What exactly happened on May 7, 2019, when Santa Barbara police shot and killed 32-year-old Francisco Alcaraz in an apartment off Turnpike Road? Why did a SWAT team, armed with M4 carbines and bulletproof shields, break down his door and within seconds fire 58 rounds? Why did police consider Alcaraz so dangerous, and why did they choose to confront him when they did and where they did?
Answers to these questions and others are contained among internal police records released to the Santa Barbara Independent under a California Public Records Act request, including audio and video recordings of the incident. Amid renewed scrutiny, both locally and nationally, over police use of force tactics, the Independent is reviewing confrontations in which law enforcement officers fired their guns or otherwise took action that resulted in serious injury or death.
The Alcaraz materials align with information in a previously published finding by the District Attorney’s Office that the shooting was lawful, and they provide greater insight into the events and dynamics that led up to that day. The materials also dispel accusations by some in the community that officers had ambushed Alcaraz with guns blazing.
Alcaraz was well known to law enforcement, the files show. He was a documented gang member with multiple felony convictions and went by the street name “Stranger.” In 2008, he was indicted in a countywide crackdown on organized crime called “Gator Roll.” At the time of his death, Alcaraz was wanted in connection with two recent shootings in the City of Santa Barbara (the details of which officials have still not disclosed, citing open investigations) and had been charged with attempted murder. He was the father of four young children and split his time between Lompoc and his wife’s Turnpike area residence.
As police formulated their plan for apprehending Alcaraz, including how heavily to arm themselves, they consulted a “Risk Assessment Matrix” that assigns point values to a suspect based on their criminal past and the circumstances of the arrest affidavit. It takes into account if the suspect used a firearm during their alleged crime, if they are known to carry weapons, if they have previously resisted police, etc. Alcaraz scored a 28; a score of 25 or above means the SWAT team should be deployed to serve the warrant, the assessment tool says.
Alcaraz was also unlikely to surrender without a fight, officials believed. “Two-striker per wife,” a handwritten note states. “Knew next strike would mean prison or death.”
Police commanders decided the safest way to arrest Alcaraz was to catch him alone at home, before he could travel back to Lompoc and far out of their jurisdiction. They also wanted to move in quickly and quietly, because Alcaraz was known to possess a police scanner that allowed him to monitor their radio communications.
Detectives staked out Apartment 147 at 25 Camino De Vida and waited until Alcaraz’s wife, their four children, and his wife’s mother had all left. At around 12:45 p.m., the SWAT team arrived, divided into an entry team and a containment team. The entry team, led by Sgt. Andrew Feller, exited their military-style armored vehicle, called the Bearcat, and gathered outside the apartment’s front door in a line, or “stack.” The containment team stood around a corner of the building, ready to apprehend Alcaraz if he ran.
What happened next was captured by Feller’s audio recorder. “Give it. Give knock notice,” he orders. Officer Aaron Denbrook bangs on the door five times. “Police department!” Denbrook shouts. “Search warrant! Open the door!” There is no answer. Denbrook is reminded by another team member to state the apartment number in his commands as he knocks another four times. “Police department! Number 147! Open the door! We have a warrant!” A few moments pass. More silence. “Apartment 147! Search warrant! Open the door!”
Almost immediately after Denbrook gives his last command, Feller orders Officer Bryce Ford to the front of the line with his battering ram. It takes two strikes to breach the door. (Approximately 20 seconds passed between Denbrook’s first knock and Ford’s first swing of the battering ram.) “Nice and slow…” Feller starts to say when, suddenly, Alcaraz opens fire at the officers from the top of an inside stairwell. (In an interview with the department’s shooting review board, Ford said he heard the “whiz” of a round as it passed between his legs near his groin, tearing his pants.) It takes a moment for the team to realize what has happened. (Officer Thomas Van Eyck told commanders that the first “pop” didn’t immediately register as gunfire in his mind. “He said he’d never been shot at before this day,” the interview summary states.) The team then starts shouting “Shots fired! Shots fired!” as Officer Justin Cruz drops to a knee and returns fire.
“Back up! Bearcat! Bearcat! Bearcat!” Feller yells, ordering his team to the safety of their armored car parked next to the apartment. As they run, Alcaraz begins shooting at the group from a second-story window. Once they reach cover, they shoot back. The officers said they couldn’t see Alcaraz clearly ― the blinds were closed and there was a glare on the window ― and they sprayed dozens of rounds through and around the glass and walls.
The shooting stopped as quickly as it started. Not knowing if Alcaraz was still a threat, the SWAT team and other responding officers began to evacuate adjacent buildings, after they conducted a roll call to check each other for injuries. Nearby San Marcos High School was put on lockdown and Highway 101 was closed in both directions. Three hours passed before a camera-equipped robot confirmed Alcaraz had been killed. He sustained four gunshots, two to the chest and two to the head. Near his body lay spent bullet casings and a .40 caliber handgun with a high-capacity magazine.
The police department’s shooting review board agreed with the District Attorney’s Office that the officers reasonably feared for their lives and the safety of others and were justified in using lethal force against Alcaraz. “In closing, Denbrook said that if he hadn’t shot at the suspect, he was certain the suspect would kill someone,” the board said. The rest of the SWAT team made similar statements.
The Independent will publish these reports on police use-of-force incidents on a rolling basis as the records are made available.
This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund.