SANTA MONICA — Nancy Greenstein was alarmed to learn a few months ago that a serial rapist was on the loose in her neighborhood, the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica.
She was just as alarmed by the way she found out--not from the police, but from a friend who learned about the rapist on the TV news.
"A rapist was loose in my neighborhood and nobody told me," she said.
Greenstein blamed the Santa Monica police for failing to advise her of the danger and, afterward, for having to be prodded into conducting a community meeting to discuss the issue with frightened residents.
The police say they used the media to inform the public and delayed only until they had reason to believe that the two rapes, which occurred 10 days apart, had been committed by the same person.
Nonetheless, Greenstein said, the handling of the rape issue is one of several incidents leading her to conclude something is missing in the relationship between Santa Monica residents and their police force. That is why she is supporting an effort by Mayor Judy Abdo to form a task force on public safety to explore police-community relations.
Greenstein brings some expertise to the subject: In her job as public safety coordinator for the city of West Hollywood, she has been working to promote community policing, which she describes as a partnership in which residents have a say in how they are policed.
"Community policing is where everybody is going now," Greenstein said. "Santa Monica really isn't (in step)."
It is not yet clear what the mission of Abdo's task force would be. Though Abdo denies it, some residents say they think it represents an initial step toward civilian review of the city's well-regarded Police Department.
That is the direction being sought by members of the city's Commission on the Status of Women. Commission member Irene Zivi said people are too intimidated to complain to the police themselves.
"We need to have a body that is not police (officers) for the citizens to tell their troubles to," Zivi said. "The people on the panel won't wear uniforms and have guns hanging from their belts."
But suspicions are rampant in some segments of the community that Abdo's plan for a public safety task force is a thinly disguised effort to impose the City Council majority's notoriously liberal politics on the police.
"In a nutshell, this is silly and it's politics," said Herb Katz, a former councilman. "They want to control the police."
Councilwoman Asha Greenberg said that having police work with the community is one thing but that meddling is another. "I don't want us to get into the business of lay people telling professionals how to do their job," she said.
Abdo's plan, which is on the council agenda for Tuesday, is the first organized foray into Santa Monica Police Chief James T. Butts' domain. Since arriving almost two years ago, Butts has arguably become the most popular man in town by taking a strong stance against crime--particularly by the homeless--and asking for the laws he needs to keep the city safe.
The chief bluntly told the council that there was a serious drug problem in Palisades Park and that some members of the homeless population were part of it.
He pushed for a law prohibiting living in the parks and immediately enforced the law they passed by arresting several homeless men with long criminal records who had set up housekeeping in the parks. (That law is now the subject of a legal challenge, so is not being used.)
While wanting safe streets, the city's liberal leaders are uneasy with the authoritarian law-and-order mode that a strong chief like Butts represents.
At a time when neighboring cities are clamoring for a higher police presence, some Santa Monicans quietly carp about seeing too many uniformed officers on the Third Street Promenade or at the scene of an incident. Even Butts' sometime practice of wearing a blue patrol uniform to testify at council meetings has caused titters.
Butts is cautious in response to the call for a public safety task force, saying he is not sure what Abdo has in mind. "I would just hope it's recognized you need professionals to make professional judgments on policy issues and deployment," he said.
But the chief did address some of the incidents that Abdo's allies have cited as evidence that the police might be in need of some oversight.
One of Abdo's supporters is Councilman Tony Vazquez. Vazquez said he is constantly getting calls from all areas of the city complaining about the police and how they treat residents.
"People are asking what we are doing to keep the lines of communication open between organizations and individuals who have concerns about the police," Vazquez said.
In one incident, Santa Monica school board member Margaret Franco's 13-year-old son was riding a bicycle near his home when he was stopped by police and patted down for a weapon after the officers saw a bulge in his waistband. The bulge turned out to be a penknife, not the BB gun police said they were looking for.