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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 11:00 pm | Fair 51º


Police Tell a Different Story of Fateful Traffic Stop That Spurred ‘Excessive Force’ Accusations

Officer, SBPD say DUI suspect disobeyed commands and resisted arrest, which led to 'physical altercation' and Tasering

Two days after witnesses came forward with accusations that a police officer repeatedly punched and Tasered a motorist during a traffic stop, the Santa Barbara Police Department on Monday provided a narrative disputing a key element of the allegations.

On Monday afternoon, the Santa Barbara Police Department released this booking photo of Tony Vincent Denunzio, who was arrested Friday night on suspicion of DUI and three other charges. The 50-year-old Santa Barbara man is also accused of resisting arrest, which has been disputed by eyewitnesses to the incident.
On Monday afternoon, the Santa Barbara Police Department released this booking photo of Tony Vincent Denunzio, who was arrested Friday night on suspicion of DUI and three other charges. The 50-year-old Santa Barbara man is also accused of resisting arrest, which has been disputed by eyewitnesses to the incident. (Santa Barbara Police Department photo)

As Noozhawk first reported Saturday, witnesses said they watched in disbelief as Officer Aaron Tudor punched and Tasered Tony Vincent Denunzio after pulling him over on suspicion of driving under the influence Friday night. The witnesses assert that Denunzio was not resisting the officer and was neither aggressive nor belligerent as he lay on the ground in the parking lot in front of Gelson’s Market, 3305 State St.

One of the witnesses called it a case of “excessive force.”

But according to the incident report written by Tudor, and an official SBPD statement released Monday afternoon, Denunzio refused to follow the officer’s verbal commands and “a physical altercation ensued.”

Denunzio, 50, of Santa Barbara, was arrested on suspicion of DUI, violation of DUI probation, resisting an officer and driving with a suspended license, which was the result of a DUI conviction, police said.

Police Sgt. Lorenzo Duarte, a department spokesman, said Denunzio refused to provide a blood sample to determine his blood-alcohol concentration so officers and a nurse at the Santa Barbara County Jail took an involuntary blood sample before he was transported to Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital. At the hospital, Denunzio was treated for a broken nose and pain in his ribs, then released from custody.

Police Chief Cam Sanchez did not respond to Noozhawk’s multiple calls for comment Sunday and Monday. Meanwhile, Santa Barbara Police Officers Association president Eric Beecher said he could not comment on the incident.

By all accounts, Denunzio drove his 2007 Chevy Avalanche into the Loreto Plaza parking lot from Las Positas Road around 9:40 p.m. Friday, followed closely by Tudor’s police car, whose lights were flashing. A handful of bystanders watched as the truck came to a stop in a parking space about 70 yards from the street, with the police car pulling up directly behind it in another parking space.

Witnesses say Denunzio got out of his vehicle and that Tudor called to the man to get back into the truck. The bystanders say Denunzio appeared not to understand the command, and one witness, Ellen Hunter of Santa Barbara, speculated that he was “possibly intoxicated.”

The witnesses say the officer then ordered Denunzio to get down on the ground. As he dropped to his hands and knees, the witnesses told Noozhawk, the officer began punching him with his fist in the back and the face. They said they saw as many as 15 blows and could hear them clearly from about 20 feet away.

Hunter said Tudor’s flurry of punches came “out of nowhere.” She and her husband, John, said Tudor pushed Denunzio flat to the ground, all while yelling at him to “stop resisting arrest.”

The Hunters and another witness, Jeff Restivo, said Denunzio was submissive and, in fact, was yelling back to Tudor, “I’m not resisting! Why are you hitting me?” They say he repeatedly asked the officer what he wanted him to do.

At that point, according to the witnesses, Tudor took out his Taser and began zapping Denunzio in the back. As he cried out for help and attempted to wiggle away, the witnesses began shouting at the officer to stop striking and Tasering him. Hunter used her cell phone to call 9-1-1 and was told that police backup was on its way.

According to the witnesses, Tudor did not acknowledge their protests and did not stop Tasering Denunzio until additional police officers arrived moments later.

“This was excessive force right in front of our eyes in Santa Barbara,” Hunter said. “... Officers like this make it hard for the majority of the other officers to do their jobs. This is wrong.”

The Police Department account tells a different story, and provides details of what transpired before the traffic stop.

