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Local News

Santa Barbara Police Release Patrol-Car Video of Controversial Traffic Stop

A second version issued by Police Chief Cam Sanchez includes slowed-down footage and captions added by the department

The Santa Barbara Police Department on Friday released the patrol car dashboard camera video taken during a controversial Oct. 21 traffic stop that led some eyewitnesses to allege excessive force used by the arresting officer.

A news conference was held Friday morning because of community concern and inquiry into the incident, Police Chief Cam Sanchez said. Upon viewing the video of Officer Aaron Tudor performing a physical traffic stop with suspect Tony Denunzio, Sanchez said he determined his officer’s use of force was appropriate and followed procedure.

“The truth of the matter is, no matter who sees an officer’s use of force, you’re going to get many, many opinions,” he said.

Sanchez released two videos Friday — the original dashboard camera footage, and a second video slowed to one-quarter speed by Santa Barbara TV staff with captions added by the Police Department. Both videos can be viewed below.

 

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According to the SBPD’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; influence of drugs or alcohol (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.

At about 9:30 p.m. on that fateful Friday, the two vehicles pulled into the Loreto Plaza parking lot about five minutes into the video, after Tudor followed Denunzio from Cliff Drive near Arroyo Burro Beach County Park onto Las Positas Road. Sanchez said Denunzio didn’t have a front license plate, changed lanes without signaling and drifted over the yellow center line while driving.

Sanchez was asked why Tudor, a member of SBPD’s drinking-driver team, hadn’t pulled Denunzio over earlier if he was suspected of driving under the influence. Sanchez said officers are trained to pull people over where it is safe to do so, and Las Positas Road is a dangerous place to do so, in either direction.

On the video, Denunzio is seen getting out of his truck and Tudor can be heard saying, “Get back in the car,” pointing and walking up to Denunzio. Tudor then puts his hand on Denunzio’s arm and Denunzio stiffens his arm, according to Sanchez, which prompts Tudor to push the 50-year-old Santa Barbara man into the side of the car.

Sanchez said that when an officer’s lights are on and he or she tells a person to stay in the car, a reasonable person would comply with those verbal commands. There is no typical response for an incident like this, but an officer “needs to move in there quickly,” he added.

In the video, Tudor then trips Denunzio and pushes the man to the ground. What follows is hitting, kicking and the many flashes of the Taser. The Taser was activated 13 times, but Sanchez said he does not know how many times the trigger was pulled. He said Tudor had the weapon, at least initially, on a less-effective “drive stun” mode since it was very close range.

Tudor called for “Code 3 Cover,” and backup officers quickly arrived on the scene, but their interactions with Denunzio are not shown in the video.

Sanchez said Tudor was trying to get Denunzio on the ground so he could handcuff him. The only audio picked up is from inside the patrol car, but yelling, a horn blaring (a witness reports doing so in an attempt to “break the officer’s bubble”) and backup officers’ sirens can be heard in addition to the car’s radio. Witnesses, including a security guard from Gelson’s Market, appear to observe almost the entire event.

About eight minutes and 30 seconds into the video, Denunzio is escorted by two backup officers across the front of the squad car, in handcuffs. He can be heard and seen asking, “Why are you hurting me? What the hell did I do? What the hell did I do?”

Based on this video, and only this video, Sanchez said he believes there was no excessive force used by Tudor.

“Any use of force, even when used legally and appropriately, is never pretty,” he said.

Since 2008, there have been 872 uses of force, including 146 uses of a Taser, Sanchez said. In the same time period, the department received almost 297,000 calls for service and had 118 officers assaulted.

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’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 and Tudor was not charged with anything.

“It is clear from the video that he was not complying with the request of Officer Tudor,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Hilary Dozer said.

Witnesses had “markedly different” opinions characterizing the actions of the two men and to file charges, but authorities must have sufficient admissible evidence to prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Here, multiple opinions by different witnesses compel a conclusion that proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not exist,” said Dozer, adding that the video was a piece of evidence in the filing decision.

The District Attorney’s Office doesn’t condone the video’s release to the public, Sanchez said Friday, and District Attorney Joyce Dudley confirmed it. Sanchez said the Police Department intended to release it all along.

Since three witnesses filed complaints, an internal affairs investigation is ongoing into Tudor’s conduct. That investigation is separate from Sanchez’s analysis of the dashboard camera video.

Sanchez said one witness “recanted” and the other two “have refused to talk to us.” Those two, Ellen and John Hunter, told Noozhawk they would be more than happy to talk and participate in the investigation if authorities come to their home, Ellen Hunter said. They have told supervising Sgt. Todd Stoney as much.

The Hunters moved closer to the incident as it progressed, ending up about 8 feet away, in their estimation. Hunter was relieved to hear that Denunzio would not be charged with resisting arrest, but disappointed that Tudor was not charged with anything.

“If that is what we’re considering normal police procedure, something is wrong and it’s frightening to me,” she said. “It’s scary.”

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

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