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San Diego sheriff seeks probe in use of pepper spray at political event

June 29, 2009 | 11:55 am

Top officials at the San Diego County Sheriff's Department have ordered an internal affairs investigation into the use of pepper spray by a deputy to make an arrest at a fundraiser in Encinitas for a Democratic congressional hopeful.

The investigation was ordered after Francine Busby met with Undersheriff Bill Gore to complain about the use of pepper spray at her fundraiser Friday at a home in the upscale Cardiff neighborhood. Busby is seeking her party's nomination for a rematch next year with Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Carlsbad) in the 50th Congressional District.

"We cannot take action based on media accounts and will conduct a thorough inquiry to include interviews of witnesses at the fund-raising event," said Gore, who becomes sheriff on Friday after the retirement of Sheriff Bill Kolender.

The incident began about 9 p.m. after a deputy responded to a neighbor's complaint of excessive noise.  When one of the owners of the home where the fundraiser was being held, 60-year-old Shari Barman, refused to give her age to the deputy, the situation quickly deteriorated.

According to people attending the fundraiser, the deputy began pulling on Barman's arm, despite pleas from her partner that she had just undergone surgery. People then surrounded Barman to prevent her from being arrested and one person held onto her leg to keep the deputy from taking her to his squad car.

The deputy called for backup and used pepper spray on the crowd. More deputies arrived. Barman was arrested for allegedly assaulting a deputy, and a second attendee, Pam Morgan, 62, of Rancho Santa Fe, was cited for obstructing an officer.

Busby said today that the deputy "clearly overreacted."

"There was no noise, there was no problem, these were middle-aged men and women talking very quietly," she said.

A former Cardiff school board member, Busby said some of the people at the fundraiser began choking from the pepper spray and needed help from paramedics.

"We need an investigation to make sure this never happens to anyone else," she said.

Busby, 58, ran unsuccessfully against Republican Duke Cunningham in 2004. Once he was ousted from office by a criminal conviction, she ran in 2006 against Republican candidate Bilbray, who formerly represented a congressional district south of San Diego.

-- Tony Perry in Encinitas