Saturday, March 28, 2009

Race, class and misconduct at a Dallas traffic stop

Having been focused on what's happening in Austin under the pink dome, I'd not found time to comment on the case of NFL player Ryan Moats , who was stopped by police while rushing his family to the hospital in Dallas to be with his wife's mother who they'd been told was near death. The whole exchange was caught on the officer's dashcam video and it's generous to say the officer comes off as a bully and a jerk, while Moats was the definition of class and poise, particularly under the circumstances. Moats' mother-in-law died while the officer detained them.

Unfortunately, this being Dallas, local media and activists feel compelled turn the issue into a racial conflict because the officer, Robert Powell, is white and Moats is black. James Ragland, a columnist for the Dallas News, offered up a column titled "Racial dynamics can't be ignored in Ryan Moats traffic stop" (March 27). I think he's wrong; I think the racial dynamics can be ignored and, in this instance, should be.

There's plenty to criticize about the Moats' traffic stop without bringing race into the argument.

From my perspective, as somebody who ran the ACLU of Texas' Police Accountability Project for six years, this is a story about straight up police misconduct - an officer exhibiting arrogance and a willingness to abuse his authority in deference to his own ego, perhaps emboldened by training he's received that teaches him to take control of a situation and demand absolute compliance at traffic stops backed up by threat of force.

The case also shows why the dashcams now installed in most Texas police cruisers doing traffic enforcement are a good thing and serving the purpose for which they were installed: Protecting the vast majority of good cops who're doing the right thing while creating a record when some bully with a badge steps over the line.

From the video record, I don't view what happened to Mr. Moats' family much differently than I do the poor folks in San Marcos last year whose dog died while they were detained on the way to the emergency vet. "It's a dog, okay," the cop said to the distraught couple as the animal lay dying in the back seat, "you can get another one."

That brand of callous disregard - the notion that an officer projecting authority is more important than common sense and respecting the humanity of the situation they're dealing with - lies at the root of many cases of police overreaction and misconduct. It's an attitude that's part of police culture and training, not some racial slight.

Notably, Moats' views were more constructive than Mr. Ragland's, recognizing that what happened to his family wasn't wrong because he's black, but because he's human and an American. He told the Dallas News, "I never really throw that [race] card. From my point of view, he [Powell] wasn't going to listen to reason at all. He didn't care what I was saying."

That dynamic of interaction with civilians is fairly typical in police misconduct cases, and it's something that's embedded in police training, policies, and culture, not just poor race relations. The couple in San Marcos last year whose dog died was white.

The Moats' experience is an unfortunate and important story, but IMO Ragland's racial angle is among the least important things about it.

At the end of the day, the fact that this even became a news story probably has more to do with class than race. As Digby noted, "The Dallas police department apologized, which is terrific and all, but one wonders if the person wasn't an NFL player if he'd even get that."


Anonymous said...

I totally agree that this is a problem with police culture. Unfortunately a lot of people that to into police work are attracted by the power. The "serve and protect" attitude has been replaced by the hunger for and abuse of power. I hate to generalize because of course there are plenty of good officers out there but these days they seem to be outnumbered by these power-crazed morons. I recall that police officers used to receive training in how to use verbal deescalation when dealing with these types of situations. Now it seems they must be being trained to escalate these situations so they can arrest more people.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I wouldn't say the good officers are "outnumbered," 10:08, it's just that the bad ones a) draw more attention and b) are too often protected by their more honorable brethren - the good ol' blue wall of silence - not to mention my friends over at CLEAT and TMPA (who I understand may be merging).

Every cop, especially those on patrol, etc., come into contact with LOT of people over time. So it doesn't take very many a-holes to make it look like the department tolerates such behavior, especially when civil service rules make it incredibly difficult to fire them.

Anonymous said...

Your right to say bad cops do not outnumber good cops, you just don't ever blog about a good cop story, just the bad ones.

Bad stories draw more attention too, even though there are more good cop stories than there are bad ones, the good stories mostly go unreported.

Ragland invokes the Oakland police killings and the demonstrations of support for the killer that followed so that readers are suppose to understand that race relations are the cause of the death of four officers.

Anonymous said...

I am not defending the cops attitude cause most of the time theirs stink. But what would have happen if that vehicle was leaving the scene on a crime and speeding away running red lights and when they are told to pull over they use the ole trick lets go to the hospital and make up a story and get away. I can see the headlines in the paper "Cops Duped again." Like I said his attitude stinks but they are trained to expect anything. Remember the Texas 7? Officer Huff drove up and got killed. This Officer could have been more tackful but Moats cuold have been also. It has nothing to do with race.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm being retentive here, but why can't people learn to spell correctly?

Anonymous said...

Someone told me that in Texas the police are to follow you to the hospital, check the story out and then write the ticket for the infraction. Is this true?

Anonymous said...

