Sunday, December 1, 2013

Traffic Stop on Highway 518 Outside of Taos, NM

[Unfortunately the full 42 minute video is no longer hosted on YouTube. This 18 minute video ends at the Hotel Don Fernando in Taos where the driver and her older son were arrested. The full video runs until the suspects are booked at the police station and during the trip to the police station, the driver expresses her remorse over the incident and her concern for her children again and again.]

[Note: There is a protest scheduled in Taos today over this incident. Apparently many of those who live in Taos know the main officer involved all too well, as he has quite a reputation in town. The officer firing his weapon has also apparently been previously noted as somewhat trigger-happy. But I have no personal knowledge, so I'm passing on what I've heard and read. I'm sure the stories are incomplete.]

New Mexico State Police are considered to be several cuts above the local polizei, largely because they are much better trained, generally better equipped, and they wear just about the smartest uniforms in the whole country. Nevertheless, I've seen any number of traffic stops on the highways and interstates of New Mexico in which state police are trussing up some poor violator, ransacking their often out of state cars, and generally causing mayhem by the side of the road. I'm sure many stops are routine, but as New Mexico drivers, shall we say, have a reputation to uphold, some stops become incidents. And when New Mexico drivers are upholding their reputation, they're liable to get stopped. On the other hand, some of the incidents I've seen by the side of the road seem to be more than a little over the top.

Lately, there has been reported a rash of incidents involving traffic stops in New Mexico gone awry as it were. Apparently some of the traffic stops in Demming involve anal probing and what not -- incidents that sound an awful lot like reports from alien abductions when you get down to it. They're... um... gross, in a word. Then, on October 28, a lady and her van-ful of children from Tennessee got stopped on the way up to Taos, and all holy hell eventually broke loose.

The 43 minutes or so from the trooper's dash cam was edited down to a couple of minutes of back and forth, escape and capture, some physical mayhem, followed by gunfire from a responding officer, a further chase into town, and apprehension of van and occupants at the entrance to a hotel. The teevee report and the dash-cam edit went viral on the YouTubes, and the whole country is in an uproar and "having  the debate" about police and their behavior along with the behavior of drivers who drive away from officers when told to stop.

The video posted above is the complete an 18 minute edit of the dash-cam vid as released by the New Mexico State Police, and it shows just how complicated the whole situation was. It struck me very much as yet another "Only In New Mexico" story, for it seems to be based almost entirely on miscommunications, something that happens all the time in this Land of Enchantment. I know. I encounter it all the time. It's not so much that English is a second language in New Mexico, as it is that the local dialect of English is... unique.

[A trivial example: I bought Diet Pepsi and other things one day at the grocery store, and as I was loading my things into the cart after paying, the checker asked me, "Do you want me to help you down with your Coke or no?" There's a whole raft of Only in New Mexico issues here, first, that he asked at all. Most checkers or baggers (called "sackers" here) would just do it. "Helping down" was used something like "put in your cart" might be used elsewhere, only "to put" is used quite differently in New Mexico than just about anywhere else that I'm aware of. All soda/soft drink in New Mexico is generically called "Coke." The locution "or no" is used instead of "or not" -- but "or not" implies a challenge, whereas "or no" does not. And so on.]

There is a subtext running through the whole thing that I recognize instantly. The driver, Oriana Farrell, and the initial officer, Tony DeTavis, seem to be trying to communicate with one another, and I'm sure they think they're speaking the same language, but they are failing, not because their words are mutually unintelligible, but because what they are saying to one another are on different planes of communication, and neither can make sense of what the other is saying and/or doing. Both are facing an irresolvable dilemma.

The officer is ordering the driver to make a choice -- accept a fine of $126 for speeding, or go to court and contest the ticket. After some back and forth over the fact that the driver doesn't have $126, the officer explains that she can pay the money or go to court within 30 days, but she has to choose one or the other -- a fine or court. This makes her dilemma worse, because she says she can't know in advance whether she will have the money to pay the fine or if she will be anywhere near New Mexico in thirty days or at any time in the future. She says she can't make a choice like that. The officer insists she must choose one or the other. The driver is adamant that she honestly can't. She doesn't know what to do. After attempting to argue and persuade the driver to choose one or the other, the officer eventually offers her a third option. She can go before a judge right away and settle the matter. This provokes even more argument and attempts at persuasion. The officer says that he can arrange an immediate court appearance for her and tells her to turn off her engine and wait while he makes the call from his "unit" -- police car -- to take care of it. As he goes to his car, the driver pulls away and drives off.

A chase ensues. The driver pulls off the road again. The officer is now enraged and pulls open the driver door, screams at the driver to get out of the car and yanks at her arm. She resists. Her children start screaming. Pandemonium.

