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Police Take Stand in Cooney’s Assault Case

Testimony Focuses on How Cops Perceived “Near Riot Situation”


Thursday, January 10, 2008

The officer who arrested former UCSB student Meron Meshesha during a rowdy night in 2006 outside the old Cooney’s Bar on Anacapa Street testified for the second day in her misdemeanor trial Wednesday, describing a “near riot situation” in which he was telling the crowd to stay back, when Meshesha came forward past the “skirmish line” and walked into his arm.

Meshesha and Aseye Allah were both arrested in the early morning of June 16, 2006, for obstructing peace officers in the performance of their duty. As the bar began emptying out just before 2 a.m. that morning, Donald Bivens, a visiting Marine from San Diego, hit student Reggie Smith in the face and knocked him unconscious. Officer Andre Feller testified that as the crowd became excited after the incident, he immediately engaged in crowd control. During this time, Meshesha tried to walk past Feller’s extended arm to help her friend, and she walked into his arm, according to Feller. Feller tried to place her under arrest but she resisted, he said, and he didn’t believe she was going to stop, so he took her to the ground because it is “easier to control somebody on the ground and handcuff them versus collecting somebody’s arms while they are flailing, especially with all of the chaos in the crowd,” he said. “Had she backed up and walked away, even after yelling profanities at you, would she have been arrested?” Deputy District Attorney Paula Waldman asked, to which Feller responded, “We would not have been here today. She would not have been arrested.”

Following Feller on the stand was Officer Noel Rivas, who went to help Smith after he was hit. The crowd quickly grew after the punch, Rivas said, and was yelling at police trying to create room for Smith, saying “You can’t tell us what to do,” and “Do something,” with regard to Smith. He described the tone of the crowd as antagonistic and angry and “felt my safety was compromised and maybe that of Smith, because they were not giving us the space we needed for medics to get to Mr. Smith.” This was later verified by Eric Spencer, a paramedic with American Medical Response, who said he had to wait off-site almost ten minutes because they received word that the crowd was volatile.

Steven Olivera, who worked as a bouncer for Cooney’s, said people in the crowd were “unruly,” calling the police “pigs” and yelling “Fuck you, cop.”

Meshesha, along with Allah, have filed a civil lawsuit against the City of Santa Barbara, Police Chief Cam Sanchez and 16 officers, detectives and sergeants because of what allegedly happened that night. The three officers to testify Wednesday-Feller, Rivas and Officer Douglas Klug-all are named in the civil suit. Among the complaints are that police suppressed free speech, unlawfully arrested the two women and used excessive force. Battery, negligence and conspiracy to interfere with civil rights are also mentioned in the suit. According to city attorney Stephen Wiley, the police department conducted an investigation into the incident which showed all the involved officers acted appropriately, and none were suspended or reprimanded because of the incident. Defense attorney Gary Casselman, who is representing the two women in both the civil and criminal cases, along with Burbank-based lawyer Joe Freeman, whose website touts him as well experienced in civil rights litigation, “most particularly police misconduct cases.”

The court was on recess today, but will resume Friday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. in Judge Brian Hill’s Department 2 courtroom.

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