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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli contributed to this report. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.