Monday, February 8 , 2016, 10:11 pm | Fair 57º

Fourth Witness Comes Forward Alleging Officer Used ‘Excessive Force’ Against Motorist

Nancy Samson questions the decision by Police Chief Cam Sanchez, who kept mum at a meeting Thursday, not to launch an internal investigation

Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez, giving a report Thursday to the Fire and Police Commission, didn’t mention the recent alleged “excessive force” incident involving an officer.
Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez, giving a report Thursday to the Fire and Police Commission, didn’t mention the recent alleged “excessive force” incident involving an officer.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

By Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Staff Writers | @NoozhawkNews | updated logo |

A fourth witness to an Oct. 21 traffic stop in the Gelson’s Market parking lot that witnesses say turned into a case of “excessive force” against a motorist has come forward and says that two responding Santa Barbara police officers were involved in the alleged beating.

Tony Denunzio
Tony Denunzio

In his first public appearance since the incident, Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez kept mum about the case Thursday as he gave a report to the city’s Fire and Police Commission.

Sanchez left through a back door halfway through a budget presentation from the Fire Department, and his secretary told Noozhawk after the meeting that he was in his office but “won’t see you at this time.”

At 9:40 p.m. Oct 21, Tony Denunzio, 50, of Santa Barbara, was pulled over by Officer Aaron Tudor in the parking lot of Gelson’s, 3305 State St.

Police say Denunzio was pulled over for changing lanes without a signal and he exited his vehicle after being pulled over by Tudor. Witness accounts have said Denunzio was not resisting arrest, but Tudor’s own report and Sanchez have said he did.

Sanchez released a statement Wednesday after reviewing the patrol car’s videotape and stated that there was “no apparent violation of department policy or law enforcement procedure,” but he acknowledged he was unable to see the struggle for one minute of the video while the pair were out of camera range.

Witness Nancy Samson, a retired teacher and Santa Barbara resident, spoke with Noozhawk about the incident Thursday morning. After reading Sanchez’s statement, “I was very perplexed that the chief would call off the investigation,” she said. Because of the minute gap in the video, “it’s almost making a call lacking evidence. It seemed like he brushed it off. What he didn’t see is what we’re all disturbed by.”

Other witnesses who came forward after last week’s incident and talked with Noozhawk include Ellen and John Hunter, and Jeff Restivo.

Samson said she was on her way to get groceries that Friday night at the San Roque store, but was sitting in her car listening to the radio when she saw the scene unfold. She was parked facing Harry’s Plaza Café, in a spot closest to 7 Day Nursery, near the Cox store. She said she saw flashing lights and watched as a truck pulled past her into a space. The officer pulled up directly behind the truck.

Samson said she drove forward to get a better view, but by that time, the man was on the ground “and the officer was on top of him,” she said. She said she took issue with the police statement that Denunzio’s hands were near his waist, suggesting he was reaching for a weapon.

“His hands were never near his waist,” she said, adding that the man slid his hands forward after going down on his hands and knees.

“At no time was he struggling, and he never had his hands down by his waist — not even for a moment,” she said.

Samson, like other witnesses who have come forward, said she heard the man yelling, “I’m down, I’m down!” She blared her horn instinctively, “thinking that would break the officer’s bubble,” but then stopped. Denunzio was Tasered at least 10 times, she said.

“He wasn’t resisting, his body was squirming from the jolts,” she said. “He kept saying, ‘Ow, It hurts. I’m down, I’m down.”

About a dozen people had gathered around, shouting at the officer to stop. Soon, other police cars arrived and more officers got out. Samson said the first officer wasn’t the one who punched Denunzio in the ribs, but the first backup officer who responded.

“He was punching him with his closed fist, and it was hard, right in his ribs,” she said, adding that she wasn’t surprised when she found out later Denunzio’s ribs were broken. “That officer knew what he was doing.”

She said a third officer then arrested Denunzio and yelled at witnesses to back up.

An officer interviewed Samson, and asked right away if she thought it was excessive. She said yes, but added that she didn’t know police protocol. She told Noozhawk that whether Denunzio was driving drunk is secondary for her.

“My focus is on the police,” she said. “Yes, I’m glad they were on it. The concern is what’s excessive force. ... There’s no excuse for punching someone like that.”

Sanchez stated Wednesday that an outside observer might see the situation as excessive.

“However, with the possibility of a fleeing suspect being armed, and officer safety at stake when making an arrest of a noncomplying suspect, the techniques and force used by the arresting officer in a split-second decision-making mode is standard law enforcement operating procedure,” he said.

But for witnesses such as Samson, that standard procedure is under scrutiny.

“It still breeds the question: Are breaking ribs the protocol when the suspect is not resisting?” she said. 

Samson filed a complaint earlier this week with the Police Department and was told an internal investigation would be conducted. She also commended Mayor Helene Schneider for her statement calling for the police chief to give a monthly report to the City Council.

