Saturday, July 23 , 2016, 4:14 pm | Fair 76º

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Local News

Witnesses Say Santa Barbara Police Officer Used ‘Excessive Force’ During Traffic Stop

Bystanders watch alleged beating, Tasering in Gelson's parking lot; SBPD vows investigation of incident

Curiosity about a police traffic stop in the parking lot of Loreto Plaza on Friday night turned to horror for bystanders who watched as a Santa Barbara police officer allegedly beat and Tasered the motorist involved.

A police spokesman told Noozhawk on Saturday that the incident would be reviewed.

According to several witnesses with whom Noozhawk spoke Saturday, the incident occurred about 9:40 p.m. Friday in the parking lot in front of Gelson’s Market, 3305 State St.

Ellen and John Hunter had just finished dinner at Harry’s Plaza Café and were walking back to their nearby San Roque home when they saw a police car, its lights flashing, follow a truck into the lot from Las Positas Road.

Suspecting that the stop might be for a DUI, the couple paused about 30 feet away and watched as the driver slowly stepped out of his vehicle. Ellen Hunter said the officer called to the man to get back into the truck, but the driver, who she said was “possibly intoxicated,” didn’t appear to understand.

As the driver moved back toward his vehicle, she said the officer ordered him to get down on the ground.

“The driver began to get down slowly, as he was clearly not sure what was going on,” she said.

When the officer yelled again, the man was already on his hands and knees on the pavement.

“Out of nowhere, the officer began to punch the driver in the head several times with his fist and pushed him down flat to the ground,” said Hunter, who added that the officer continued to yell at the man to “stop resisting arrest.”

Another witness, Jeff Restivo, said the driver repeatedly yelled, “I’m not resisting! Why are you hitting me?” and kept asking the police officer what he wanted him to do.

Restivo said the officer punched the man “two or three times” in the kidney area and then stood over him and “punched him four or five times in the face — hard.” He said witnesses could hear the blows clearly from about 20 feet away.

Then, the witnesses told Noozhawk, the officer took out his Taser and zapped the man in the back.

“The guy tried to scoot away and the cop kept Tasering him,” said Restivo, who was heading into Harry’s with his wife when the incident occurred.

Restivo and the Hunters said about a dozen people had gathered near the scene and were pleading with the officer to stop striking and Tasering the man, who they said was not resisting the officer and was neither aggressive nor belligerent.

“What are you doing?! He’s not doing anything!” they said they yelled, but they added that the officer just kept repeating his command to “Stop resisting.”

By that point, they said, the man was crying out for help from bystanders, who had moved to within about 10 feet of the pair.

“Please help me, please help me,” he called out to them.

Ellen Hunter called 9-1-1 and, moments later, additional police cars arrived on the scene. A second officer helped handcuff the driver, whom the witnesses described as a white man who looked to be in his 30s.

Ellen and John Hunter say they were shaken by what they witnessed.
Ellen and John Hunter say they were shaken by what they witnessed. “There was no way we were going to walk away and act like we didn’t see it,” Ellen Hunter told Noozhawk. (Valorie Smith / Noozhawk photo)

Ellen Hunter said another police officer took witness statements but appeared to be challenging their accounts.

“He said the incident probably wasn’t a minute and a half like we said, and probably not 15 punches or as many Tases as we said,” said Hunter, who along with Restivo stood by their accounts that the man was Tasered at least 10 times.

They said officers did not respond to requests for information on what the man was alleged to have done. Ellen Hunter said she and her husband regretted not having the presence of mind to videotape the incident but she said they could not believe what they were observing.

Police Lt. James Pfleging, who was the incident commander Friday evening, spoke with Noozhawk on Saturday afternoon. Pfleging left the office around 9 p.m. Friday, before the incident occurred, and said he was unaware of what happened. He said he had not yet read the incident report or talked with the officers involved. The primary officer’s identity was not disclosed.

After reviewing the accounts from Noozhawk witnesses, Pfleging said he needed to talk with the command staff about the accusations to determine how to proceed.

“It’s something we take very seriously,” he said. “We would never want something like this to happen with one of our officers.”

On Saturday, the Hunters said they remained shaken by what they saw and “sick to their stomach about it.”

“This was excessive force right in front of our eyes in Santa Barbara,” Ellen Hunter said. “There was no way we were going to walk away and act like we didn’t see it.

“Officers like this make it hard for the majority of the other officers to do their jobs. This is wrong.”

Restivo agreed.

“Everyone who witnessed it said it was just brutal,” he said. “I’ve been involved in martial arts and it was hard to watch. At worst, maybe the guy was not listening very well, but the officer’s response seemed to be way out of control.”

No other details of the incident were available from police Saturday. Pfleging encouraged anyone with more information to contact him at 805.897.2300.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Staff writer .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) contributed to this report. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.


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