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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 7:04 pm | Fair 57º


Sanchez Delivers Low-Key Police Report to Santa Barbara City Council but Public Not So Muted

Fiery remarks fill open comment period as citizens challenge SBPD conduct, question council's response

Less than a week after multiple eyewitnesses accused Santa Barbara police of using excessive force during an Oct. 21 traffic stop, Mayor Helene Schneider asked Police Chief Cam Sanchez to begin providing regular reports during City Council meetings.

In calling for the updates, Schneider cited the need to “increase transparency” about Police Department activities.

Sanchez made his first appearance before the council Tuesday, but he didn’t mention the controversial incident that has transfixed the community — nor did any council member.

Instead, Sanchez talked about recent restorative policing hires, staffing levels, crime rates and the Police Activities League — all subjects that Schneider used as examples in her proposal.

According to Sanchez, the police force is staffed at 140 of an authorized 141 positions and is interviewing for that last opening now. Violent crime rates are down about 13 percent from this time last year but property crimes have increased, he said.

The City Council even skipped Sanchez’s update to first consider proposed historical landmarks, a discussion that took more than an hour. The police report item didn’t come up until after 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“I waited four hours for that?” activist Kate Smith fumed during public comment.

Earlier in the meeting, John Hunter — one of the witnesses who came forward after the alleged beating of a DUI suspect — exploded at the council’s lack of response to the incident thus far.

“I just don’t understand the silence of the council on this matter,” he said. “It’s a matter of leadership to me.”

Witnesses allege that police Officer Aaron Tudor used excessive force in arresting Tony Denunzio, 50, of Santa Barbara, during a traffic stop in the Loreto Plaza parking lot the night of Oct. 21. By all accounts, Denunzio got out of his truck and did not comply with Tudor’s command to get back into his vehicle. Witnesses say Tudor then repeatedly punched and Tasered the suspect, who they say was not resisting arrest. Police maintain that Tudor’s response was appropriate because Denunzio was resisting.

The public outcry over the incident has been so great that Sanchez last week released the patrol car’s dashboard-camera video of the confrontation. The videotape shows Tudor hitting, kicking and Tasering the suspect, but most of the interaction cannot be seen on the video and audio is only picked up from inside the patrol car.

“What my wife and I witnessed that night in the parking lot we talked about the entire walk home,” said Hunter, a San Roque resident. “What if that was our 16-year-old son? What if that was our 19-year-old daughter? Driving to community (college), gets out of the car, is startled by the police officer and in 5.1 seconds, is in the most serious beat-down I have ever witnessed in my life.

“And I’m one of the few witnesses who watched it from start to finish. With a ringside seat,” he said.

“My whole thing with this, and I’ll stand by this to the grave: I don’t need to see a doctored-up video from the Police Department with captions, slowed down to quarter-speed so you can’t see how it happened in real time. In five seconds, this was a beat-down.

“My grandmother used to say, the fish rots from the neck down,” Hunter told the council. “You’ve got a rotting fish.”

The Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office investigation did not find sufficient admissible evidence to file either resisting arrest or excessive force charges in the case, but Denunzio has been charged with driving under the influence and related charges.

There is an internal affairs investigation into Tudor’s conduct since several witnesses filed citizen complaints with the Police Department. The full-length video shows Tudor asking Denunzio to get back in the vehicle and getting physical — with a hand on the arm then pushing Denunzio into the side of the truck — within a few seconds.

Councilman Grant House did ask Sanchez what citizens could do if they have concerns about officer conduct.

Every citizen complaint is investigated and taken seriously, even anonymous ones, Sanchez replied. The individual who files the complaint is interviewed by police since some allegations can cost an officer his or her job, and he added that investigations are sometimes as thorough as a criminal case would be.

People can fill out a form or call the police station from the scene and ask for a supervisor, so the interview can be conducted immediately, he said.

The city doesn’t advertise the fact that it conducts internal affairs investigations or disciplines and even fires police officers for their actions, if necessary, City Administrator Jim Armstrong said. It does happen, but “we’re not allowed to talk about these things publicly,” he said.

The Civil Service Commission reviews public-safety employee cases that deal with suspensions or terminations and those meetings are public.

City Attorney Steve Wiley, who has worked with the city since 1983, said SBPD’s instances of misconduct are rare and minor compared to other jurisdictions.

“I have to say, SBPD has always been no-nonsense when it comes to officer misconduct,” he said.

There’s no way that Wiley can demonstrate that instead of stating it, however, as police officer records — including evaluations and citizen complaints against them — aren’t made public. Typically, the only way to gain access is to have pending litigation for which the information would be deemed relevant by a judge, he said.

Meanwhile, a Santa Barbara man whose misdemeanor DUI case was dismissed in November attended Tuesday’s council meeting to speak about the citizen complaint he filed earlier in the day.

Peter Lance, a 63-year-old freelance writer, said he filed a complaint about his arrest and his subsequent investigation into Officer Kasi Beutel, and he demanded that Schneider let him speak during public comment.

Schneider initially denied the request, saying that the police item was listed later on the council’s agenda. She then reversed herself and allowed Lance to proceed as long as he limited his comments to his complaint.

In a lengthy series of articles published in the Santa Barbara News-Press, Lance alleges that Beutel manipulated his breathalyzer results, used forms with certain areas filled-in before even going out on a call, and “perjured herself” in personal matters, which he said makes him question her credibility. Beutel and the Police Department have denied the allegations.

When the series was published, Schneider and Armstrong released a statement stating: “Under our City Charter form of government, it is the duty of the city administrator, city attorney and chief of police to review these allegations and, if necessary, take appropriate action to initiate discipline, outside investigations, etc.”

Wiley said he and Armstrong did commission an independent report on Beutel, and the report will be presented to the City Council after some follow-up investigation. Wiley said he believes the report is protected under attorney-client privilege and wants the issue to be settled in the legal system.

“I do believe Mr. Lance fully intends to sue the city,” he said.

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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