Samson said she’s going to request that the police hold a town hall forum, demonstrating what resisting arrest actually looks like, “so we are all educated on what is protocol.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli contributed to this report. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

» on 10.27.11 @ 06:02 PM

Good reporting and glad Ms. Samson is brave enough to come forward. As a City resident, I’m embarrassed and angry that both officers haven’t been suspended and the incident investigated more seriously. Now there will be a civil suit and likely an out-of-court settlement costing taxpayers significant $$$ with no accountability by the PD or the specific officers.

» on 10.27.11 @ 08:52 PM

This story is not going to go away if it is ignored.

If the police harp on about public safety, that should include being safe from having he police beat you.

If they call themselves Peace Officers, beating the public is not keeping the peace.

Lastly, what about this:

“Santa Barbara police officer Brian Kenneth Sawicki has been placed on administrative leave after his off-duty arrest Monday for indecent exposure at Refugio State Beach.”

Why have we heard no more about this? Quietly dropped?

The police should be more accountable than the public, not less.

» on 10.27.11 @ 09:07 PM

Nancy, thank you for having the courage to come forward.  This is not us againt them, but rather an evaluation of behavior, “protocol” and actions.  Chief Sanchez can not be allowed to shut this case, we as a community have much too much to lose.

» on 10.27.11 @ 09:26 PM

Maybe Officer Tudor, who just turned 29 in September, thought that 50 year old Denunzio reminded him of his dad.

Seriously, Denunzio isn’t the first Catholic to receive a smackdown from a Tudor.

» on 10.27.11 @ 10:41 PM

It is inconceivable that the accounts of four witnesses to the brutality committed by a Santa Barbara police officer should be discounted by anyone.

It is shameful and corrupt, but not unexpected, that Chief of Police Sanchez should try to stonewall the matter by stating an internal investigation is not called for.

I have grest respect for Diatrict Attorney Joyce Dudley, but she should be reminded by all of us that she has a duty to prosecute crimes by police as well as crimes by others. The standard practice of law enforcement officials doing nothing about brutality by one of “their own” will not suffice.

The first thing that needs to be done by voters: replace the right-wing cadre of current City Council members Dale Francisco, Michael Self and Randy Rouse with those recommended by the Independent: Cathy Murillo, Iya Falcone and Deborah Schwartz. With the latter in place, there is a much greater opportunity to implement a Citizens’ Review Board of police conduct.

William Smithers

“Who should be afraid to stand up and put their name to their words? And why should anyone listen if they don’t?”

» on 10.28.11 @ 12:43 AM

Mr. Smithers (Indiana roots by the way?):

Your comments were sort of OK until you said:

“The first thing that needs to be done by voters: replace the right-wing cadre of current City Council members Dale Francisco, Michael Self and Randy Rouse with those recommended by the Independent: Cathy Murillo, Iya Falcone and Deborah Schwartz. With the latter in place, there is a much greater opportunity to implement a Citizens’ Review Board of police conduct.

How do you make such a stretching reach to connect such dots??? Do we need Comrade Napoleon to explain something to us? What does what you said have to do with whether or not the officer beat someone down wrongly or not??

» on 10.28.11 @ 02:47 AM

I know Tony from high school days when I was friends with his sister, and I find it hard to believe that he would do anything to deserve the beating described by witnesses. This case has eerie similarities with the murder of Kelly Thomas by the Fullerton PD: What is wrong with our police? I know of other incidents of SBPD beating the crap out of people just because they can, although this seems to be going on all over the state of California.

» on 10.28.11 @ 03:13 AM

William Smithers, your conclusion is entirely devoid of reality. The candidates you mentioned have been endorsed and given money by the Police Association, the labor organization that represents the police. If anything, the exact opposite is true, these candidates are indebted to the police and can be expected to do their bidding. Your logic is not only flawed, but you seriously need to think before you speak.

» on 10.28.11 @ 10:04 AM

looks and sounds like a cover up to us.Too bad the chief didn’t get his raise and packing notice.

» on 10.28.11 @ 10:37 AM

Sanchez has no credibility. This isn’t all that different from Wayne Scoles’ case, in which Sanchez had Scoles arrested on a felony racial hate crime charge based on Sanchez’s allegation that Scoles made a statement four witnesses denied he made.
Check the City of Santa Barbara org chart. City administrator Jim Thomas is the city’s authority over SBPD.
Sanchez made all possible effort to exclude the public from the Police Commission when Tom Parker, FBI field office head, Ramparts investigator and recent consultant for ACLU on LA jail brutality, headed the commission. He sounds to me like a great person to contact to review this and other SBPD misconduct issues.

» on 10.28.11 @ 12:45 PM

So let me see, Mr. Denunzio was driving on a suspended license and drank that evening.  I think that his lane changes without using a signal were a nice way to say he was swerving.  He also says he didn’t hear Officer Tudor tell him to stay in his car, but the lights were flashing and Officer Tudor was yelling at him from 10 feet away.  How drunk was he?  Was he on other drugs too?  Police officers are trying to keep us safe and if someone is possibly intoxicated (which he was) and may have a weapon it seems reasonable for police to use their training to subdue a suspect.  This guy could have killed someone driving and he resisted arrest.  I think it is laughable for him to say he “layed down like a kitten” if it took three officers to subdue him and the altercation moved enough to be off camera part of the time.  Does this really sound like he didn’t resist to people?  Articles like this are so biased since they barely mention Mr. Denunzio’s past DUI’s or his intoxication that night and it makes me sick.

