[jwplayer config=”pjmedia_main” mediaid=”176454″ width=”590″ height=”360″]
Some advice to holiday travelers: If you find yourself driving through New Mexico, be warned that when the sign says the speed limit is 55, they’re not kidding. And if you get stopped for going 71 in a 55, it’s best to sign the ticket and continue on your way, with your foot eased back on the gas just a bit, of course. So discovered one Oriana Farrell of Memphis, Tenn., last month.
Farrell was driving with her five children near Taos on Oct. 28 when she was stopped for speeding by Officer Tony DeTavis of the New Mexico State Police. The encounter, which was captured on the police car’s dashboard camera, was unremarkable — up to the point Farrell decided to make it otherwise. In the video, we hear DeTavis tell Farrell he has cited her for speeding and explain that she has the option of appearing in court or paying a $126 fine by mail. Farrell can’t make up her mind, and she and DeTavis discuss the matter for more than four minutes. Exasperated, DeTavis tells Farrell to turn her engine off while he goes back to his car.
But Farrell does not turn the car off. Instead she drives away, with DeTavis soon following behind, lights ablaze and siren wailing. And then a bad situation gets worse (but not as bad as it would get later). Farrell pulls over and stops, and DeTavis walks up and opens the driver’s door of the minivan, telling her to get out. The kids can be heard screaming as DeTavis tries to pull her from behind the wheel. During the struggle, Farrell’s 14-year-old son gets out of the front passenger seat and walks around the front of the minivan as if to challenge the officer, but he retreats when DeTavis draws his Taser and aims it at him.
If only that were the end of it. Farrell then tells DeTavis she will sign the ticket, but by now, unbeknownst to her, that is no longer an option. After trying unsuccessfully to pull Farrell out, DeTavis abandons the tactic and tries his power of persuasion. This too is fruitless. He calls for backup and continues and continues and continues to order her out. At long last she gets out and walks to the back of the minivan, but when it dawns on her that she is about to be arrested, she makes a break for the driver’s door.
And then things really go south. DeTavis grabs Farrell and tries to keep her from re-entering the minivan, bringing a chorus of screams from the kids inside. The 14-year-old boy gets out and circles around the back of the minivan before rushing at DeTavis. DeTavis again draws his Taser, at the sight of which the boy runs away and gets back in the minivan. Amid much continued shouting, two more officers arrive, each in his own car, to find DeTavis trying without success to open the minivan’s right-side sliding door. DeTavis then uses a collapsible baton to break a side window, but before he can reach in to unlock the door, Farrell drives off. As she does so, Officer Elias Montoya fires three pistol shots at the minivan.
Driving at speeds up to 100 mph, Farrell then leads the police on a four-minute chase, during which she ran a red light and at times drove on the wrong side of the road. She finally pulls into a hotel parking lot and gives up. A grand jury charged Farrell with 12 counts, including intentional abuse of a child, aggravated fleeing of a law enforcement officer, and possession of drug paraphernalia. Her son was charged with battery on a police officer.
Officers DeTavis and Montoya have come in for some harsh criticism, not all of it undeserved. For his part, DeTavis appears to be fairly young and inexperienced. The video makes it pretty clear that he has not yet mastered the art of “talking them to jail,” although in this case that surely would have been a tall order. But when Farrell drove off the first time, DeTavis left his better judgment by the side of the road, allowing himself to get worked up to the point that he got in over his head. Rather than approaching Farrell and trying to pull her out of the car, he would have been better off waiting for his backup to arrive. A different officer, one less invested in what had already occurred, might have been able to coax Farrell out of the minivan. Also, the sight of additional officers might have convinced Farrell that further resistance would be futile.
And as for Officer Montoya’s three gunshots, from what I can see in the video, there doesn’t appear to be any justification for them. He had little chance of bringing the car to a stop in this fashion, and in the end he may have further escalated an incident that was already out of control. This is to say nothing of the risk posed to the occupants of the minivan.
The incident received national media attention (ABC’s report is here; CNN’s is here), much of it calling the officers’ conduct into question. But there was little discussion in the news reports of Farrell’s behavior and the fact that it was she who set the chaotic chain of events in motion. Nowhere was this blindness to the facts more evident than at MSNBC, where Lawrence O’Donnell delivered one of his characteristic diatribes against the police while absolving Farrell of any responsibility for what occurred.
And in doing so, O’Donnell demeaned police officers everywhere by claiming the dangers of their profession are a Hollywood exaggeration. “Most police officers use deadly force correctly,” he says, “which means they never use it.”
Which is true, as far as it goes, but as is his wont, O’Donnell took things further, getting some facts wrong in the process. “Well over 90 percent of police officers never have a legitimate occasion to draw their guns in their entire careers,” he says. And he continues:
Well over 90 percent of police officers have never fired their guns on duty and have never had shots fired at them, have never heard shots fired. Police work is not as dangerous as Hollywood would have you believe. Several other occupations, such as agriculture, have higher on-the-job death rates than police work, but Hollywood isn’t about to start making movies about our brave, death-defying farmers.
Well, where does one start? Yes, statistics tell us that some occupations are more hazardous than police work, but so what? No one ever tried to kill one of O’Donnell’s noble farmers just for farming, but the police officer who deludes himself into thinking nothing will ever go wrong on a “routine” traffic stop can sooner or later look forward to an unpleasant awakening. And O’Donnell errs in conflating a police officer’s drawing of a gun with the firing of it. Yes, as he says, most police officers go through their careers without firing a weapon, but not many can go long without drawing one. When I was a young street cop in South-Central L.A., I scarcely got through a day without drawing mine at least once, and any cop who works in a similar environment will tell you the same thing.
And for all his condemnation of the police officers involved in the Farrell incident, O’Donnell has not one word to say about Farrell’s behavior other than to excuse it. Yes, Officer DeTavis could have handled things better, and Officer Montoya’s firing at the car is troubling, to say the least. But none of it would have happened had Farrell simply signed the speeding ticket as DeTavis all but begged her to do.
Let the officers’ conduct be investigated and judged appropriately, but so too let Farrell answer for her own.