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Santa Maria Police investigation finds minor use-of-force violations in October arrest
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Santa Maria Police investigation finds minor use-of-force violations in October arrest

Viral video documented incident, prompting public outcry, protest

  • Updated

A Santa Maria Police use-of-force investigation stemming from an October 2019 video of a high-risk arrest, found that officers violated department policy, Chief Phil Hansen said on Wednesday.

The investigation, which concluded in April, identified minor policy violations by three officers involved in the video-recorded arrest of 28-year-old Alejandro Hernandez Meza in the 800 block of West Barrett Street following a brief, half-mile vehicle pursuit on Oct. 20, 2019.

Hansen declined to identify the officers and their violations, but said they were appropriately disciplined.

The findings weren't serious enough to warrant harsh discipline, termination or criminal charges, Hansen said.

"As a matter of leading this department, I think we could have done it better," Hansen said of the arrest, adding that he personally interviewed each officer involved in the incident. 

The arrest tactics shown in the nearly 7-minute video recorded by an eyewitness — Hansen said the witness would not give a name or a statement to police — sparked public scrutiny and at least one protest.

In the video, Meza is seen sitting in a white Ford SUV before police order him out the vehicle at gunpoint and force him to lay on his stomach. Police yelled several commands before deploying pepper spray and a K-9 unit, which latched onto his leg. 

Meza, who was allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine at the time, appears to lift one officer off the ground, at which point the officer punches him in the head multiple times. 

As part of Santa Maria Police policy, Meza was transported to be evaluated for injury at a local hospital, where medics found a puncture wound from the dog bite, Hansen said. 

Meza later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor resisting arrest and DUI charges on Oct. 30, 2019, court records show. 

Hansen promised a thorough review of the incident amid calls for an independent investigation and more officer training. He followed up on training, but the investigation remained within the department. 

Not all such investigations reach the administrative level like this one did, said Hansen, who holds years of experience reviewing tactical incidents from his time on the Los Angeles County Sheriff's SWAT team.

The Santa Barbara District Attorney's Office also reviewed the evidence in the case, including the eyewitness video and the arresting officer's dash cam footage, which showed the entire event from start to finish. 

"It's how professional organizations operate," Hansen said. "Unless you have a corrupt department, which we don't, you have to trust the managers or chiefs who are in charge." 

While acknowledging the violations, Hansen also pointed to Meza's actions, which included endangering the public with the pursuit, which resulted in the high-risk arrest. He added that Meza wasn't completely compliant, which prompted the use of pepper spray and K-9. 

Hansen also addressed the concern that officers should have communicated with Meza in Spanish, although Hansen noted Meza understood English perfectly. 

Several rounds of training were instituted at the department as a result of the investigation, Hansen said. Last fall, all dispatchers, sergeants and officers received eight hours of crisis intervention training. In January, they received eight hours in de-escalation and threat assessment training. 

Training this fall will include principled policing, which focuses on racial profiling and implicit bias, Hansen said.

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