San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

August 22nd, 2008
The Myth of Jones: On callous cops and dying dogs

The Myth of Jones: A Column
by BILL PETERSON

Every now and again, an episode comes along to provoke outrage, not because somebody did something wrong, but because everybody was wrong and right at the same time. Thus, it becomes a no-win situation, which is frustrating.

Here’s the story we would rather have heard: A San Marcos police officer pulls over a motorist going 95 on Interstate-35 in the middle of the night. Realizing that the duressed motorist is speeding his dying teacup poodle to the veterinary emergency room in New Braunfels, the officer says, “Follow me,” and escorts the panicked citizen to the veterinarian, as if this were an episode of The Flintstones in which Fred is rushing Wilma to the hospital for childbirth. The escort arrives just in time for the veterinarian to heroically save the poodle’s life. Later, the officer issues a speeding ticket, because we can’t just let 95 on the Interstate go, but the motorist cheerfully pays the fine and thanks the officer for his indulgence.

Here’s the story we heard instead: A San Marcos police officer pulls over a motorist going 95 on Interstate-35 in the middle of the night. The duressed motorist is speeding his dying teacup poodle to the veterinary emergency room in New Braunfels, but the young officer is unmoved because he is too tone deaf, full of himself or, perhaps, alarmed by the motorist’s frantic demeanor. Instead of just telling the motorist to slow down or dispassionately writing a ticket, the officer loses his cool and tells the driver that his dying poodle is “just a dog.” Sometime during the 19-minute traffic stop, the dog dies.

The story pushes a lot of buttons, which is why it’s all over the media and message boards from Austin to San Antonio. But it really breaks down into two elements.

First, judging from remarks, the story teases up a veiled lack of trust in law enforcement officers. It’s not that the public hates the police, and everyone knows we need them. But the police are like any other profession in that there are good ones and bad ones. And because the police are such an important institution for protecting the public’s trust and security, the bad examples create a chilling effect.

If the police simply can’t solve a case, at least they’re trying to do the right work. People respect that. But they don’t respect cowboys on the police force. They don’t respect ordinary guys with ordinary prospects putting on a badge and all of a sudden becoming Somebody. They are The Law and you aren’t, so they indiscriminately throw that weight around, simply because they can, without understanding what being The Law really means. That officer is a hammer, and you are a nail. He thinks he’s your boss. We’ve all encountered cops of that ilk, who are a pox on a free society.

For good reason, we give police broad discretion in how to handle the range of matters they confront, but that discretion comes with a demand for fair judgment, a feel for human affairs. The officer who treats an incidental lawbreaker with the same indignation as a common hood lacks that feel, and he can disrupt anyone’s life for no good reason. Even worse is the occasional rogue cop, who is worse than a criminal because he’s protected by the imprimatur of The Law.

That’s not the case here, but it looks enough like the case to start people chattering. We have here an officer, Paul Stephens, with less than two years in the San Marcos Police Department (SMPD). He obviously lacked the guile to diffuse a delicate, emotional situation. A more experienced officer, feeling more latitude, may have actually provided an escort, but that’s a fantasy. We wouldn’t demand or expect it. We would have said the officer went above and beyond the call of duty. We should hope, though, that a more experienced officer at least wouldn’t heighten the driver’s distress.

As for the driver, Michael Gonzales of San Marcos, what did he expect? We can respect his emotional state and still understand that if he’s going to go 95, weaving in and out of lanes on a heavily patrolled stretch of the Interstate, he not only is going to be stopped, but he should be stopped and ticketed. And that stop is going to take 15 or 20 minutes. And if he’s going to be anything but calm and cooperative after driving so maniacally, that’s going to raise red flags with the officer. Calmness with the cops is always the right approach.

And that goes for the cops, too. SMPD Chief Howard Williams has acknowledged that “this was not our finest hour,” adding that Stephens’ first job was to calm Gonzales down. Instead, Stephens gratuitously and ham-fistedly belittled Gonzales plight. Stephens has been reprimanded and counseled. He’ll learn, one hopes, but he shouldn’t be suspended. If he hadn’t let loose that “just a dog” remark, there’s no story here.

That “just a dog” remark points to the second element in this story, which is the way people feel about their pets. We love our pets. They bring us comfort, companionship, edification and a warm, fuzzy feeling. In some ways, they’re like children.

