City, county and state officials, representatives from local law enforcement, CalTrans and stakeholders, met on November 14th at Malibu City Hall for the Emergency PCH Task Force Meeting to discuss the implementation of immediate emergency safety strategies on PCH after the October 17th crash that killed four Pepperdine students.
While the meeting started with positive, forward momentum, the result of the meeting was a cautionary message of the many roadblocks in the pursuit of PCH safety driven by incompetence and ego-driven political maneuvering.
The meeting follows an emergency ordinance designed to expedite safety on PCH, passed by Malibu City Council on November 13th.
“SAFETY IS OUR TOP PRIORITY”
State Assembly woman Jacqui Irwin opened the meeting with a moment of silence for Niamh Rolston, Peyton Stewart, Asha Weir and Deslyn Williams, who attended Seaver College at Pepperdine. The young women perished as a result of a speeding vehicle driven by Fraser Bohm, 22, of Malibu, that crashed into multiple vehicles, one of which flipped and crushed the four young women.
Senator Ben Allen discussed the tragic deaths and a recent crash involving Malibu resident Lance Simmens who was recently injured, and expected to recover, while cycling on PCH.
Allen also spoke of the horrific crash that killed Emily Shane in 2010, while he was a member of the school board.
Thirteen year old Emily Rose Shane was struck and killed walking home along the right shoulder of PCH near Heathercliff Drive. Sina Khankhanian, then 26, was driving a 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer erratically for several miles on PCH prompting numerous 911 calls detailing near misses due to his reckless driving before killing Shane at 5:11 p.m.
Since Shane’s tragic death, 58 others have been killed on PCH.
Senator Allen explained the potential for the portion PCH that runs through Malibu, to benefit from legislation AB43 passed in 2021, allowing for the lowering of speed limits on state highways.
According to Allen, CalTrans is currently revising its vehicle code to comply with AB43 by which local jurisdictions can apply for “Safety Corridor Designation” under the bill.
“At Caltrans, safety is our top priority” Caltrans Director Tony Tavares posted on Twitter on November 7th from the California Traffic Safety Summit hosted by the Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) and the American Automobile Association (AAA).
“Gathering with our safety partners is a big part of how we keep that message front and center. Each of us has the same goal – to make sure all CA travelers get to where they need to go – safely.” Tavares said.
However, CalTrans has consistently pushed back the progress of numerous projects designed to improve PCH safety.
For example, the Signal Synchronization Project, which is designed to control the flow of traffic and mitigate speeding on PCH, took seven years to get CalTrans approval and will likely take two years or more to complete.
During the PCH Task Force meeting, Deputy district director Rafael Molina cautioned the possibility of AB43’s lowering of speed limits on PCH would be accomplished only “if there is an opportunity.”
If being the operative word and a disappointing one when discussing the urgency of implementing safety measures, specifically the reduction in speed on PCH, to prevent tragedies like the one that took four lives last month.
POLITICS PLAYS A ROLE IN PILOT PROGRAM
On October 13, 2023, Governor Gavin Newsom signed bill AB645 into effect, a new state law allowing a pilot program in six cities, including Los Angeles, Glendale and Long Beach, to install speed cameras.
While PCH is considered one of the most dangerous stretches of highways in the country, it was excluded from being considered for the pilot program due to political reasons according to Senator Allen, prompting he and Assemblywoman Irwin to co-author a similar bill “narrowly tailored” to PCH. Allen and Irwin plan to introduce it to the state legislature sometime in January.
Allen promised he and Irwin would use “saavy and tactics” to push the bill through and potentially secure an emergency proclamation if the bill is passed.
Malibu City Council declared a Local Emergency on Nov. 13, 2023, aimed at addressing the risks to public safety of dangerous, illegal, reckless, and/or distracted driving on Pacific Coast Highway in the City.
The city is currently working on strengthening the ordinance legally to have more control over implementing the additional safety measures on PCH without having to rely on CalTrans, who has impeded – even stonewalled – projects in the past.
The City allocates 28.2% of its General Fund, or $16.4 million, to public safety.
To date, the City has invested about $39 million in traffic safety projects on PCH, including safety measures to prevent vehicle crashes and intersection improvements.
