Witnesses to the recent tasing and arrest of a man in Santa Cruz describe the incident differently from the account communicated by police through the reporting of the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Individuals on the scene report excessive force was used when officers with the SCPD arrested Oliver Howard near the Court House on Water Street on the afternoon of October 13. They say officers struck Howard with a baton, tased his bare body, piled on top of him, wrenched and twisted his limbs, and grinded his face and body into the ground, all unnecessarily. [Photo: Ryan Kiar of the SCPD was the first police officer to initiate contact with Oliver Howard.]
Debra Ellis was driving on Water Street that afternoon on her way to a medical appointment when she observed what she called an "aggressive police officer" pursuing a man near the Court House who was backing up with his hands raised above his head. She immediately exited her car because she wanted to be a witness to what she thought could be an "escalation of violence" by the police officer.
The officer's body language and facial expressions were "tense and angry," Ellis recalled. "I did not feel the man he was pursuing was dangerous or a threat to the officer or me."
"The man being pursued appeared scared and confused," she said.
Ellis said Howard was asking to be "left alone" as he walked backwards and away from the officer. It was at this time the officer took a swing at Howard with his baton, making contact with the man's leg below his knee.
"I could hear a loud sound from the impact," Ellis said. Howard's face showed the pain felt from the hit, and his body buckled. "I feared for the man's safety," she said.
As the situation continued to escalate, Ellis said a small group of observers began to form. "Each one that spoke to me expressed concern with what they were witnessing."
Photographer Shmuel Thaler of the Santa Cruz Sentinel also happened to be on the scene, and he was taking photographs constantly, Ellis said.
Moments later another officer arrived and Howard, who had no shirt on, was shot on his bare back with a taser gun. His back buckled, Ellis said, and he was brought forcibly to the ground by the officers. Additional officers arrived on the scene and joined in holding his body.
"During this time I saw an officer bend the man’s left leg in what seemed to be a painful angle for no apparent reason. I felt I was witnessing torture," she said.
"Not only was the force used by the officers excessive, the response was also excessive," Ellis said. She noted that numerous police cars arrived with what she estimated to be a dozen or more officers, plus medical responders and an ambulance. Ellis later placed a phone call to Dominican. She said they confirmed that Howard had been admitted to the hospital.
"The man did not have a weapon, did not seem threatening, and what I witnessed was excessive, unnecessary force," she said.
Ellis has lived in the Santa Cruz area for over 20 years, and besides being a mother and a recently retired UCSC administrator, she is active with the Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV). She took it upon herself to exchange contact information with the other witnesses in an effort to find out what exactly had occurred for the police to have responded so aggressively.
Two of the witnesses told Ellis their vehicle had been pulled over on Water Street by the first officer on the scene that afternoon (later identified as Ryan Kiar of the SCPD). When the officer was talking to them from outside of their car, Oliver Howard pulled up behind them in his vehicle. She said Howard exited his car and approached the officer, asking him about dead bodies and dead body parts in Santa Cruz and why weren't police doing something about it. She said Howard then walked away and was pursued by the police officer.
Another woman told Ellis that she saw Howard push away from the officer after the officer grabbed him by his hair and was shaking him violently. She told Ellis it appeared Howard was trying to pull away from this action.
Another one of the witnesses, Justin Mittie, felt the use of force by Santa Cruz police officers was excessive.
Mittie, a 23-year-old from Lodi, was visiting Santa Cruz that day and he is considering moving to the area. He was in his truck on Water Street when the incident caught his attention.
He said he saw a police officer pointing his finger at Oliver Howard as the man was walking away from him backwards, and with his hands up.
"He [Howard] was saying he wanted to go home," Mittie recalled.
Mittie said he saw the officer trying to grab at Howard and it appeared that the officer was "trying to antagonize" him.
Mittie noted that after hitting Howard with a baton and tasing him, multiple officers then piled on top of the man, even though, "the guy was clearly not fighting," he said.
"They were grinding his face into the ground, and his whole body," Mittie said. "It was not necessary. He was one man and not fighting back."
When Mittie was trying to find out from the other witnesses what may have triggered the incident, the woman who was initially pulled over in her car by the first officer on the scene told him that Howard had yelled at the officer.
"I think having peace officers is a good thing, they are here to protect us, not to abuse power," Mittie said.
After Howard was arrested, Mittie said the first officer on the scene approached him to apologize, saying, "sorry for the inconvenience."
However, Mittie said he was angry about what he had just witnessed and he told the officer that, "You are a sorry excuse for a man."
