spike in Violence Against the Homeless? – L.A. Taco

From Haircuts to Skill-Building Workshops, ProjectQ Fills in the Gaps for Homeless LGBTQ Teens – Los Angeleno

He Once Slept Outside an L.A. Church, Now He’s Their Top Chef – Los Angeleno

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