But they’re not children, and too many people conflate pets and children. Such people are tragically confused, when they’re not insufferable. Pets are not children and children are not pets. People who treat their pets like children are laughable, while people who treat their children like pets are dangerous.

If you want to have children, and if you want the respect and consideration that good parents deserve, then step up to the plate and have children, attend to their complex needs, raise them to bring good to the world, guide them through their difficult emotional challenges, finance their expensive requirements for 20 years or more and realize that you’re responsible for unleashing a force on society. But don’t you dare settle for a dog or cat, which is your own private pleasure, then expect the same sympathy and regard as people who do the important work of raising children, because your pets aren’t your children, and no amount of saying so will make it true.

This silly idea that pets are children trivializes parenthood, which is one of the most valuable and indispensable functions of the society. The easy moral equivalence of pet ownership with parenthood is a farce to the most irksome degree. Love your pets for what they are. They are not children.

With all that said, the “just a dog” remark bluntly underplays the emotional attachments people make with their pets. Such a remark illustrates that the officer might understand the law, but he doesn’t understand life. For what we want from law enforcement, that’s not good enough.

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25 thoughts on “The Myth of Jones: On callous cops and dying dogs

  1. Good writing, Bill. I agree for the most part with your thoughts. But as to that officer – it’s not whether he has been on the force 1 year or 15 years – it is the person within that uniform – and that person failed the test. We get what we pay for.

  2. So many police officers are bullies, not public servants. Officer Paul Stephens could’ve just written the damn ticket in five minutes, but instead he had to get on his high horse and lecture the driver while the dog died in its owner’s arms. My own dog was hit by a car in 2005, and in my hysteria I could not find the emergency clinic and was driving around frantically when I saw a police cruiser. I stopped my car and waved him down, and I explained to him frantically that I was looking for the animal hospital as my dog had just been hit by a car. He said he could not help me with that–“sorry.” I got back in my car and drove to a different emergency clinic 10 miles away. It turned out I was merely three blocks from the one I had been looking for, and if the cop had just radioed or called someone at the station, he could’ve helped me.

  3. Law Dog
    To those of you who would criticize this officer walk a mile in his shoes. Have you spent the 2 years necessary in training to become a Texas Peace Officer and be able to ride solo? The speed at which this man was going is classified as Reckless ENDANGERMENT! The officer’s training alerted him to this and when the man did not pull over his training required that he handle this as a high speed pursuit. Have you ever been in one? This officer put his life at risk for YOU the TAXPAYERS that time and every time he pulls over a speeder! Hypocrites.

  4. This cop suffers from BFS Barney Fife syndrome. Instead of making this situation better, he showed his authority and put his foot in his mouth. It’s all about the ego baby. I think he should be taught how to offer compassion and defuse situations instead of shooting his mouth off. In one simple move he could have been a hero, write the ticket, put one of the kids and the pup in his car, turned on his lights and driven them to the vet. I’ve seen them use the lights to get through intersections for no emergency reason, so why not an animal emergency? I also feel he should write a letter of apology to the kids for his remarks as well as retrain.

  5. I just retired after 30 years in a 200 plus man dept in a very large culturally diverse city. For fifteen years I was a supervisor and made Lieutenant. For fifteen years I took care of and worked with our K-9 unit. I love dogs to no end and would do most anything for them however what that couple did was totally reckless and irresponsible. Only due to the media attention was this officer disciplined. So sad the Chief and other management felt it was necessary to make a point with this officer. I loved my job and really believe this was unreasonable on the part of the dept. To bad they so often succumb to such pressure and cannot stand on their two feet and support their officers. I wonder if given the same circumstances they would have reacted any differently but then again being in the ivory tower they lose touch with what brought them there to begin with. Either way it was a sad situation for the family, the dog and now the dept.

  6. Yes, Officer Stephens should have used tact in this situation. Mr. Gonzalez was wrong in assuming that he could drive erratically and recklessly. At the time that the incident occurred it is a likely time for a DUI or other malicious activity. When a suspect exits a vehicle in the manner that Mr. Gonzalez did, it sets off alarms in the Officer’s head. The Officer is trained to take control of the situation. Officer Stephens did just that. When an Officer writes a ticket, he/she runs the driver’s license number and the tag from the vehicle. This can take some time. There are a great deal of people driving around with warrants for their arrest. I guarantee that if Officer Stephens had failed to follow protocol the ramifications could have been far worse. It is a shame that the animal passed away. However, would anyone want a vehicle driving 100 mph coming up behind them? A written reprimand in the Officer’s file is serious and follows most departments guidelines for discipline.

