There are two very different interpretations of the violent scene that unfolded this fall when a Santa Barbara police officer shot and killed Brian Tacadena on De la Vina Street.
The District Attorney’s Office released a report Friday that calls the shooting a “justifiable homicide” and details how a night patrol officer confronted an aggressive man high on drugs who refused orders to drop a large knife he was carrying as he approached the officer. Members of Tacadena’s family, however, claim that Brian’s death was an example of police brutality, that the 46-year-old was mentally ill and could have been subdued with nonlethal force, and that the DA’s report contains major holes.
Tacadena took a bus from San Jose that arrived in Santa Barbara at approximately 7:00 p.m. on September 1, the report reads. He planned to stay with his sister in Santa Maria and later visit his daughter in Goleta, and records show he had just moved out of a residential treatment facility in Santa Clara County, where he was on probation for confronting a man in public with a knife. Not long after he arrived on the South Coast, Tacadena — on a medication that treats schizophrenia and bipolar disorder — texted his daughter, “I’m dead.”
Between 7 and 9:45 p.m., Tacadena’s whereabouts are unknown, until a witness walking her dog saw him in the area of Castillo Street and Anapamu Street, angrily talking to himself and saying things like, “You mother fucker, now you did it.” A coroner’s report would later reveal that Tacadena had a large amount of methamphetamine in his system at the time, more than 10 times the amount typically found in an “average” meth user.
At around 10 p.m., the same witness observed Tacadena “ranting and raving” on Bath Street, the report reads. The witness called 9-1-1 but officers were unable to locate Tacadena. At approximately 11:25 p.m., another witness saw an agitated Tacadena “looking in parked cars and up into people’s windows” and told authorities he was “in fear for his safety.” Other witnesses (none of them are named in the document) reported similar sightings to authorities.
Just minutes later, the report states, the patrol officer observed Tacadena and reported to dispatch, “I’ll be diverted, 1300 De la Vina Street on a man with a knife. I have one at gunpoint. Can I get a code three cover?” (“Code three cover” is an emergency request for other officers to respond to the scene with lights and sirens. Authorities have declined to release the name of the involved officer, citing a fear of retaliation because of Tacadena’s known gang ties.)
According to the DA’s Office, the officer stopped his cruiser, backed up from Tacadena, exited the car, and ordered Tacadena to stop and drop his knife. Tacadena reportedly refused, instead putting down his two backpacks and walking at “a quick pace” directly toward the officer. When the officer yelled for him to stop (four witnesses described him shouting, “Drop the knife! Drop the knife!”) Tacadena responded by saying something of the effect of: “I know you will.” When The Santa Barbara Independent interviewed area residents immediately following the shooting, one man corroborated the DA’s statements, saying the incident appeared to him to be a “suicide by cop.”
As Tacadena walked toward the officer, he fired five .40 caliber shots from his Smith & Wesson handgun, striking Tacadena once in the upper chest and severing his aorta. Tacadena was 66 feet away from the officer when first confronted, the report reads, and he was hit when he was approximately 12-15 away. The other four shots struck a wall and tree across the street and a retaining wall behind Tacadena.
Only the beginning of the confrontation was caught on camera. Surveillance video from the front of a building on Victoria Street (which doesn’t include sound) shows the officer stop his car and illuminate Tacadena with a spotlight before Tacadena turned to face the officer and walked toward him. The report states that the patrol car’s video system wasn’t working at the time. Other cruiser cameras show the aftermath of the shooting, including the recovery of Tacadena’s military-style survival knife, which had 0.2 grams of meth hidden in the handle.
In its finding of “justifiable homicide,” the DA’s Office cites the “21-foot rule,” a rough guideline that states that when an officer is defending himself from a knife or other edged weapon, a distance of 21 feet “is necessary in order to effectively stop the threat of injury or death by that suspect.” Police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood explained the cruiser’s video system—installed this year along with 28 others—was slated for repairs, but that ordered parts had not yet arrived. An inoperative camera is not cause for pulling a cruiser off the streets, he noted, as the police force needs those patrols “out in the field.”
The report goes into great detail on Tacadena’s criminal history and gang affiliation. It notes Tacadena had been in and out of prison and jail over the last 31 years, convicted on drug and weapons charges, spousal battery, resisting arrest, and a number of other crimes. It also describes him as a member of the Nazi Lowriders, a prison-based white supremacist gang. Tacadena — who was a quarter Latino, a quarter Filipino, and half white — had multiple gang tattoos on his body, including “White Pride As I Low-Ride” across his chest, Nazi runic symbols, and swastikas. Authorities say it’s unclear if Tacadena was an active member of the gang, but noted he had recent photographs stored on his cell phone with Lowrider insignia and was wearing boots with Nazi symbols drawn inside.
Though Tacadena’s cousin Frank said he and other family members weren’t necessarily surprised by the shooting report’s findings — stating the document is a “nice little package” that only serves to convince the community it should think “good riddance” to a supposed “monster” — they take issue with its accuracy and purpose. Frank pointed to the lack of video evidence in the report, calling it more than a little suspicious that there is no visual proof of the account. He also asked why so much of Brian’s criminal history was included, explaining, “His past had nothing to do with him being shot that night. They didn’t know his past. They didn’t know who they were dealing with.”
Frank lamented that the officer chose to use lethal force instead of a Taser or other submission means, pointing to a recent incident in Santa Ana where a suspect wielding two samurai swords in public was subdued without any shots being fired. “They didn’t even give him a chance,” Frank said. “He wasn’t a saint; he had a troubled life. But people need help, not get murdered.” Frank said a demonstration against police brutality is planned for this weekend and that the Tacadena family is meeting with detectives in the coming days and has discussed the possibility of filing a wrongful-death lawsuit.