SBPD Accused of Police Brutality
by Ethan Stewart
Emotions ran high this week at City Hall as several UCSB students — a majority of them black — publicly accused the Santa Barbara Police Department of brutality during a late-night arrest gone terribly wrong last week. With Police Chief Cam Sanchez looking on, a dozen witnesses gave their accounts of the scene outside Cooney’s Bar late last Thursday night, relaying teary and outraged stories of unwarranted pepper spraying, excessive use of batons, and a woman being “dragged by her hair across the street with her breast hanging out.” While the council was prevented by state law to take any action on the ordeal, several board members looked visibly shaken by the testimony. After the meeting, a de facto spokesperson for the students — biology major Ashleigh Rucker — alluded to the future of the issue. “Contrary to what was reported, there was no riot,” she said. “We were attacked. … The people who did this to us must know that we will not be silent. We will be heard and we are coming.”
Speaking before the council meeting, police spokesperson Paul McCaffery said, “We can’t always do our jobs perfectly, but that was a very difficult night and I think a lot of people had misperceptions about what was going on.” Police Chief Cam Sanchez promised the City Council that his department was already looking into the matter, admitting that the skirmish — which lasted nearly an hour and effectively closed down the 500 block of Anacapa Street — “just got out of hand.” According to the police report, the trouble started just before 2 a.m. when officers on regular bar patrol witnessed a fight between two men — both black — on the sidewalk outside of Cooney’s. As the officers arrested 22-year-old Donald Blivens — a U.S. Air Force serviceman currently stationed in Kansas — for assaulting UCSB student Reggie Smith, they were surrounded by angry friends of Blivens who hurled insults and threats at the officers, demanding that they release their friend and accusing them of racial bias. Outnumbered by an estimated 300 people in the streets, the cops called for backup and about 15 officers — including sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol — responded. In the ensuing chaos, the report continues, the police used pepper spray, batons, and a dog to control the crowd; they arrested two young women for interfering and another young man for challenging them to a fight.
However, Tuesday’s City Council testimony — which included comments from one of the arrested women — presented a far different account. According to witnesses, the young women were out celebrating their upcoming college graduation at hip-hop night when they saw a classmate of theirs unconscious on the ground with “three cops just standing there, laughing.” They approached their friend to see if he was all right, and were told by the police to “move along.” When they refused and tried to return to their unconscious friend, they were hit with batons and pepper sprayed. “I feared for my life and for what? Because I wanted to see if my friend was okay?” said Rucker, who was hit in the chest and arm with a baton and pepper sprayed in the face. Meron Meshesha — one of the women arrested — added, “I was terrified. I couldn’t breathe … there was a baton or a knee jammed in my back and I was crying. … My shirt fell down in front of hundreds of people and I was being dragged by my hair across the street and I didn’t know why. … When my friends tried to help me, they were beaten and pepper sprayed. It was a nightmare.” As for whether or not the women were in fact defending Blivens, Rucker said she didn’t know him and never saw him or the punch he allegedly threw. Police representatives met with several of the students after the meeting in hopes of getting their official testimony for the ongoing investigation.