The driver insists she will not get out of the car because of the children, they're in the middle of nowhere on a deserted highway, she doesn't know what the officer is going to do, and implicitly, she's scared. The children are scared. The officer appears to be calming down but he is still barely rational.

Oh, did I say the driver is a black woman?

At no point in this incident, by the way, did I detect any racism or sexism on the part of the officers involved. Furthermore, the original officer appeared to be trying to be accommodating while compelling obedience from the driver -- who was clearly scared to death. Understanding and coping with that fear, however, seemed to be beyond the abilities of the officer.

The level of fear expressed by the driver and her children may have seemed excessive under the circumstances, but we the observers can't know what is going through their minds or the mind of the officer first on the scene and then through the minds of the backup officers who arrived after the driver stopped a second time. Stories of abuse and misbehavior by police in this country, and by New Mexico police in particular, have been circulating throughout the country for some time, after all, and one is generically warned about people who pretend to be officers stopping drivers on remote/deserted highways and making all kinds of mischief. Of course, when you're driving while black, things can get very complicated very fast.

This may have been yet another case of driving while black, but I think not. Not from what I've seen at any rate. It was most definitely a case of miscommunication, fear, flight, and frustration.

Thank goodness none of the shots fired hit a living target.

But why were shots fired at all?

That's a big question that the New Mexico State Police will have to answer for. Regardless of whether the officer who fired knew there were children in the van, the question is why he fired at the vehicle at all under the circumstances.

Yes, the driver was speeding off, but she was not in any way threatening the officers or anyone else around -- no one else was around. In other words, she did not aim her vehicle at the officers or anyone else (which is often used as an excuse for gunfire at the vehicle or the driver). The driver's actions were intended for her and her family to escape the situation. The precipitating cause was the violent actions of the police officer, including: grabbing the driver and attempting to pull her from the vehicle, aiming a taser at the 14 year old son and threatening to shoot him, and finally, breaking out the passenger window of the van in an attempt to apprehend the son.

The mother then pulled away and drove into Taos, rather expertly it seemed to me, at no time -- that I could see -- was she endangering other drivers, and she seemed to know exactly where she was going, too.

The apprehension itself took place outside the registration area of the Hotel Don Fernando (initially misreported as Hotel La Fonda). Likely, there were a number of witnesses, which wasn't the case on the road into Taos. The reaction of the police, while objectively harsh, was not violent in this public place, and so far as I could tell, the police were very professional at that point and up to the end of the full length video recording (which unfortunately is no longer available).

The protest is over the way the State Police officers responding to this traffic stop endangered not just the van's youthful passengers but anyone who might have been around at the time by firing at the departing van and engaging in a high-speed chase through the busy outskirts of Taos.

If this was policy, then this policy endangers the public, pure and simple.

When I was involved in police accountability issues in California, one of the major complaints from the public was over high-speed chases which seemed to be increasingly frequent (thanks to the obsessive coverage of them on LA teevee stations?) and which all too often led to injury and death of innocents. I believe there were ten deaths of people walking along the road or crossing the road when a chase vehicle struck them in one one city and one year alone, and public outrage was mounting. Even the police seemed to recognize that something was not quite right with their chase policy if so many bystanders were being struck and killed during chases. Something had to change, and to an extent at any rate, things did change.

In Taos, the situation may be complicated because it is a small town, a small town with a "reputation" let it be noted, and the officers involved in this incident are apparently well known to the community. At least a portion of that community does not appreciate the behavior of these officers, particularly that of the lead officer, Tony DeTavis, who has apparently gained quite a reputation for harassment of targeted locals. The fact that the driver involved in this incident was from out of state, had five children with her, was possibly speeding before she was stopped the first time (drivers in New Mexico are not known for obeying speed limits, but that section of 518 is pretty winding, so speeding there is a little more difficult than on the Interstate -- though it's not unknown) and could not agree immediately with the officer's demand that she choose an option with regard to the speeding ticket all seemed to increase the officer's tension which increased the driver's fear.

There is also the possibility that the driver was impaired or intoxicated due to marijuana ingestion, but that's not at all certain at this point.

I tend to believe that what happened was due to miscommunication more than anything else, miscommunication which led to panic, panic which led to flight, flight which led to violence, violence which only increased the panic, flight and further violent response. It should not have happened, and it might not have happened if the driver and the officer had been communicating on the same plane to begin with and had had the ability to understand one another's dilemma.


Oriana Farrell wrote this Op-Ed from jail in Taos. It was delivered to the Taos News by an acquaintance. It pretty much recapitulates and expands on what she was saying to the police officer while she was being transported to the station that could be heard in the full 42 minute video of the encounter that is now no longer available.

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