According to Duarte, Tudor was on uniformed patrol when he observed the black Avalanche leave the parking lot of Arroyo Burro Beach County Park, 2981 Cliff Drive. While driving north on Las Positas, Tudor said he saw the truck make three lane changes between traffic without signaling, which is a vehicle-code violation. Tudor ran a Department of Motor Vehicles check of the truck and learned that Denunzio, its owner, had a suspended license and is on probation for driving under the influence.

Duarte said Tudor turned on his squad car’s emergency lights as the truck entered the Loreto Plaza parking lot, three miles away from the beach park and, according to Maps, a seven-minute drive.

“The truck did not yield right away,” Duarte said. “Instead, it continued slowly in the parking lot and eventually parked in one of the parking spaces.”

Then, according to Tudor’s incident report, Denunzio “immediately exited the vehicle and refused to follow verbal commands. A physical altercation ensued.”

According to Duarte, Denunzio ignored Tudor’s command to get back in his truck and began to walk away.

“I could smell the odor of alcohol on Denunzio,” Tudor added.

Tudor’s report states that Denunzio “physically resisted by tensing his body and refusing to place his hands behind his back,” in violation of Penal Code 148 (a): resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer.

The incident escalated from taking hold of Denunzio’s arm to Tasering him several times and kneeing him in the face when he wouldn’t put his arm behind his back, the SBPD statement said.

Duarte said Tudor tried unsuccessfully to get Denunzio to drop to the ground by placing his arm behind his back. At that point, Duarte said, Tudor called for backup and tripped Denunzio so he fell to his hands and knees.

“The officer told Denunzio several times to stop resisting, but Denunzio continued to resist,” Duarte said in the SBPD statement. “The officer then delivered several palm strikes to the back of Denunzio’s head ... the palm strikes were ineffective, and Denunzio continued to struggle and physically resist the officer. The officer then delivered a knee strike to the area of Denunzio’s ribs. The officer followed up with several hand strikes to Denunzio’s rib area.

“During the struggle, the officer deployed his Taser several times in an attempt to get Denunzio to place his hands behind his back ... additional officers arrived to assist and noticed that the Taser was ineffective. They observed that 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. Even with additional officers, Denunzio continued to resist for more than a minute before being subdued by the officers.

“During the struggle, an officer delivered a knee strike to Denunzio’s face, which allowed the officers to handcuff him.”

After his arrest, Duarte said Denunzio refused to provide a blood sample, a violation of his DUI probation. He said Denunzio’s probation terms also prohibit him from committing any criminal offense or driving a vehicle with alcohol in his blood. Denunzio also has been convicted previously of reckless driving, he said.

In his incident report, Tudor circled “misdemeanor” in the Probable Cause entry and listed bail at $10,000. According to a local attorney, Denunzio, who works as a general contractor, was released on his own recognizance early Saturday.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley told Noozhawk she spoke with Santa Barbara police officers and her own staff about the incident Sunday and again on Monday.

“It’s my understanding that once SBPD completes its investigation, all reports related to this incident will be sent to my office,” she said, adding that she hasn’t been told when this will happen.

“When this information is received by my office, we will carefully investigate all allegations,” she told Noozhawk. “All of us in law enforcement take allegations of excessive force, as well as allegations of obstructing or resisting a police officer, very seriously; hence, we will treat this matter with the integrity and thoroughness it deserves.”

Dudley also said she would not comment on the state of the evidence during the investigation, but would address the media as soon as any filing decisions have been reached.

“I know that time is of the essence because the community is aware, and understandably concerned, about what has been reported by the media, but due process and justice can not be rushed,” she said.

Mayor Helene Schneider told Noozhawk that she met with Sanchez and City Administrator Jim Armstrong over the weekend, but did not have any new information to add to the police statement issued Monday.

“These are serious accusations,” she said.

Schneider did say she was pleased that the patrol car Tudor was driving had a dashboard camera that had been installed as part of a pilot program.

“To me, that’s going to be an important piece of evidence,” she said. “I feel like that was an important tool.”

Earlier this month, the county grand jury called on local law-enforcement agencies to place cameras in their patrol cars. The Santa Barbara City Council put off outfitting its police fleet with cameras until the next budget cycle, but one manufacturer offered a trial use of its cameras in a handful of cars.

Police officials encouraged anyone with more information about the Loreto Plaza incident to contact investigators at 805.897.2300.

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

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