  7. I don’t think the officer should be fired for one mistake, but I think the incident should be documented in his employee record. Anyone who works with the public needs empathy. At the very least the officer is rude and condesding. Is that part of his job description? There are laws against abusing animals, and his actions caused the dog’s continuing pain and death. If you or I did that, we would be charged with violating animal cruelty laws.The officer’s status seems to protect him from that. He won’t get off lightly though. Regardless of what his management thinks, that officer has to live in San Marcos. At least some of his neighbors will certainly think less of him now. This officer’s story and his name were also broadcast on national news networks. I wouldn’t want to get my 15 minutes of fame the way he has.

  8. People in this country have lost their minds…. First thing is that it is only a dog….. This dog could be replaced by stopping at your local pet shop and purchasing another…. This dog life is worth $3000 since that was the price the man paid for it in the first place…. If this man would have killed a person while speeding the excuse of his dog was choking would be the worst excuse i have ever heard in my life…. A dog choking is no reasong to be breaking the law…. The officer was correct to berated the man for his poor judgement…. We live in a society where people dont want to take responsibility for their actions and when repremanded they start to point the finger…. Most people miss the fact that the man didnt stop and explain himself to police he decided to engage in a high speed persuit….. Risking alot of peoples lives over an animal…. Its sickens me that people would care more about a dog then their fellow human beings…. And for all of you people who think this way you should be ashamed of yourself….. And say what you want about myself i could careless i know my flaws and i work on them daily but at least i acknowledge them and try to change….

  9. The police officer performed the “Protect” function of his job, but not the “serve” function. It’s an absolute fact that the man needed to get a ticket…the “Protect” part of the police motto, but the officer could have had the couple lock their car and get into his patrol car with their pet. The officer could then have taken the couple and their dying pet to the Vet. Emergency room….at a more reasonable pace. That would have been the “Serve” portion of the police motto.

  10. Escorting a civilian driver is the same as allowing them to proceed at their previous 90 mph speed – the officer takes full responsibility for what happens. You folks need to get a grip, you’re the reason there are so many cops out there who don’t do anything but take reports and won’t do anything proactive. The previous poster was right, you’re the same people who would yell for the officers head if he had bent the rules and a person had been injured. Case in point, years ago in L.A. if an officer was seen exceeding the speed limit to a screaming woman or similar call, he would be suspended for five days. I could go on but why bother.

  11. San Marcos is a lovely town, but it is to be avoided like the plague. Their cops are the worst jerks around.

  12. I think this was a hard situation for everyone involved. I pray for healing to the couple who lost their pet. I also pray for the policeman’s safety as he goes about his work of serving the community (very hard job). Everyone makes mistakes such as driving 95mph and crossing the professional boundary, but hopefully everyone can learn something from this experience.

  13. Let’s put just a slightly different spin on this story so that it has a different ending.

    The driver was speeding recklessly to save his little dog when he losses control of his vehicle, crosses the median and kills a family of 6 as well as himself and his girlfriend.

    All of a sudden that precious little puppy just doesn’t seem quite as important does it?

  14. A dog isn’t just a pet, it becomes a part of the family, and you come to love it just as you would someone in your family. I know this because i have a dog of my own and i treat him as if he was my child. I love him so much and don’t know what i would do if something like this happened to me. I don’t believe justice has been served. I lived in San Marcos a couple of years ago and after this story I’m SO glad i no longer do. It’s sad to know that not the San Marcos Police Department feels that counseling is good enough for this kind of action. It only goes to show that they don’t believe what the officer did was so wrong when in reality, IT WAS! Not only did the officer have no respect or sympathy for the couple and their dog, but i also believe that what he did was contribute to animal cruelty. He kept them there for 20 min. when all he had to do was take just 5 min and issue them a ticket. Ok, so the officer had no moral values and probably no feelings, but he had no right to keep them there that long when he already knew their dog was dying. And I really can not believe that he told them it was just a dog! I think i would go hysterical if he would have told me that. No you cant just go get another one! It’s not the same. I really believe that this officer needs to be suspended. He needs to realize that what he did was wrong. And if this doesn’t happen then someone should contact PETA and maybe they can hound him and protest.

