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Santa Barbara Police Facing $6 Million Slander Claim Tied to Gang Enforcement

Six people say they were wrongly identified as gang members or associates during 'Operation Falling Dawn'

Almost two months after reporters gathered at a news conference to see mugshots of about 70 suspected gang members, some of those same suspects have filed legal claim against the Santa Barbara Police Department, saying they’ve been slandered publicly and are owed $6 million in damages.

In November, police held a news conference to hail the success of “Operation Falling Dawn,” which resulted in 68 arrests. Authorities say most of those arrested in the sweep were gang members or associates, and that they were responsible for 322 offenses, more than half of which are felonies.

The crackdown was an attempt to stem gang violence in Santa Barbara, which has seen an increase in recent years, police said.

On Friday, a claim was filed on behalf of six of those listed among the suspects — Joseph Castaneda, David Castro, Marci Estrada, Adriana Guerrero, Jessica Perez and Sergio Sanchez — and their attorney said more people are expected to join the lawsuit.

Whittier civil rights attorney James Segall-Gutierrez stood on the steps outside the Santa Barbara police station, surrounded by supporters who castigated Police Chief Cam Sanchez, the City Council and the city’s gang injunction, which has yet to be enacted. He said having a citation, misdemeanor or felony and being Chicano or Mexican “does not constitute gang activity.”

Segall-Gutierrez also was behind last month’s announcement that the family of Brian Tacadena would be suing the City of Santa Barbara for $10 million, claiming his 2013 death was the result of excessive force by police.

A police officer fatally shot Tacadena in the early morning hours of Sept. 1 after an encounter near downtown. According to police, the officer fired on Tacadena — who had drawn a knife and was advancing on the officer — when he failed to heed orders to stop. Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley later issued a statement saying the officer was legally justified in the shooting.

The Tacadena suit also lists the Police Department and Sanchez, whom Segall-Gutierrez blamed for creating a “trigger-happy” culture on the police force and for supporting a gang injunction.

“We feel a gang injunction would institutionalize racism,” Segall-Gutierrez said.

Sanchez did not respond to a request for comment from Noozhawk. City Administrator Jim Armstrong said he had not seen Friday’s claim, but noted that the city generally does not comment on pending litigation.

The city has 45 days to respond to the claim, Segall-Gutierrez said.

During November’s news conference, dozens of mugshots were displayed on a wall near Sanchez as he spoke to reporters.

But that move may have been too soon, Segall-Gutierrez said. He says many of the cases involving those named at the news conference have not even gone to trial yet, making them “guilty until proven innocent.”

“Cam Sanchez was premature,” he said. “A lot of these people don’t even have records.”

The City of Santa Barbara, the Police Department and the Sanchez are listed as defendants in the latest claim.

Because his clients have been falsely accused of being gang members, Segall-Gutierrez said, the claim seeks damages for emotional distress, medical expenses and attorney fees, as well as punitive and general damages. It asks for $1 million per client.

If the matter can’t be resolved, he said, he’ll be filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

Marissa Garcia of People Organized for the Defense & Equal Rights (PODER) also spoke on behalf of her husband, Marical, who is listed on the city’s gang injunction.

“We have pleaded with the leaders of our city,” she said. “They have done nothing.”

Garcia and several others took aim at City Councilman Dale Francisco, who took out a book and began reading during public comment at the Jan. 7 City Council meeting while speakers were addressing the council about the gang injunction.

Several speakers condemned what they termed a “climate of racism” in the Police Department.

Segall-Gutierrez served the claim to a police officer in the station lobby. When asked if he had anything specifically to say to Sanchez, he said he replied, “I would encourage him to retire and the city to hire someone who is culturally competent.”

Segall-Gutierrez called residents of the Eastside and Westside neighborhoods “the backbone of Santa Barbara.” If the city is truly interested in deterring gangs, he said, it would create more job opportunities, and he specifically mentioned the work of Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles as a model.

— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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