This week has been all about an alleged case of “excessive force” witnessed by numerous bystanders during a traffic stop by Santa Barbara police in Loreto Plaza.
On the night of Oct. 21, Tony Denunzio, 50, of Santa Barbara, was pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. Officer Aaron Tudor, a four-year SBPD veteran and drinking-driver team member, had followed him for three miles along Las Positas Road from the Boathouse Restaurant at Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, 2981 Cliff Drive, to the parking lot of Gelson’s Market, 3305 State St.
According to Tudor and to witnesses who contacted Noozhawk, Denunzio appeared not to comply with Tudor’s command to get back in his truck after he parked the vehicle and got out. Witnesses agreed that Denunzio appeared to be “possibly intoxicated,” but what happened next has been hotly disputed by the police and the witnesses.
Most of the witnesses say they saw Tudor repeatedly punch and Taser Denunzio while yelling at him to “stop resisting.” One witness said that, while it was Tudor who Tasered Denunizo, it actually was a backup police officer who was doing the punching that broke the suspect’s ribs. The witnesses all say Denunzio was not resisting arrest and that what they characterize as the “brutality” of the response was unwarranted.
In an official police statement issued Monday and in Police Chief Cam Sanchez’s first public response to the incident Wednesday, the department stood by the actions of its officers. Both Sanchez and the SBPD said Tudor had good reason to pull over Denunzio, who, it turns out, was driving with a suspended license, which was the result of a previous DUI conviction. He was arrested for that, along with suspicion of DUI and violating DUI probation.
Police say Denunzio refused to submit to a blood-alcohol concentration test at the scene — a violation of his probation — and that an involuntary sample was taken from him later at the Santa Barbara County Jail. The results of that sample have not been made public.
Denunzio also was charged with resisting arrest, and it is here that the two versions of the events sharply diverge.
Citing the patrol car’s dashboard camera videotape, Sanchez said Tudor acted in accordance with SBPD policy and “standard law enforcement operating procedure” throughout the incident, although he acknowledged there was about a minute of video during which the two men were out of view. Sanchez stated unequivocally that Denunzio was resisting arrest, affirming the department’s assertion Monday that he was physically struggling with Tudor. The department’s official statement also said “Denunzio was resisting by not placing his hands behind his back and tucking them underneath by his waist. The officer believed that Denunzio could possibly be retrieving a weapon.”
Bystanders, however, say Denunzio’s arms were extended out in front of him and his hands were never near his waist. The witnesses also insist that the only struggle was Denunzio attempting to scoot away each time he was Tasered. They say he kept shouting to Tudor “I’m not resisting! Why are you hitting me?” and that he repeatedly asked the officer what he wanted him to do.
It took Sanchez three days to return Noozhawk’s calls for comment and five to elaborate on his response, which was an announcement that — as a result of his review of the videotape — the department had done nothing wrong and there was no need for “a formal administrative investigation.” Then he appeared to reprimand the witnesses who he implied did not understand what it was they think they saw.
All of the witnesses interviewed by Noozhawk stand by their stories and are quite upset that, despite having given their statements to police at the scene, Sanchez would dismiss their accounts outright without even talking to them.
These people had no connection to the parties involved in the incident but were random bystanders who watched in disbelief as it unfolded before them. A husband and wife walking home from a Friday date night. A man waiting for his wife to check her makeup before they joined friends for a late dinner. A woman sitting in her car listening to a story on the radio before she dashed into the market for a few groceries. They spoke on the record, believing that they were doing the right thing and that allegations of police brutality and excessive force were taken seriously.
On Monday afternoon, shortly after the Santa Barbara Police Department issued its official statement, I received a phone call from a City Council member who wanted to make sure Noozhawk had received SBPD’s news release and that we would be publishing it (which we already had). Curiously, I wasn’t asked about the witnesses or their credibility, and no explanation was offered for why the city of Santa Barbara’s chief of police could not make the announcement himself.
Of course, the obvious question is who works for whom? Does Santa Barbara not have a single elected official with the leadership to call up a municipal employee and ask him to hold a quick news conference to say nothing more than “We don’t yet have all the facts, we take these allegations seriously, we’re going to investigate this thoroughly and transparently, and we’ll explain our conclusion once we have one”? Seriously?
As it stands, few are satisfied with the result and — candidly — suspicions will linger, which cannot be good for this community. Releasing the videotapes from all of the patrol cars on the scene would be helpful to put this story to rest.
Meanwhile, one of Noozhawk’s witnesses, a retired teacher, bluntly has suggested that SBPD hold a public forum to explain police protocol and procedures, what constitutes excessive force and how witnesses should interact with officers. That sounds like a more worthwhile episode of On Patrol with Santa Barbara PD than the gripping drama of drunken college students on Lower State Street.
But there’s another side to this issue that could be dangerous for our society. Since 9/11, law enforcement has exhorted citizens to get involved. “If you see something, say something” goes the slogan. What would be a tragic shame is if citizens who do see something decide there’s just no point in saying anything.
This week wasn’t without positive news, however, and it involved bystanders leaping into action — literally. Two men jumped into the water off Stearns Wharf on Oct. 27 to rescue a wheelchair-bound man who had fallen in after getting too close to the unprotected edge. All three were rescued and there were no injuries in what officials have concluded was an accident.
Next month, we’ll have readers vote for their favorite photo. Thanks to the generosity of La Cumbre Feed, 3652 Calle Real, the winning adopted dog will be dining on $100 worth of free dog food from WellPet. All photos received by Nov. 1 will be entered in the contest.
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