The races of the people in this situation do not matter. Police are public servants. What public good was accomplished by preventing a family from sharing in their loved one's death in a dignified manner? The general public does not expect the police to be mindless robots "protecting" us from people in life and death situations any one of us may encounter someday. This was a case of one person's will and ego trumping the common good.

Anonymous said...

Even the geriatric Geraldo was pushing the race angle Fri eve on one or other of the Fox shows.

A similar incident here in Houston would very likely have gotten Moats a multiple tasering and possibly shot, since the peace officers would declare 'fear for their lives' due to his larger than most stature.

Anonymous said...

The tragic legacy of Lago Vista.

SB said...

Last year we got a similar call and took off to the hospital. I kept calling 911 from my cell phone and asking for a police escort. Azle, Lake Worth and Fort Worth all said they do not provide such service. By the time we got to the hospital our 24 year old and her unborn son were dead. Just a few minutes would have made a difference but law enforcement doesn't do that, Their own policies reflect this officers attitude. The 911 operator told us not to speed. Yeah, right.

dirty harry said...

I hate to say it, but after awhile, most cops start to see people in only one of two categories:
1) other cops (brothers in arms)
2) non-cops who are all suspect of doing something wrong.

I reluctantly say this because my dad was a cop, and I knew a lot of cops growing up. Good cops or not, they all had that same frame of mind. They hid it well, but every now and then, it would slip out. They never stopped to think about what they would do if they were in the other guys position. Of course, whenever they did find themselves in the other guys position, whatever they decided to do would be OK because they were an exception - they were cops.

Anonymous said...

What has me on edge about this story is that the DPD will not do the right thing and rid their ranks of this low-life Robert Powell, they are paying him to sit on his a** while they investigate? what is there to investigate, it's all on video? This has nothing to do with his rookie status or lack of judgement on his part, to think so is to be naive. If he had an ounce of class he would take the initiative and realize the magnitude of what he has done, realize it is not his best career choice and resign. To try and ride this out puts his family at risk of possible harm. He was not remorseful until he figured out that his livelihood was now at risk. If denial still has it's hooks on you take some time to check out via cached google searches of his blog remarks, he should never have been hired in the first place and should have been dismissed due to comments he posted on his xanga and myspace blogs in which he outright admits his power trip and desire to shoot someone, the list goes on and these comments were made before this scandal erupted so this is the thoughts of the man/child we know as Robert Powell. If DPD keeps him around it will only sour the already strained police/civilian relationship that exists today. Finally, does race play into this, of course it does... go read the cached remarks of his. Otherwise, we must agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

just so we are clear about the blogs, I do know how to realize the blogs of other Robert Powells and this Robert Powell. I am advanced computer literate well able to interpret the data that I see... not tooting my "horn", just getting that out of the way. There are also alot of blogs being built within the last few days in efforts spoof people to think that those are his blogs just to stir the proverbial "pot"... guess those fools have never heard of an IP address and you may be getting some clients seeking your legal advice on how to get out of those charges of internet fraud.. ya never know?

sunray's wench said...

So the next time folks in TX start saying they dont want to be filmed in public because it is an invasion of their privacy, can we remind them of this story?

Akbar said...

Why bother blogging about "good cop" stories? Cops are PAID to do good deeds. Its their freaking JOB to be good so its not news. Its like reporting that "trash man gathers garbage" or "plumber fixes leak".

Now when a cop does bad then THAT is news!

Lets review:
Dog Bites Man <-- Not News

Man bites Dog! <-- News

Anonymous said...

REv. Kiker here:

Scott, I can only conjecture here, but my conjecture is if this had been a middle aged white guy, or say, a pastor on the way to see a dying parishioner, he would have been treated differently.

Anonymous said...

Wrong Kiker. He reportedly arrested Dallas Cowboys wife Zach Thomas for five on view traffic offenses.

Jackie Buffalo said...

The apology thing really gets me. Where was the public apology for what was done to Mr. Fairbanks?
"Dallas police hit suspect repeatedly with flashlight.."
The public apology makes it sound like it doesn't happen, very much. "I can screw you over" is how DPD thinks when they confront anyone, this idiot just said it out loud. I don't believe this is primarily a race issue; I believe it's a deeply rooted culture problem.
Obviously, everyone feels so badly for Mr. Moats and his family. Part of the reason we can't stop watching the tape is because Mr. Moats' behavior was in stark contrast to the officer's. In the back of our minds we have to wonder if we could hold such composure ourselves in the same situation.
Glad the camera was rolling on that one !

TxBluesMan said...

Grits said:
I wouldn't say the good officers are "outnumbered," 10:08

Well said.

it's just that the bad ones a) draw more attention

Very true.

and b) are too often protected by their more honorable brethren - the good ol' blue wall of silence

And this is where you started off into left (lib) field...

- not to mention my friends over at CLEAT and TMPA (who I understand may be merging).

Which is, as one Texas Rep stated, good for law enforcement and Texas...

