The tactics a Santa Barbara police officer used to subdue a motorist during a recent traffic stop have ignited a firestorm of controversy over what constitutes the proper use of force by authorities.
A Noozhawk review of local law enforcement manuals has determined that officers and deputies are provided with wide latitude to determine a perceived threat and the “reasonableness” of their response.
Numerous eyewitnesses to the Oct. 21 incident, which occurred on a Friday night in the parking lot of Gelson’s Market, 3305 State St., accuse police Officer Aaron Tudor of using excessive force during his arrest of Tony Denunzio, 50, of Santa Barbara. Tudor stopped Denunzio on suspicion of driving under the influence and proceeded to strike him with his hands and knees, and repeatedly Taser him, when he said the suspect resisted arrest.
The witnesses insist Denunzio was not resisting, however, and they say Tudor’s actions bordered on police brutality.
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office has charged Denunzio with driving under the influence and related allegations but did not file charges of resisting arrest. Denunzio has entered not guilty pleas in the case.
The District Attorney’s Office also did not bring excessive force charges against Tudor, who still faces a police Internal Affairs investigation.
After Denunzio was charged, Police Chief Cam Sanchez released videotape of the arrest from the dashboard camera in Tudor’s patrol car. He said Tudor’s response to Denunzio’s actions was appropriate and followed “standard” police procedure.
“Any use of force, even when used legally and appropriately, is never pretty,” Sanchez told a news conference.
In an attempt to gain clarity and context on the issue, Noozhawk has reviewed local law enforcement policies on use of force. The policies include guidelines for the use or type of force to be deployed in a particular situation, but the response is based on the idea of “reasonableness,” which is to be determined by the officer involved. In essence, each officer is expected to make decisions based on what reasonably appears necessary.
According to the Santa Barbara Police Department’s policy manual, factors used to determine the reasonableness of force include the conduct of the individual being confronted; personal factors such as age, size, skill level and number of officers vs. subjects; suspected influence of alcohol or drugs (mental capacity); proximity of weapons; resources reasonably available to the officer under the circumstances; the seriousness of the suspected offense; training and experience of the officer; potential for injury to citizens, officers and suspects; and risk of escape.
Since 2008, Santa Barbara police have used force 872 times, including 146 Taser incidents, Sanchez said at his news conference. During the same period, the department received almost 297,000 calls for service and had 118 officers assaulted, he added.
Police use of force methods include pain compliance, carotid restraint (a type of “sleeper hold” that affects carotid arteries rather than constricting the airway), baton, tear gas, oleoresin capsicum spray (pepper spray), modified shotguns and launchers for bean bag and rubber pellet rounds, and Tasers.
The SBPD manual states that multiple applications of the Taser can be used — Tudor activated his weapon 13 times against Denunzio and pulled the trigger for many of them, according to Sanchez — but officers should consider whether the device is making proper contact, limiting the person’s ability to comply, or if other options may be more appropriate.
Tasers can be used against violent or physically resisting subjects or a potentially violent or resisting subject if “the subject has verbally or physically demonstrated an intention to resist; the officer has given the subject a verbal warning of the intended use of the Taser followed by a reasonable opportunity to voluntarily comply; and other available options reasonably appear ineffective or would present a greater danger to the officer or subject,” according to the manual.
It’s never “absolutely prohibited” to use a Taser, but special considerations apply to pregnant women, the elderly, obvious juveniles, handcuffed or restrained people, those sprayed with pepper spray or near a combustible material, or people who are passively resisting.
The manual declares that deadly force, including but not limited to a firearm, should only be used to protect the officer or others from an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury, or to stop a fleeing suspect believed to have committed or who will be committing a felony that inflicts serious bodily injury or death on others.
If force is used and medical treatment is necessary — or any time a Taser is used — the subject will be transported by an officer who was not involved in the incident, according to the manual.
The Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol manuals offer similar guidelines, saying appropriate force is to be decided by the officer. All three agencies require documentation of use of force and the reporting of the incident to supervisors.
“It is impractical and impossible to articulate every situation in which a specific use of force option may be utilized,” the CHP manual says.
Instead, there are two key principles to follow: sound force reasonable for the situation as provided by law and departmental policy, and the use of only the force necessary for the situation.
Both the CHP and Sheriff Department policies require officers or deputies to intervene and/or report if they observe a situation with obvious or possible excessive force being used.