What began as a barroom brawl ended with a man dead in the streets of Santa Barbara’s Westside and the city’s first police oversight committee.
The year was 1978. Fermin Montoya and his family were getting ready to celebrate his son’s birthday at their Westside home.
Montoya, his brother and brother-in-law were getting food for the birthday bash when they stopped for beers at a Milpas Street bar. There, they got into a fight with two men, according to news accounts and official reports.
When Montoya got back to the party, he grabbed his .22-caliber rifle and went out into the night looking for the two antagonists. Meanwhile, someone had called the police.
Two officers arrived on the street and took cover behind a tree and a car at the sight of a silhouette of a man carrying a rifle.
The police said Montoya shot first after ignoring demands to drop his weapon. He was pronounced “dead on arrival” at the hospital.
The shooting was found to be “justifiable homicide in self-defense,” spurring protests from the Latino community.
The community group El Concilio de la Raza lobbied for an independent oversight committee to investigate complaints of police misconduct and violence, aid alleged victims of police abuse and help them find legal representation.
The committee won a battle for a quasi-official oversight board to look into the Montoya shooting and suspicions that then-police Chief Al Trembly interfered with the district attorney’s investigation.
The board didn’t last long.
Trembly claimed it would “destroy” the Santa Barbara Police Department, the council never granted subpoena powers, and El Concilio de la Raza rejected its legitimacy.
That was more than 35 years ago; the oversight board is long gone and El Concilio de la Raza eventually fizzled out.
In the wake of last year's officer-involved shooting of Brian Tacadena, however, some are still asking: Under what circumstances are police justified in shooting civilians and who holds them accountable if they do?
Tacadena was killed by a Santa Barbara police officer the night of Sept. 1. The man allegedly walked toward the officer with a large blade and refused to comply with his orders before the officer fired five shots, one a lethal round that struck the 46-year-old Tacadena’s chest.
The Santa Barbara County District Attorney justified the officer’s use of lethal force, citing “stand-your-ground” laws, which state that anyone, including a police officer, who is threatened by an attack may stand his ground and defend himself if necessary, even if running away is a safer alternative. (Scroll down the page to read the full report.)
The DA’s report also references the “21-foot rule,” maintaining that 21 feet is the minimum distance that allows an officer enough time — 1.5 seconds — to draw a weapon and fire two shots at a perceived threat.
The officer first contacted Tacadena from 66 feet away with his weapon drawn and didn’t shoot until Tacadena was between 12 and 15 feet away, according to the DA’s report.
The Tacadena family has questioned the officer’s experience and weapons training, his decision to use deadly force instead of nonlethal alternatives, and why the officer didn’t wait for backup.
Civil rights attorney James P. Segall-Gutierrez has filed a claim against the City of Santa Barbara, the Police Department and Police Chief Cam Sanchez on behalf of Tacadena’s daughter, Brittany Tacadena.
Sanchez, as police chief, is the only one authorized to release the involved officer’s identity.
To the question of who holds police accountable, in Santa Barbara, an officer-involved investigation is conducted internally.
The department is responsible for “objectively evaluating” the use of deadly force. It conducts both a criminal investigation and an administrative investigation, including the investigation from the Use of Deadly Force Review Board, which is comprised of the deputy police chief and two division commanders of his choice.
The criminal investigation includes officer statements, witness statements, physical evidence reports, diagrams and other supporting documents to be analyzed in “as complete, detailed, objective and thorough a manner as possible, comparable to a homicide investigation,” the manual reads.
Officers involved in deadly force shootings have the same rights as citizens and do not need to share any incriminating information.
Facts later uncovered that were unknown to the officer can neither negate nor strengthen the legitimacy of the officer’s decision to use force. The police chief designates a detective supervisor who receives and approves all related reports.
An administrative investigation follows the criminal investigation to ensure all department policies were met and to evaluate the officer’s civil liability and examine training procedures.
At this point, the investigation becomes a human resources issue with information gathered not permissible in court. The administrative investigation is considered a “confidential peace officer personnel file,” according to the manual.
The district attorney reviews all cases including officer-involved shootings, determining whether a crime has been committed. The DA’s office convenes an executive committee to discuss the case, challenge theories and ask agencies for more information.