Every cop, especially those on patrol, etc., come into contact with LOT of people over time. So it doesn't take very many a-holes to make it look like the department tolerates such behavior, especially when civil service rules make it incredibly difficult to fire them.

And appropriately so - civil service rules protect good cops against knee-jerk reaction and being thrown to the wolves based on political expediency...

Why is no one here concerned about the black judge in Dallas that made racist remarks, but are concerned about the possible racism involved in this stop, when Moats himself said that he didn't think it was racially motivated?

Anonymous said...

Dallas cops, its how they role. This guy Powell is most likely getting job offers from Galveston PD. My Dad lived in Dallas 76 years and even though its a custom in my culture to avoid government officials he would say, son don't give them, the cops, a reason to look at you. Hall monitor syndrome every damn one of them. Ask any black person in Dallas if the cops can be trusted and see what they tell you. If this guy Moats was not in the league there would be no Chief Kuckle on TV. It happened in far North Dallas Preston Rd and The Bush. It may appear racial, but that's just ignorance, its how DPD roles. He would have done the same thing to me a middle aged European American guy. I don't trust them and I sure as hell wouldn't count on them to protect and serve.

Anonymous said...

I am a daily reader and a true fan, but I must agree in part and disagree in part. Yes,this was an outrageous abuse of authority, but I believe the chief was sincere when he said he was embarassed and offerred the apology. I do not believe it was given only because of the man's status as a NFL player. I also agree that it was a noble gesture for this man not to make a racial issue after he and his family were mistreated by an unprofessional peace officer. I disagree in that you suggest this was not racially motivated. It is virtually impossible to prove, but the reality is that if this man and his family had been white, it would have been handled differently.


Todd said...

What people don't understand is that officers get these kinds of stories on every traffic stop they make. I have pulled over tons of people who claim to have explosive diarrhea, have dying relatives, sick kids at the hospital, ect, ect...

The list goes on and on. After hearing this so many times, it is natural for a cop to be skeptical. If I get something like that, I still finish the traffic stop. You rushing to the hospital (if it is even true) will not cause them to get better faster and may injure someone else.

I remember I pulled over someone who was rushing to a hospital (allegedly) in a city four hours away due to a sick grandfather. He wanted me to radio ahead and clear the roads for him. It offended him when I said we don't do that.

How is public safety served by letting someone haul ass down the road while blinded by emotion?

BB said...

You are correct, but in this case, the officers actions were not reasonable. After viewing the video, I was truly pleased to see the chief accept responsibility and acknowledge the wrongdoing of his subordinate employee. Did you see the tape?


Anonymous said...

I wonder how often Todd has pulled someone over at the Emergency Room door and still refused to even listen to the reason they are at the Emergency Room?

Powell is a jerk with control issues. It says a lot about the mentality of guys like Powell and the police departments that train them when he knows that he is mic'd and on tape making threats to citizens trying to get into the Emergency Room.

The key to this mess is to stand behind Chief Kunkle who has been fighting an uphill battle against this mentality. It's way past time for citizens to speak out and support the Chief of the Dallas police. There are already officers (like Todd) calling for Kunkle to be fired.

Anonymous said...


I understand what you are trying to say but they were pulling into the hospital, this did not occur somewhere out on I635! Did Powell think the nurse was in on their diabolical scheme to get out of a ticket? The very fact that a nurse confirmed the Moats' situation as well as an officer from the Plano PD yet Robert Powell still couldn't grasp reality boils down to this, he isn't the brightest light on the string. Yes they may hear outlandish excuses all the time but part of being a cop is having the ability to know what is BS and what is not BS. It isn't that Powell couldn't see the facts of the situation, he refused to. He is willing to put his family at risk now because of his rotten decision making abilities.. he is an all around idiot and that alone should be enough reason to release him from the department.

In the words of Bill Engvall to Robert Powell, "HERE'S YOUR SIGN"


Anonymous said...

Here is the link to Robert Powell's Xanga blog which he has since taken down but you gotta love Google and their data retention policy. He makes racial slurs, he admits to drinking and driving with his little "party" story... for the public to see!!!

I'll say it again, HERE'S YOUR SIGN


Anonymous said...

One of the underlying issues brought up (again) by these cases is that, in Texas, a cop can arrest you and take you to jail for a Class C misdemeanor, which, I understand, generally has no penalty other than a fine. That is what the legislature needs to address this session. Remove the power; remove the problem (at least some of it). Powell used this very law to threaten both Moats and, reportedly, Zach Thomas' wife. :<)

Anonymous said...

Your story is incorrect, the hospital is in Plano,Tx in Collin County. Why was a Dallas cop patrolling out of his jurisdiction to begin with??

TxBluesMan said...

Anon 9:15,

The story is correct. The Dallas city limit is just south of the hospital and Ofc Powell was within his authority to attempt to stop the vehicle for the violation.