An additional $8 million has been set aside for future safety projects.
PRIORITY IS HIGHWAY PATROL
The most reassuring takeaway from the meeting was the city negotiations with CHP to secure an additional three patrol cars beginning in January, with a goal of six total by July of 2024, bolstering much needed additional law enforcement presence on PCH.
Securing CHP services will guarantee additional paid coverage with a primary focus on traffic safety. Something the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department/Lost Hills Station has been unable to do previously under the questionable and unreliable command of Captain Jennifer Seetoo.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Addressing Captain Seetoo at the meeting, Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath commended her “We know you are working closely with the city”.
Unfortunately, Horvath didn’t get the memo detailing the intentional communication breakdown between the station and the city regarding the press conference being held at the Lost Hills Station to update the media and the community regarding the details of the quadruple fatal crash.
Captain Seetoo purposely excluded city officials from Malibu where the devastating crash occurred, showing her level of respect for a contract city that pays LASD for services within the city limits to the tune of $15 million dollars a year.
Malibu Mayor Steve Uhring was outraged City officials were not invited to address the monumental tragedy occurring within their city limits missing an opportunity to address members of the press and the communities affected by the tragedy.
“I was not getting information from the city staff or the Sheriff…we have some communication issues that we need to learn how to deal with with the Sheriff” Mayor Steve Uhring told Malibu Daily News.
Email communication was sent from the Lost Hills Station to the City of Malibu approximately seven minutes before the press conference was to occur at the Lost Hills Station, 19 miles away from Malibu City Hall.
Capt. Seetoo however did manage to give ample notice to multiple PCH safety activists she has aligned with to attend the high profile press conference.
Malibu Daily News was notified by sources at LASD HQ at 9 a.m. that morning a press conference would be occurring at noon.
Captain Seetoo shamelessly plugged (her words verbatim) the Lost Hills Station social media who had been posting relentlessly the speeders cited by deputies, with many of the cars being impounded.
This 180 degree turnaround in enforcement was met with criticism by many residents on social media with the general consensus “Where was the Sheriff’s Department before these young women were killed?”
In 2019, communication was a critical component Captain Seetoo, then a lieutenant at Lost Hills, was in charge of at the station during the first fire season after the devastating Woolsey Fire.
On Thursday, October 10th, 2019, the Wendy Fire, was reported on social media.
Unbeknownst to locals, the efforts to stop the blaze were successful upon its approach to Point Mugu State Park. However, with flames visible in the distance by Decker Canyon residents before 10 p.m., and no guidance from authorities – specifically the Lost Hills Station, or the City of Malibu, as to wind direction and preparation for residents, those living in the canyon with large animals were not taking any chances and making plans to voluntary evacuate on their own.
Anxiety reached a fever pitch with residents posting on social media their concerns over the flames visible from the Wendy Fire, and smoke filling the canyons from different directions. The City of Malibu sent out only one alert at 8:23 p.m., and no further updates as flames became more visible from canyons looking down the coastline.
Lt. Seetoo was contacted multiple times regarding updates as there was no information from the station posted on social media. She stated there were no fires in the canyon and that the smoke was coming from fires burning in the San Fernando Valley. Malibu Daily News strongly suggested to Lt. Seetoo that the station needs to post updates to calm residents who were anticipating evacuations based on the smoke filling the air in the canyons.
After three solid days of failing to update the community, photos of the station’s Twitter account was sent directly to then-Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The posts clearly showed the blatant failure to communicate with residents during a critical time and the first fire season after Woolsey. Shortly after, Lt. Seetoo was transferred to the West Hollywood station.
Even more startling is that Captain Seetoo was Acting Captain of the station during the Woolsey Fire and had full knowledge and hands-on experience witnessing the magnitude and the destructions these wildfires cause, and yet she still failed to take control of the situation during the first fire season after Woolsey.
Villanueva took the issue very seriously and mandated station personnel to go through social media training. In 2020, Lt. Chuck Becerra was promoted to Captain taking command of the Lost Hills station. Becerra contacted Malibu Daily News to help facilitate introductions with key members in the community who could help with emergency preparedness and assistance developing a better overall messaging strategy to reach more residents during a disaster or critical incident.