The committee is comprised of the district attorney, the assistant district attorney, three chief deputy district attorneys, a chief criminal investigator, the director of administration, and a victim-witness assistance program director.
Since she took office in 2010, District Attorney Joyce Dudley has found each of the eight officer-involved shooting cases she’s reviewed justified.
Ultimately, the police answer to the mayor and the City Council, which has the power to demand information, change policies, including training, and mete out disciplinary measures.
Outside of the district attorney, there’s the Fire & Police Commission, although this panel is mostly concerned with handling business-permit issues.
While it can recommend rules and regulations regarding police and fire operations and conduct, it doesn’t typically have much influence on police matters, according to Sgt. Riley Harwood, an SBPD spokesman.
“We have a very thorough review process that isn’t limited to the Police Department,” Harwood said. “There is outside oversight. It’s the city council and (district attorney’s office) that reviews aspects of our investigation and that we answer to.
"Incidents like (the Tacadena case) routinely result in civil lawsuits being filed, and ultimately in the course of the legal process things get discovered in court. You could imagine what the repercussions to our agency if we were found to have not done a thorough investigation.”
Gutierrez is seeking $10 million in the Tacadena family’s wrongful-death claim.
“There needs to be a due-process hearing; there needs to be an evidentiary hearing,” Gutierrez said. “And this whole notion that law enforcement can investigate themselves is an oxymoron.”
Harwood said he understands why it’s frustrating to the public to be kept in the dark when it comes to the details of particular investigations, but “at stake is millions of dollars of the public’s money,” he said.
“As a Santa Barbara taxpayer and someone who contributes to this community and relies on services the city provides, do you want your taxpayer dollars to be squandered away in frivolous lawsuits? The city has deep pockets and has a big target on it when comes to people trying to file lawsuits.”
Should law enforcement be able to investigate itself?
“That’s a good and legitimate question,” said Dudley, who added that she understands the community’s suspicions but says law enforcement agencies have all of the hard evidence and research to perform a thorough and objective investigation.
Some bigger cities do have independent oversight. Los Angeles, Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco have implemented police commissions that include citizen oversight of police matters, especially deadly force issues.
Smaller cities with fewer officer-involved incidents, such as Santa Barbara, generally don’t, according to Harwood.
In Los Angeles, the Office of the Inspector General was established to authorize a civilian to oversee the Los Angeles Police Department’s disciplinary system. The civilian reports directly to the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, which has authority over the chief of police.
Kevin Rogan, Los Angeles’ assistant inspector general, said the theory behind an independent oversight board is good, but implementing one from a policy and legal standpoint can be difficult.
“The premise is that an independent body can function without feeling internal pressures that may exist, (such as) if an agency has an inclination to protect or defend itself from criticism or liability,” Rogan said via email. “We find that the majority of the LAPD’s self-policing efforts are well done, but we also identify areas where we either disagree or would have preferred that additional or other actions be taken (or not taken).”
Los Angeles takes police oversight a step further, by separating its management from political bodies such as the mayor’s office or City Council.
The Los Angeles police commission, established in the 1920s when the LAPD was notoriously corrupt, is comprised of five civilians who donate their time and, in effect, manage the Police Department like a board of directors would a company.
The board sets overall policy. The police chief has the responsibility for managing the daily operations and implements the board’s “policies or policy direction and goals.”
But that type of oversight wouldn’t work in Santa Barbara, according to both Harwood and Dudley. It would slow the process and leave it in less adept hands, Harwood said.
“My opinion is that it’s not needed based on our history, the procedures and entities we have in place here,” he said. “We also don’t have the volume of incidents like this that they have elsewhere. That might put a lot of pressure for things not to get investigated as thoroughly as we do here.”
In 2011, Mayor Helene Schneider required that Sanchez report to the City Council twice a month following investigations into the conduct of police Officers Kasi Beutel and Aaron Tudor.
The Tacadena family has lobbied for a citizen police review board in the wake of what it sees as a lack of action by the mayor and council.
“There has to be some kind of outside agency doing the investigation or overseeing that investigation,” said Frank Tacadena, a cousin of Brian Tacadena.