"Your use of force was unnecessary," Mittie told him.
"He wouldn't even look at me," Mittie recalled. "He wouldn't look me in the eye."
Mittie said the officer then walked away and returned the taser to its place in the patrol vehicle.
"I know there's good cops out there," he said. "He abused his power."
"I don't think he should be an officer for that," Mittie concluded.
Debra Ellis said she still felt "shaken and confused" about what she had witnessed, and she wanted an explanation from police.
"Why, if the officer had called in back up did he not remain calm or attempt some form of communication to de-escalate the situation rather than insight it?" Ellis wondered.
Because so many officers had arrived on the scene so quickly, Ellis felt that Howard could have been contained without the use of weapons.
Later that afternoon Ellis visited the police station to speak with the supervisor of the two officers she saw, in her words, "beating and tasing" Howard. She was given a number to call, and she eventually spoke with Lieutenant Flippo and Sergeant Croft on the phone.
Two Santa Cruz Police Department grenadiers seen with SCPD Lieutenant Dan Flippo in between them, and to the right is a Santa Cruz Sheriff's deputy (with a taser.) That is SCPD Lieutenant Dan Flippo in between them, and to the right is a Santa Cruz Sheriff's deputy (with a taser) during the April 7, 2014 UCSC protest.
She described Flippo as being "all jacked up" during the call, and that he was acting defensive. Flippo told her that he becomes "concerned" when the public asks the police to do their job, and then doesn't let them "protect their guys."
Ellis asked them the question, “under what circumstances is it acceptable to use a taser?” She was told by Flippo the use of the taser is considered a "mid-level" response, but she felt the question was never answered clearly.
Flippo and Croft told Ellis that Howard had charged at the first officer on the scene, ripped the badge off of him, was under the influence, and had resisted arrest.
Additionally, Flippo informed her that Howard was tased once by the first officer who made contact with him.
Ellis expressed concerns about the number of officers who responded to the incident. Flippo explained it was necessary because the man had been tased, but that the weapon had not affected him, explaining, "when these guys are on something they don’t feel pain.”
Flippo said a call had come into the station from officers that one of their own had been beaten and that his guys were responding with the thought in their head that an officer had been hurt.
Ellis believes that is partly why officers had responded with such an agitated orientation, and why so many of them were sent to the scene.
However, she said she was also informed that after the first few cars arrived on the scene a separate message was relayed to the station that the crowd was growing, and empathetic with the victim, which is why so many more officers swarmed in.
It was for crowd control.
Smiitie agreed that the response was an overreaction, and that assigning officers for crowd control in this case was not necessary.
"The crowd was staying back," he said.
Ellis was concerned about this because, "it was clear they tried to divide us all up, some more aggressively than others, and you couldn't have had a more gentle group of folks."
Ellis described what she witnessed as "pack behavior" on the part of the police, and that officers were exhibiting an "entitled use of power and violence" that day when they thought one of their own had been threatened.
"I even think they will cover for one another, and apparently the Sentinel does the same for them," Ellis said.
She was referring to the fact that the report published later that day in the Santa Cruz Sentinel made no mention that witnesses on the scene believed there was an excessive use of force by police. There was no mention of the witnesses at all in the article, which was written by local reporter Jessica A. York.
Ellis said the Sentinel article was, "certainly written pro-police."
Shmuel Thaler was using a "long lens" and "snapping away," she said.
"I approached him and he said he worked with the Sentinel, which did not take sides and that his photos couldn't be used in court," she said.
Ellis had hoped Thaler's photographs would show that police had used excessive force against Howard.
Though Deputy Chief of Police Steve Clark is quoted in the Sentinel article as stating that Howard was arrested for "battery on a police officer," the charge was not listed in the press log released by SCPD on October 15.
The arrest is listed as Case # 14S-08499 in the SCPD press logs, and Howard is listed as having been arrested for violating 148(A) Obstruction/Resisting Public Officer and 23152(E) DUI Drug. The Sentinel lists the SCPD officer who was first to initiate contact with Howard as being officer Ryan Kiar. According to Santa Cruz County Jail records, Howard was never booked into jail after he was released from the hospital.
Ellis said police took reports from all of the witnesses, and she said Flippo told her the police cars have cameras. Two witnesses also video recorded the incident.
"I told the department that in my 24 years in Santa Cruz I have never witnessed something like this from our police," Ellis said. "I hope to never do so again."
"Watching a man tased on the naked back at close range, who was already on his knees, was disturbing, upsetting and gravely disappointing."
This article was first published at Indybay.