The City of Santa Barbara was served last week with a lawsuit filed on behalf of two former UCSB students alleging racial discrimination and civil rights violations during an incident outside Cooney’s bar in 2006. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court on June 26, names 16 law enforcement officers from the Santa Barbara Police Department, as well as Chief Cam Sanchez and 10 unidentified defendants.
The 18 complaints listed on behalf of Aseye Allah and Meron Meshesha, both of whom are black, include allegations of suppression of free speech, a conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, battery, excessive force, negligence, and unlawful arrest-charges that City Attorney Steve Wiley said result from a “misunderstanding of what went on.” Wiley said the city, at this point, plans to defend against the lawsuit.
Allah and Meshesha were part of a large contingent of people celebrating graduation from UCSB at the now-defunct Cooney’s bar, then located at 500 Anacapa St. (now home to EOS Lounge). As closing time approached, a crowd began filing onto the street. Donald Bivens, a visiting Marine from San Diego, hit student Reggie Smith in the face and knocked him unconscious.
A group of women-including Meshesha, who was still inside the club when the assault occurred-tried to help Smith, but officers “abruptly pushed her back away,” and one officer, Andre Feller, according to the complaint, grabbed her arm and “yanked her forcefully down the street.” Feller-who “has a previous history of unreasonable force against students of the local colleges,” the complaint reads-then allegedly threw Meshesha to the ground. At a City Council meeting the Tuesday after the incident, Meshesha told councilmembers, “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.” Meshesha was wearing a tube top that was pulled down as Feller allegedly dragged her down the street, exposing her breasts to the crowd. Despite begging from Meshesha, Feller wouldn’t give her the opportunity to pull up her top, according to the complaint. Allah told officers she was trying to assist them in calming the crowd, many of whom were being pepper-sprayed and hit with batons, but said she was instead knocked down and then arrested.
Both plaintiffs were cited, Wiley said, and still have pending criminal charges against them. Additionally, both Bivens and Smith pled guilty to crimes, said Wiley, although he didn’t know what the charges had been. While the complaint alleges indiscriminate use of pepper spray, batons, and a canine in a show of excessive force, Wiley said the use was appropriate for crowd control because the situation rose to a “near riot” level that night. The plaintiffs contend the upheaval was only in response to officers’ combative actions. Allah also maintains that, from her holding cell that night, she heard officers conspiring to get their stories straight.
The complaint suggests that the Police Department’s presence outside Cooney’s was greater than elsewhere downtown as a result of “knowledge that the club’s clientele was primarily black”-a charge Wiley denied. “There are police officers assigned to pay attention to closing time,” he said.
Joe Freeman, an attorney for the two plaintiffs, couldn’t be reached for comment, and his office directed questions to co-counsel Gary Casselman, who also couldn’t be reached for comment. The city will have to file either a response or demurrer by the end of the year. Depending on the process, depositions of those involved will take place in the spring or summer of next year.
At the time, police promised the City Council there would be an investigation of the incident. Police Chief Cam Sanchez didn’t return a call to his office before deadline, police spokesperson Lt. Paul McCaffrey was out on vacation, and a call to the watch commander’s office went unanswered, but Wiley said the investigation showed all the involved officers acted appropriately, and none were suspended or reprimanded because of the incident. “The investigation showed every police officer handled this correctly,” he said.