» on 10.28.11 @ 01:18 PM

Agree with Lou Segal on this: good points until the last. Although Murillo has not received money from the police, Falcone (in the police pockets for years), Byrne and Schwartz have. As for the latter, how to trust a candidate with city finances with such a financial record as hers! - and how trust her when less than two years ago, on being appointed to the planning commission by fellow Democrats, Schwartz “insisted,” according to the Indy, that she would stay there the full four years!

We need a Citizens Review Board; at the very least, we need an independent investigation of the SBPD, policies and actions; candidates, officials who have taken money from the police are not at all likely to support that.

» on 10.28.11 @ 01:26 PM

OK, really. The Chief is making a serious mistake in trying to sweep this one under the rug. Is this how he wants to end his career here? I get that he needs to protect his own to preserve morale on the force.  It would be tough for all the boys in blue to have their boss throw one of them under the bus on this. But when four no-agenda, normal citizens, including now, a retired school teacher, feel compelled to come forward and report that this officer administered a beat-down, it would seem like damage control would require at least the pretense of a public review of the case. I mean this is a pretty benign little city we live in, not east LA. It’s time for a little humble pie for Mr. Sanchez. We demand higher standards from the guys that protect us.

» on 10.28.11 @ 01:55 PM

Typical.  Same thing happened to a friend when he was arrested for drunk in public.  He received several verbal personal attacks from the pd and when he fired one back they striped him down naked handcuffed him and kicked and punched him until he submitted.  All while verbally abusing him.  When he filed charges they were reviewed and dismissed.

» on 10.28.11 @ 04:05 PM

Left through the back door? Wow! Is that an attempt to pre-paint the story or what!  Let’s see, you write painfully biased reports and when the target of your biased report basically tells you to go play in traffic, you write that he won’t give you information to write another painfully biased report. 

I didn’t see any story yet on Oprah’s weight gain or Angelina’s new boyfriend but it has to be here somewhere. 

Sheep believe this tripe. It’s the reporters that have no credibility. Even if there was something to the information, it’s lost in their sophomoric jr. high storytelling.

Keep the blood flowing because if it ever stops the story goes away children.

» on 10.28.11 @ 05:58 PM

The SBPD acknowledge that part of the incident was not captured on video.
Four eyewitnesses are saying it looked like excessive force.
Cam Sanchez says it doesn’t merit investigation, it was “by the book” as far as he could tell.

How could any rational person claim that a more thorough investigation is not warranted? A citizen was brutally beaten by police in broad daylight. 

If the police chief won’t stand up a full investigation, the mayor, city council, or district attorney must.  Let’s actually hear ALL the facts.

» on 10.28.11 @ 09:31 PM

Actually, Suspicious, I’ve found Noozhawk’s reporting to be quite balanced and restrained, considering they had this story for a couple of days before anyone else jumped on the bandwagon. The sophomoric jr. high storytelling is SBPD’s laughable self-exoneration. Did you write it?

» on 10.29.11 @ 12:34 AM

Cops jacking off at the nude beach. Cops embezzling metermaid tickets, cops beating up lane-changers-without-signals.

I remember when the SBPD was a top cop shop, and the Sheriff’s Deputies were the the ummm… weirdos. Seems the roles have been reversed. What next? SBPD rappelling off of tombstones to arrest nude bathers?

Get rid of Sanchez and put a real captain in charge.

» on 10.29.11 @ 01:18 PM

lou segal, remind us how much money the police employee union (POA) contributed to Cathy Murillo for city council.

That would be zero.  Looks like Murillo got lucky with that one.

» on 10.30.11 @ 05:10 PM

My2Cents:  Did you miss the part about 4 eye witnesses directly contradicting the police?  Eye witnesses that were standing with a very clear view of everything that was happening just a short 10 feet away?  The eye witnesses said that he wasn’t resisting arrest.  They said that it didn’t take 3 cops to subdue him but that 3 cops decided he needed a beat down.  The guy got a broken nose and some broken ribs, all consistent with what the eye witnesses said happened.  But according to you and the chief, what they saw doesn’t need to be addressed and anyway, it was all justified because the guy had a record.

» on 10.30.11 @ 05:12 PM

I love all these sideline vigilantes - with their own little stories of “vicious” police encounters…I’ll reserve judgment until I see the video.

» on 10.31.11 @ 07:07 PM

Joyce Dudley is as through as it gets as for a prosecutor. But it seems when something as dramatic as police beating a suspect in front of witness happens she fades into the back ground. I agree a citizens review panel needs to be put in place for these type of incidents. Cam Sanchez is trying to hid and stone wall which is never a good thing. I think it this is going to be how he ends his career in SB with the stigma over police brutality.

Seems incidents have been happening with much more frequency with the SBPD that are not good ones.

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