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Overseeing the Overseers
updated: Jan 11, 2014, 4:00 PM

By Alex Kacik

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 the Montoya residence on Santa Barbara's Westside. 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 police department. 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.

Santa Barbara Police officers form a perimeter on De la Vina Street after the officer-involved shooting of Brian Tacadena. (KEYT)

In the wake of the officer-involved shooting of Brian Tacadena, however, some are still asking: When should police shoot civilians and who holds them accountable when they do?

Tacadena was killed by a Santa Barbara police officer the night of September 1. Tacadena allegedly walked toward the officer with a large blade and refused to comply with the officer's orders before the cop took five shots and landed one lethal round into the 46-year-old'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. The district attorney'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 his 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 district attorney's report.

The Tacadena family has questioned the officer's experience and weapons training, his decision to use deadly force instead of non-lethal alternatives and why the officer didn't wait for backup. Civil rights attorney James P. Segall-Gutierrez has filed a claim against the city, the police department and police Chief Camerino Sanchez on behalf of Tacadena's daughter, Brittany Tacadena.

As to the question of when deadly force can be used, the Santa Barbara Police Department Policy Manual states that an officer can use it when it is "necessary to save himself/herself and/or other persons from death or serious bodily harm. The amount of force used must have been necessary or the circumstances must have been such as to make the use of force appear necessary to a reasonable and prudent person." Furthermore, police cannot fire warning shots, and a verbal warning should precede shooting "where feasible."

After a shooting, department policy states that the officer must request a supervisor, additional units and medical personnel, handcuff the suspect, preserve the scene and identify witnesses. Officers cannot discuss the shooting with one another or write about the incident. Instead, the supervisor asks the officer for a description of the outstanding suspects, where the evidence is and what direction shots were fired. Among other duties, the supervisor is there to secure the crime scene and determine whether other suspects are at large and witnesses are being interviewed. He or she is not authorized to inquire about the involved officer's tactics and state of mind, according to the manual.

The 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 done 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 chief of police 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.

A graphic from an article in the News & Review, which became the Santa Barbara Independent, published in 1979. (News & Review)

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 or not a crime has been committed. The district attorney'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, Santa Barbara County 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.

Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the full article at MissionAndState.org


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