  15. I appreciate the good discussion here, but I do want to say something about the “Boycott San Marcos” sentiment that emanates from elsewhere. It seems these folks have the same lack of finesse as the police action about which they are so upset.

    It is implicit in making a generalization that you have numerous cases from which to draw that inference. Therefore, it is utterly fallacious to generalize from a single case. Therefore, it is utterly fallacious to generalize about the San Marcos Police Department based on this one episode (although some folks in San Marcos could have enough instances from which to make the generalization). I wouldn’t even make a general claim about this one police officer based on this one episode. Again, he should have just bit his tongue and there’s no story.

    And to generalize about the entire town based on this one episode, that’s just whacky. Anyone who would boycott San Marcos over this is going to miss a pretty good game.

  16. …Wishing the City of San Marcos, Texas..the MOTHER of all Lawsuits on behalf of Missy.

  17. The previous comment – trading a dog’s life for the cop’s — is one of the most inhumane things I’ve ever heard. This whole deal is pretty much like nothing I’ve ever seen. People who know me know I am not always reflexively sympathetic to the cops but who can help it in this case? I wouldn’t have printed this comment but I want people to see the mindset motivating some of the zealots on this issue. All I can say is: Wow.

  18. As a pet lover myself, I still have to say the officer was doing his JOB! Those who have not seen the video need to watch it and see how the driver was acting. He was histerical, and my guess would be so histerical that he was an unsafe driver. If he had hit a family and killed children then what would you all say about that? Poor dog? The guy should’ve been arrested in the first place for driving so recklessly and the girl couldve taken the already sick dog to the vet. If the dog was choking for that period of time dont you think he/she wouldve already been dead? Something to think about…..

  19. I have pets too, but your an idiot to pay 3k for a mutt. And if some guy runs in the back of me and kills my wife and lil girl over a dog, so god help me i do not know what i would do, I would have done the same as Officer Stephens and the next day i would have filled a warrant for the driver for reckless driving and felony evading, and picked him up. Goes to show you ….. you can kick someones kid and the parents will say “What did my kid do now?” You kick their dog and the owner might kill you for it.

  20. A colleague forwarded this video to me, and I was not prepared for the trauma I was going to experience. How frightening to see and understand that those who are meant to protect us are capable of such cruelty. I am truly concerned for the citizens of San Marcos if they are left with a department that can not decipher between an agent of the law and a man with sadistic tendencies. The fact that the officer has no response to nor can he recognize a traumatized human being demonstrates he does not possess the incredible qualities it takes to wield the power and trust of an officer’s position. The issue at hand is not whether or not the officer should have stopped those kids, it is what he did afterward that is so astonishing and abhorrent.He waited and drew up a ticket over a 20 minute period while these kids wept and their dog died. That act had more to do with a display of power than protecting the public, and it begs the inquiry, “What motivates this officer and how dangerous is he to our community?” If his superiors are not able to see the chilling nature of this officer, then the people of San Marcos have much to fear. The amount of power and security that is entrusted to our law enforcement in this era does not allow room for this kind of tyranny. We need to be able to trust that those protecting us have empathy for us. Without it, they can’t possibly be humane. And an inhumane police force is a frightening prospect. Howard Williams has an opportunity to calm and reassure all citizens in his jurisdiction that believe their officers should have the most basic respect for life. If this officer is left on the force, the implications are too far-reaching for him to comprehend, and I believe his competence as Police Chief should be seriously reconsidered.

  21. When I heard about this on the news, I was appalled. In reading the posts, I can only agree with and support those who acknowledge that driving that recklessly REQUIRES law enforcement intervention. Could the officer have been more tactful, yes, but when patrol is on at night, with a car traveling at that high of a rate of speed, dodging, etc., they don’t know what’s going to get out of it if it stops. And the adrenaline is surging. Personally, I would have been tempted to clock that young man when he said it was to get his dog to the vet. People forget that it’s easy to armchair quarterback such situations, but most people don’t readily grasp the possibilities that exist, when traffic stops are made.

    I am an animal lover, for those who may be quick to criticize, dropping $1000’s on pets, sometimes in the same month, so that they are cared for appropriately. I have my own, I manage a feral cat colony, and I donate to all kinds of animal & environmental causes.

    But NINETY-PLUS MPH, weaving, dodging, is unacceptable. And a police escort is a nice luxury, but not mandatory. Be reasonable people.

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