Arizona DPS: It’s Okay to Scream and Threaten Motorist and Child
August 18, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Like any good officer, Captain Damon Cecil of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, defended the actions of a state trooper who pointed a gun at a 7-year-old girl and threatened to shoot her dad following a traffic stop.
The trooper, Oton Villegas, came into contentious contact with Kenneth Walton as Walton and his daughter were headed to a Grand Canyon vacation in a rental car. Villegas initiated a traffic stop on a stretch of highway between Las Vegas and Flagstaff, Arizona. This is where things got dicey.
Walton thought the trooper wanted to warn him about a broken taillight or something, as he knew he hadn’t been speeding but had seen the trooper following him. Villegas thought the car was stolen and was initiating a high-risk felony stop. As you might imagine, approaching the situation with two very different mindsets, each person’s perception of the encounter is different.
Walton largely made his story known through a Facebook post after the incident. He maintains he pulled over, rolled down his window, and patiently waited. He claims the officer instead approached the rear passenger side, where he 7-year-old daughter was seated, and suddenly rapped on the window with his pistol, terrifying his daughter. He says the trooper pointed the pistol at both his daughter and himself while ordering him to roll down the passenger window. Apparently, he struggled finding the correct switch in the rental car and was unable to immediately roll down the window. All the while, he claims the trooper continued to escalate the situation by yelling louder and more insistently as he leered at him down the barrel of his pistol.
Walton goes on to describe his attempts to follow instructions which included stepping out of the car, hands high in the air. He claims the trooper yelled “Get your hands away from your waist or I’ll blow two holes through your back right now!” Yet, he maintains his hands were never near his waist and the trooper must have been attempting to justify his actions. After his arrest, the trooper verified the vehicle was not stolen (though it’s plates had previously been reported stolen) and let him return to his daughter.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety disputes some of the details in Walton’s story, calling it “inflammatory” and “irresponsible.” In short, Captain Damon Cecil confirmed most of the story and is standing by Villegas’ actions:
Cecil confirmed that Villegas pointed a gun at the 7-year-old, but did so unintentionally, and that he threatened to shoot Walton because he “perceived a threat.”
“We’re not disputing that our trooper said those things,” Cecil said. “He absolutely did.”
Not only did Villegas say he would “blow two holes through [his] back,” DPS does not dispute the gun was pointed at the 7-year-old. Villegas said and did many of the things Walton accused him of, yet Cecil sees no problem.
Cecil said it was appropriate for Villegas to have escalated the traffic stop, given the circumstances.
“Our trooper had a set of facts in front of him and responded the way he was trained, the way that was safest for him and his public,” Cecil said. “Putting yourself in the trooper’s position: He’s giving commands, he’s yelling, he’s not getting a response. Should he de-escalate the yelling? Or should he escalate? … You weren’t there. And I wasn’t there.”
Agreed. We weren’t there. But, Walton was, despite his past, as a scammer and a liar. While he may not be the trustworthiest source, it doesn’t mean he lied this time. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Yet, DPS concedes many of his facts. In any event, that’s not the point of this post. This is a focus on perceptions: two of them from the same scene and one from an armchair quarterback captain.
In Walton’s mind, the aggressive guns-drawn approach was overkill for a taillight. Once confronted with a very different situation from what he was expecting, perhaps he too became a little disoriented and did have trouble maneuvering the window controls in an unfamiliar vehicle. Perhaps, as a father, he was concerned for the safety and well being of his young daughter.
People often report being nervous during a simple traffic stop. Couple that with a gun in your face and the nerves dramatically increase. Does that mean he was a threat? Does that mean the trooper needed an aggressive show of force? Maybe. But perhaps there was a better way to achieve the same result.
No doubt, the life of any law enforcement officer is dangerous. They are at risk during any encounter, even a traffic stop. Couple that traffic stop with the possibility of a felony (a stolen car) and the officer’s perceived danger is heightened. In Villegas’ mind, he was attempting to stop a potentially dangerous felon and car thief. As such, was Villegas reacting appropriately? Did his adrenaline get the best of him? Could he have handled things differently? According to Cecil, the trooper responded in the way he was trained. Are officers really trained to attempt a felony traffic stop alone? Are officers trained to approach the potential felon not knowing what threats might be lurking inside the vehicle?
According to Duane Wolf, a career officer and police instructor, the trooper’s actions were anything but standard operating procedure – well, at least not in line with his teaching and best practices for officer safety. Wolf details tips for officer safety in the felony stop: (1) don’t rush the suspect vehicle, rather set up a safe distance and have the suspect come to you; (2) use tactical breathing, slow and deliberate to avoid poor decisions based on the stress of the event; (3) safely and tactically follow the suspect until sufficient back up arrives; (4) practice with your partners, develop a game plan to follow; and (5) control the scene by controlling yourself and other officers. Each of these tips is related to controlling the adrenaline and stress of the situation to make better decisions that promote safety while still completing the arrest or detention.
Villegas did none of these things. Yet, Cecil defends his actions anyway. Villegas had been following the car for some distance, at least long enough to check the plate and receive information about its reported stolen nature. During that time, the driver had not attempted to flee or evade the trooper. With lights and sirens engaged, the driver peacefully pulled over. Again, no attempt to flee or avoid contact. The driver didn’t immediately exit the car and attempt to flee or rush the officer.
Villegas didn’t wait for backup. Villegas did not seek to have Walton exit the vehicle and come to safety. Instead, he rushed the car, gun drawn, appearing on the passenger side suddenly and near a young child. He immediately started shouting and even threatened to shoot Walton because of a perceived threat. Luckily, the threat turned out not to be real, but isn’t that exactly why officers are taught to wait for backup?
Yes, situations can be dangerous, scary, and even terrorizing. And, for Cecil, that’s ok and to be expected:
“We sympathize with them; I don’t think there’s any law enforcement official who would not be just as angry, just as fearful and terrorized if [they were in a similar situation and] officers had guns pointed out,” Cecil told The Washington Post. “It’s a scary situation. But in light of that, this is a positive story. … This case is a prime example of how things should be done.”
So while there may have been a better, and safer, means to affect a felony stop, Cecil and the Arizona DPS have signed off on Villegas’ method as A-OK. It’s a prime example of how things should be done. Never mind that it creates a scary situation. Even officers in the same situation would be terrorized by guns pointed at them. That’s just what policing has come to for some. Don’t call out the bad cop or the not-so-great procedure, just defend the officer’s actions.