When is a police officer "just doing his/her job," and when has the situation clearly gotten out of hand? These were the questions asked of the Dallas Police Department after Houston Texan running back Ryan Moats was detained for more than fifteen minutes on March 27th, while his mother-in-law lay dying from breast cancer in Baylor Regional Medical Center in Plano, Texas, a Dallas suburb.
Officer Robert Powell, age 25, a three-year-member of the police force, stopped the Moats' SUV after it rolled through a red light. The officer turned on his lights and siren and pursued the SUV to the hospital. There he drew his gun and screamed at Tamishia Moats as she exited the vehicle, telling her "Get in there!" and "Let me see your hands!" Tamishia Moats tryed to explain that her mother was dying, but Officer Powell would not listen. Despite the fact that he pointed his gun at her and then at her husband, Ryan Moats, Tamishia and another woman ran for the hospital entrance, and she was actually able to be with her mother, Jonetta Collinsworth, as she died a few minutes later. Her husband, Ryan Moats, and Collinsworth's father, Earl Jackson, were detained so long that they arrived inside the hospital too late. Jonetta Collinsworth was already dead.
Many have argued on cable news programs, forums and blogs that the officer was doing his job. "How many people speed and then claim to an officer their mother was dying and they had to get to the hospital?" some have asked. "The man ran a red light," others have noted..."what if he had killed somebody?"
Certainly, seasoned police officers have pretty well seen and heard it all, but this was not a veteran officer. This was a 25-year-old young man who had served three years. Even if his record as a police officer was exemplary - and subsequent information suggests otherwise - he showed tremendous lack of judgment in this case. Far worse, he showed macho bravado and downright intimidation and disrespect - and then he verbally attacked Ryan Moats.
A dashboard video camera in Powell's squad car captured the events and clearly shows that the Moats' SUV emergency flashers were engaged, and the "roll-through" was just that, a gentle roll-through -- not a high-speed dash through the intersection (and no other vehicles were present in the immediate vicinity of the intersection). In fact, Moats says he observed that no other vehicles were at the intersection before he continued through it. Additionally, Officer Powell did the same thing - he "rolled through" the intersection without stopping, as he pursued Moats' SUV.
Where this gets really crazy is in the hospital parking lot. Officer Powell refused to listen to the desperate pleas of the Moatses to go inside and be with their mother, and THEN handle the ticket. All the officer had to do was to follow the people from the vehicle indoors and wait. Instead, he drew his gun, ordered some of the passengers back into the car, and shouted at Ryan Moats to present his car title and proof of insurance. When Moats persisted in begging to go inside, Officer Powell became abusive... "Shut your mouth," he said. "You can either settle down and cooperate, or I can just take you to jail for running a red light." When Moats continued to plead, the officer added, "I can screw you over. I'd rather not do that. Your attitude will dictate everything that happens, and right now, your attitude sucks." He also threatened to have the vehicle towed if Moats didn't product the insurance papers and charge Moats with fleeing because he didn't immediately stop when the sirens were turned on. The entire pursuit to the hospital lasted less than a minute.
At no time did Ryan Moats tell the officer he was a member of the NFL. Given the circumstances, he remained incredibly calm and rational. Ryan Moats is black… Officer Powell is white. There is every possibility that his despicable behavior was racially motivated – at least in part. But even if both men had been the same race, Powell still acted inappropriately and exercised insensitivity at best – downright disdain for Moats at worst. A nurse and a police officer from the hospital both came to talk with Officer Powell and vouch for the Moatses' situation. Powell continued writing the ticket, saying to the other officer, "I'm almost done."
The Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle apologized, and Officer Powell was placed on paid leave - and ultimately, he resigned from the police force. Chief Kunkle said, "When we at the command staff reviewed the tape, we were embarrassed and disappointed. It is hard to find the right word and still be professional in my role as the police chief. But the behavior was not appropriate."
Ryan Moats and Earl Jackson feel a moment was stolen from them that can never be recaptured. They were not able to say "Goodbye" to their loved one as she drew her last breath. They were not present to support Tamishia Moats as husband and grandfather. Instead, they were standing on a hospital parking lot being berated at gunpoint by an overzealous, arrogant young man who took advantage of his badge.
Any way you slice it, there doesn't seem to be any rational justification for this officer's behavior. He was at the hospital... he could have followed the family inside and verified their story. If he still wanted to pursue the citation, he could have waited respectfully for an appropriate moment to continue the conversation with Ryan Moats, who has stated he would have had no problem with accepting the citation at that time. As the police department has indicated, even if he was justified in drawing his weapon, as soon as he determined the situation did not warrant such measures, he should have reholstered it. The berating, degrading comments were incredibly inappropriate and unprofessional and indicate a serious lack of maturity.
The charges against Ryan Moats were promptly dropped. One has to wonder how Officer Powell could have ever returned to the force and serve effectively. It would seem as though his actions have created an atmosphere of distrust, at best, and downright disgust from many others. His irrational behavior in wielding the gun and claiming he could "screw you over," suggest he is a "loose cannon" and could actually cause physical harm to someone down the road.
Powell issued a statement, noting that he doesn't know WHY he acted as he did. He claimed great remorse and said he wishes he could rescind the actions and comments. He mentioned that he was concerned about losing his job... and that he was worried for his family, which includes two small children. The Dallas Police Department investigated claims that this was not Powell's first rodeo with reckless and/or inappropriate treatment of someone he had detained. Small children often have a track record of committing offenses and then being immediately remorseful for their misdeeds - adult policemen should not be allowed this indulgence. These are not the actions of a mature, reliable, field-ready policeman... they are more akin to those of a fifth grader.
What message does this incident send to police forces across the country? Certainly, a second look should be taken at officer training. Is there adequate coursework in public relations, handling stressful situations, and avoiding confrontation? Are younger officers adequately supervised? Should they be required to spend a certain number of months/years in a "ride-along" role rather than being dispatched to patrol alone? Yes, police department budgets are stretched to the max, and pairing officers could be costly. But what is the cost alternatively? Suppose this incident had ended badly - what then? What if children had emerged from the vehicle?
What does this story say to the American public? Hopefully, it doesn't reinforce attitudes that cops are cocky, arrogant, self-serving, and/or macho, because there are a lot of great police officers who are genuinely protecting and serving the public in cities across the nation. But unfortunately, it just takes one to really mess things up for all of the others. Hopefully, Americans will take a hard look at this situation and realize that this was a fairly isolated incident... that for every cop who would behaved as Officer Powell did, there are dozens who would have escorted the family inside and waited with them as if they were his/her own relatives.
Could Ryan Moats have stopped and explained his plight to the officer several blocks earlier? Possibly. But in this case, it probably would not have mattered. In fact, without the proximity of the hospital as proof, Officer Powell might have reacted even more strongly and totally disbelieved Moats' explanation. Sadly, this young man appears to be a rotten apple with an attitude... and it's probably best he find another line of work.