The recent news media blitz on the San Marcos Police Department following an interstate police pursuit and subsequent traffic stop brings to light the public’s ignorance to the perils of law enforcement combined with irresponsible news media reporting. The media was quick to jump on a single quote by Officer Stephen’s, out of context to the full situation, to stir raw emotions without reporting the full story of events which took place. The public was quick to play monday morning easy chair cop quarterback and condemn the officers, ignorant to the survival mindset of today’s well trained law enforcement, and the multiple threatening possibilities presented.
A vehicle traveling at 100+ mph down an interstate highway shortly after midnight is going to bring attention to itself no matter what city they are recklessly driving through. Phone calls were made to the 911 emergency operations center about the reckless vehicle, possible DWI suspect, with many unknowns involved. Officer Paul Stephens, along with other responsible San Marcos police officers, intercepted the erratic vehicle and began a 5 mile pursuit before the vehicle finally stopped near Centerpoint road. The vehicle crossed all three lanes of traffic multiple times, around 18 wheelers, drove on the shoulder of the road, and around construction signs before finally pulling over a second time. The end of the pursuit eliminated further danger the reckless driver was causing the citizens of San Marcos and those motorist passing through.
Officer Stephens is a combat veteran having served in Iraq and is well trained with the police department. He knows that the percentage of officers killed or injured greatly increases in the hours of darkness on the night shift (1), where most new officers start out. He also knows that vehicles, traffic stops, and pursuits contribute to a high number of line of duty assaults and deaths for officers. In the back of his mind he also knows that 140 peace officers were killed in the line of duty in 2007, and with over half of those that were killed feloniously, their deaths occurred in the southern states.(2)
Stephen’s approached the vehicle with the mindset of officer survival, with his hand on this gun ready for the many dangerous threats and possibilities. Is the driver armed? Is the driver fleeing a crime? Am I going to be shot? Why is the driver flailing his arms at me? What other threat am I missing? The driver’s first words spoken may not be completely audible in the digital video recording, but they are “SHE’S DEAD!! SHE’S DEAD!!”.
Now I ask you to put yourself in officer Stephen’s now perspiration soaked body armor. You have just been in a chase with an unknown suspect at 12:30AM at speeds up to 100 mph. You have seen combat in Iraq and know what the words “Dead” indicate. You don’t know if the suspect is armed or why they are fleeing the police, and you are trained to think and survive the worse case scenarios. What would “She’s DEAD!” mean to you? It means there is a dead body in the car.
Imagine the RELIEF Stephen’s felt when he realized he was not dealing with a dead human body, not a dead baby girl, but a dead dog. His comment of “It’s just a dog” may seem insensitive, and those words were better thought than spoken, but it was a comment of relief that all those other more dangerous and horrible possibilities were no longer relevant. As a combat and police veteran myself, the shouts of “She’s Dead!” have a very literal human meaning and bring back some memories I would rather forget.
The media captivated and capitalized on those 4 words spoken by Stephen’s, took them out of context, and initially disregarded the second in car camera provided by Officer Joyce Bender of the passenger side of the stopped vehicle. Officer Bender immediately cradled the dog, attempted to clear the airway, and made the accurate determination the dog was in fact deceased. This action was taken within minutes of the second and final vehicle stop. The news media would have you believe that the pursuit and subsequent stop CAUSED the death of the animal. Fox news reported the death was “subsequent” to the police stop. This is simply not true.
As an animal lover myself with horses, dogs, goats, and some occasional barn cats, I sympathize with the Gonzalez family in the loss of their pet. My family also suffered the recent sudden loss of a pet. The clinic the Gonzalez’s were traveling to in New Braunfels was 15 miles away from where they finally pulled over. It would have been nothing short of miraculous for them to continue on with triple digit speeds and arrive safely at the clinic, especially with the emotional state of the driver, which Officer Stephen’s points out. It also would have been in vain.
It was responsible for the police department to pursue and stop the reckless driver. It was responsible for the police to investigate the circumstances surrounding the high speed pursuit. Back up officers acted responsibly in assessing the condition of the dog and did in fact determine the dog was already dead. With nothing more that could be done for the dog, it was responsible to issue a traffic citation although with the current media frenzy, I doubt any fines will be assessed. Officer’s Stephen’s remarks were better thought than said but brought to light his relief that the situation was not more serious.
In the end the news media got their headlines, the Gonzales family is getting their attention, and the police are again unjustly portrayed as the bad guys. Oprah will play on the emotions of animal lovers, broadcast the officer’s comments out of context, and portray the police as the villains. Imagine what would have happened if the Gonzales family was allowed to continue at speed, with or without escort, and had caused another tragedy possibly involving you or someone in your family.
Most progressive police departments such as the San Marcos police department have a “Citizen’s police academy” which I strongly recommend all San Marcos citizens attend. Before you jump to conclusions based on irresponsible, emotional, out of context reporting, attend the citizen’s police academy and learn the full pot-pourri of multitasking challenges and dangers modern day law enforcement officers face every day.
Dan Misiaszek is a retired San Marcos police sergeant currently serving his third year in Iraq providing security for US Diplomats
(1) – Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) FBI annual publication
(2) – 2007 Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s annual report FBI UCR