A comprehensive social media plan was devised including tagging all local media at the end of every emergency post to ensure the messaging was reached as many residents as possible (the same strategy was also suggested to Villanueva for LASD HQ social media. An internal power struggle stopped it dead in its dead tracks, which is unfortunate as it would have been viewed as an olive branch to the press which was much needed at the time).
The strategy was successfully implemented at the station level and continued until The Current Report and Malibu Daily News articles exposed Sheriff Luna’s failures at the department and Captain Seetoo’s failures under command of the Lost Hills station. Shortly after the articles were published, The Local Malibu and Malibu Daily News social media accounts were excluded from all Lost Hills Station emergency posts.
Including the post notifying the community of the October 17th crash that killed the four young women.
A purposeful (and retaliatory) act, not in the best interests of the safety of the community and contrary to the statement Captain Seetoo made at the PCH Task Force meeting:
“We must do this together as a community. We must do this together to save lives.” she said
During the meeting, Captain Seetoo talked about the social media campaign addressing speeders and reckless drivers which includes the hashtags #ArriveAlive and #SlowDown
A few days after the crash on PCH, Malibu Daily News was notified about a post on social media for a Malibu Search and Rescue fundraiser. The post showed the canning process of a special edition beer with the Malibu Search and Rescue logo and custom artwork of LASD Rescue 5 helicopter promoting the collaboration between Malibu Search & Rescue and a local alcohol company.
Malibu Search and Rescue is under the command of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and reports directly to Captain Seetoo at the Lost Hills Station. One of their primary functions is to rescue victims from rural or difficult areas to access. Most rescues are performed in the Santa Monica Mountains as a result of vehicles over the side of the canyons – many of the incidents are alcohol related.
This collaboration should have stopped at the station level, by the Captain. Instead it made its way to the canning process and all over social media. An embarrassment for the law enforcement agency tasked with arresting drivers under the influence.
Upon learning of the inappropriate collaboration and timing of this collaboration, Malibu Daily News reached out to Sheriff Luna, Division Chief Dennis Kneer and copied Captain Seetoo.
The Malibu Search and Rescue fundraiser was planned for the weekend just days after the crash that killed the Pepperdine students, at Malibu Creek State Park located on Malibu Canyon/Las Virgenes Road. The fundraiser was to include a beer garden, serving the beer with Malibu Search and Rescue insignia on the cans effectively allowing people to consume alcohol and leave the event traveling on the canyon road intoxicated, potentially get into an accident or worse.
A complaint was filed and the beer garden was effectively cancelled.
SAFETY AND SUPPORT
Even more concerning is the line staff at the Lost Hills station who are overburdened and feeling under supported by Captain Seetoo.
This makes it very very difficult to get the quality of service the city pays for, let alone additional resources to improve safety on PCH. While Captain Seetoo boasted about the increase in citations and impounds since the crash, residents are weary the enforcement will be sustainable… and rightly so.
In a recent review by the union that represents LASD deputies, these were some of the comments made about Captain’s Seetoo’s leadership at the station:
“Too busy trying to please the cities and get promoted. Doesn’t know or care about her deputies.”
“The Captain caters to contract cities which causes a strain on the line. We are running short, yet people are constantly being pulled for other details/teams.”
The recommendation: “Support your line deputies doing their job and don’t play downtown politics. Captain Seetoo is good for morale but not all of her Lieutenants are. Good morale breeds good policing!”
Unfortunately, the Lieutenants have more interaction with deputies than than the Captain does, and failing to address that means she is failing the line staff. They are the ones tasked with protecting the community day in and day out.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Given the monumental hurdles presented at the meeting, including potential political hurdles passing a bill in order to get the speed cameras, the non-committal attitude and roadblocks (literally) from CalTrans including lowering speed limits, and the lack of resources and leadership at LASD both at the station and LASD HQ under Sheriff Luna, there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel, only smoke and mirrors.
Unless City council can get some serious legal teeth behind the emergency ordinance passed on November 13th which will allow the city more control over implementing safety strategies on PCH, expect more of the same.