The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that it will not file charges against the Santa Barbara police officer some witnesses say used excessive force in a traffic stop, nor will it charge the arrested man with resisting arrest. The Santa Barbara Police Department also announced that it will show video footage of the incident captured by the patrol car’s dashboard camera to the media on Friday.
The controversial traffic stop on Oct. 21 began when Santa Barbara Officer Aaron Tudor pulled over Tony Denunzio, a local contractor, into the parking lot of Loreto Plaza and Denunzio got out of his vehicle. Some witnesses say Tudor used excessive force — including hitting and Tasering — to get control of Denunzio, who they say was not resisting arrest.
Denunzio was arrested for resisting arrest, and a statement from Police Chief Cam Sanchez said the man had resisted arrest and Tudor’s actions warranted no internal investigation.
The DA’s Office is charging Denunzio with driving under the influence, driving with a blood alcohol level above .08, driving on a suspended license and allegations related to his two prior convictions for alcohol-related driving offenses. He wasn’t charged with willfully resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer.
After interviewing witnesses, obtaining evidence including medical records and reviewing video footage taken from Tudor’s patrol vehicle, the roof of Gelson’s Market and at least one witness’ cell phone, the DA’s Office determined that the two views of Tudor’s force were “both reasonable assessments of the arrest procedure in this case.” There were 13 known witnesses, and four contacted Noozhawk in the days after the incident, all saying Tudor appeared to use excessive force.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Hilary Dozer said the DA’s Office usually relies on law enforcement’s investigation for much of the information, but in this case, it investigated independently for aspects that caused some concern.
“It was not a normal case … witnesses to the event contacted Noozhawk almost immediately; they did report to you and other news agencies who followed up with concerns about behavior of law enforcement,” he told Noozhawk. “We recognize that we have a responsibility to look into those allegations and it has to be independent from the police department’s, otherwise, it would be a law enforcement agency overseeing its own behavior.”
A statement released Wednesday morning by the DA’s Office specifically says the decision couldn’t be reached “by blindly counting up the number of witnesses for or against a particular resolution,” but by evaluating all the available evidence.
Dozer said it was fortuitous that Tudor’s patrol vehicle had a dashboard camera system installed. Though portions of the encounter between Tudor and Denunzio aren’t visible, “we can characterize the initial actions of Mr. Denunzio as being resistive and that tends to color the assessment of the overall case.”
Since there are enough credible witnesses who say Tudor’s actions were unreasonable, the office cannot justify charging Denunzio with resisting arrest. Similarly, since there are witnesses who characterized Tudor’s actions as appropriate, the DA’s Office didn’t find sufficient proof to justify filing charges against him.
Deputy Chief Frank Mannix said the Police Department is testing out vendors for dashboard camera systems in patrol vehicles, and only one car at a time has a camera in it.
Tudor happened to have one in his car that night. There is no audio, and the two men apparently move out of frame for about a minute — which is why part of the District Attorney Office’s investigation involved finding more video evidence.
Sanchez will hold a news conference Friday morning to talk specifically about the use of force as captured by the in-car camera and will show the video to the media, according to Mannix.
Denunzio’s attorney, Darryl Genis, released a statement Wednesday that claims the police had no legal cause to stop him in the first place. Genis also said he still hasn’t received a copy of the dashboard camera video.
As to Denunzio not being charged with resisting arrest, Genis’ statement said: “If the district attorney does not believe there is enough evidence to charge such an offense, then there is absolutely no justification for the brutal and violent attack upon Mr. Denunzio by SB police officer Aaron Tudor, and the district attorney should be prosecuting him for felony assault and battery with intent to commit great bodily harm.”
Two of the witnesses to the incident commented on the charges Wednesday afternoon.
Ellen Hunter, with her husband, John, was an eyewitness in the parking lot and saw the whole incident as they walked back to their San Roque home from Harry’s Plaza Café. Hunter has told Noozhawk that Denunzio was punched and Tasered by Tudor while consistently asking why he was being hit and asking bystanders to help.
She has since been interviewed by authorities and said Wednesday that she had mixed feelings about the DA Office’s decisions, but felt “disappointed, confused and concerned.”
“I certainly feel relieved that the District Attorney’s Office did not find Mr. Denunzio was resisting arrest,” she said. “After they had the chance to speak to so many witnesses and see the video, I’m disappointed they believe that was appropriate behavior. It’s still a concern to me as a citizen and a community member here in Santa Barbara that what I witnessed that night, Oct. 21, was normal police procedure.”
She said she hopes there will be further investigation into the use of force.
“If that is what we’re considering normal police procedure, something is wrong and it’s frightening to me. It’s scary,” Hunter said. “I mean, I have kids. If that’s normal procedure when you pull somebody over, it’s not right.”
Fellow San Roque resident Nancy Samson said she was also concerned with Tudor’s behavior that night. She was in her car after getting groceries and even honked her horn in an attempt to “break the officer’s bubble” during the incident.
Since then, she has met with authorities and watched the dashboard-camera video. She said it didn’t capture everything that happened, but it appeared Denunzio was “anything but compliant,” in her opinion.
She heard about the District Attorney’s Office decision that Tudor wouldn’t be charged and is “more than 50 percent comfortable with that.”
From the beginning, she said, she wanted to educate herself on the guidelines of use of force. She is still concerned about the actions of one of the backup responding officers, who she says punched Denunzio in the ribs.
“I hope there are some other tactics to be used once two officers are on the scene to subdue him, other than punch him in the ribs,” she said, adding that when there is public outcry in a case like this, authorities could do more to respond with education efforts or public meetings to explain the allowable use of force or other policies.