San Marcos Police Chief Howard Williams. File photo.
By ANDY SEVILLA
The San Marcos Police Department (SMPD) officer who made national news with his “just a dog” remark during a traffic stop last year now is under suspension without pay for a separate incident that took place in August.
SMPD Chief Howard Williams indefinitely suspended Officer Paul Stephens after the latter’s “history of not telling the truth,” unlawful use of force, and disobeying orders, according to a Letter of Indefinite Suspension that Williams wrote to Stephens. It’s the officer’s third disciplinary action against in 14 months. The suspension is being appealed through an independent third-party hearing examiner.
At approximately 2 a.m. on Aug. 18 at, a disturbance was reported near Dillinger’s Bar, 127 East Hopkins Street, where Stephens encountered a group of 10 to 12 people. Some of the people were arguing on the sidewalk, though none were physically fighting, according to Williams’ letter.
Stephens had his car camera on, but failed to synchronize his microphone with the video recorder that night, stated the letter. Therefore, no audio was available. Nine seconds from when Stephens exited his car, he shoved an unidentified female in the chest with his expandable baton, causing her to fall to the ground, according to the video recording cited in the letter.
Upon arriving at the scene, Stephens walked in to the verbally hostile group of people, stopped directly to the right of an unidentified female, then turned towards her and raised his baton before striking her after she turned towards him, according to the letter. A second unidentified female tried to help the other female off the floor and was finally successful in leading her away approximately 14 seconds after Stephens shoved her. Stephens made no attempt to identify or control the female he pushed, though the crowd dispersed quickly, and the unidentified females were seen a second time on the recording, within Stephens view, according to the letter.
As the scene cleared, Stephens advised dispatch he had struck someone with a baton, but did not know who.
SMPD policy required Stephens to complete a use of force form, for which he consulted Officer Don Lee, and he also advised Sergeant Brandon Winkenwerder that the incident looked worse on video than it was, according to the letter.
“On 8/18/09 at approx. 0210 hours I responded to 127 E. Hopkins (Dillingers) in reference to a fight in progress,” Stephens stated on the use of force form. “Two officers were already on scene. Had multiple subjects at taserpoint but subjects were still fighting. I observed approx. 10 subjects fighting and attempted to dispurse [sic] the group. Due to # of subjects I immediately chose to use my ASP baton. I opened the baton towards the ground in a show of force and gave repeated commands stop and get back. Female subject moved towards me attempting to get to another female. The female was approx. one foot away from me leaving little time to react. I moved my baton to a horizontal over hand grip and pushed the female back both to give myself more of a reactionary gap and to dispurse [sic] the crowd. Female stumbled backward and fell when she tripped on the curb, not from the impact of me using my baton to push her back. Female continued to fight others and was taken away by other friends before she could be identified.”
That same morning, Stephens viewed the tape with Officer Jesse Guerra and Corporal Lee Leonard, and later that night, at approximately 9:30 p.m. Stephens showed the video to Officer Brian Ellingson and Corporal Kye Kennedy. Winkenwerder submitted Stephens’ use of force form, after review, as IA Pro, stated the letter.
Sergeant Chris Tureaud served Stephens with a notice of administrative investigation on Aug. 22 at 9:15 p.m. Tureaud also advised Stephens not to discuss the matter with anyone, according to the letter. Stephens, however, discussed the allegations and investigation with Corporal Erik Spriegel and Guerra in the back parking lot of police headquarters, less than two hours after Tureaud advised him not to do so, stated the letter.
Commander Terry Nichols conducted the administrative investigation, finding several discrepancies in Stephens’s account of the events. Nichols had Stephens answer questions in writing and conducted a verbal interview regarding the incidents. According to the letter, Stephens told Nichols he couldn’t recall with certainty why he used force against the unidentified female, adding that “because she was non compliant, I escalated my use of force against her by pushing her back …” The letter also states that Stephens told Nichols that Winkenwerder and Lee saw the video, though, in his written response he completed the next day, Stephens said he couldn’t recall who saw the video. According to the letter, Stephens also told Nichols that he had spoken with Kennedy, Winkenwerder and Lee about the incident, though the written response said he had not spoken with anyone regarding the matter after being served with the notice of allegations.
In justifying the use of force charge against Stephens, Williams cited the Police Department General Orders, which state that, “In any individual event, the use of force is restricted to that force necessary to control and terminate unlawful resistance, to effect a lawful arrest, to prevent injury to any person or to prevent the escape of a person in custody.” Williams went on to say that the unidentified female didn’t fit any of the criteria necessary for use of force.
“From the video evidence, it is clear that the unidentified woman whom you pushed was being argumentative, but there is no evidence that she attempted to harm you or any other person,” William said in the letter. “At no point on the recording did she make an attempt to hit, grab or shove anyone. Her hands were at her side or behind her back from your arrival until you pushed her down. You were positioning you[sic] ASP (baton) to push her before she turned your direction. It is clear that she did not trip on the curb, but she fell from the push you administered. You could not articulate in your written statement or in your interview with Commander Nichols what made you believe that she was trying to harm or injure another person. Therefore, this use of force was not necessary to prevent injury to any person, and thus, was in compliance with this policy.”
Williams also said in the letter that Stephens violated paragraphs 8 and 12 of Section 10.01 of the Rules of the City of San Marcos Fire Fighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission and Section 143.051(8) and (12) of the Texas Local Government Code when he spoke with Spriegel and Guerra after being served with the notice of allegations by Tureaud. Williams went on to charge Stephens with a third offense in the letter because Stephens wrote in the use of force form that the unidentified woman he shoved was fighting, though the video evidence shows otherwise, because Stephens didn’t identify that he had shown the video of the incident to Ellingson, Guerra, Kennedy and Leonard, and because he didn’t disclose his prohibited conversations with Spriegel and Guerra.
The code of conduct in the Police Department General Order states that “all reports and written communications from any member of the department will reflect the truth. Any statement or omission of pertinent information which intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly misrepresents fact or mislead others will be considered a false statement.” The code also states that, “Employees will not attempt to conceal, divert, or mitigate their true culpability in a situation, nor will they engage in efforts to thwart or interfere with an internal or criminal investigation.”
Williams said in the letter that, due to Stephens’ actions and previous suspensions for dishonesty, Hays County District Attorney Sherri Tibbe has said her office will notify defense attorneys of all cases in which Stephens is a witness of his disciplinary record, adding that Stephens is of “little use as a witness in any prosecution.”
Said Williams in the letter, “The chain of command cannot depend on an officer who has a history of not telling the truth. There is no assignment available within the San Marcos Police Department that permits an officer to avoid testifying in court or having to answer truthfully to the chain of command regarding his actions.”
Stephens had two previous disciplinary actions.
On Aug. 13, 2008, Stephens was given a written reprimand after violating the conduct beneficial to good order and violating the prohibited acts under individual responsibility when he addressed the driver of the vehicle and his passenger in harsh and belittling terms during a traffic stop.
On Oct. 23, 2008, Stephens was suspended for two days, effective Oct. 29, 2008, for violating the honesty subsection of the individual responsibilities under the code of conduct, when Stephens told Nichols he had driven to Dallas because of a death in the family, causing him to be late to court. Stephens later admitted there was not a death in his family, and that he had not driven to Dallas, but instead overslept.
Stephens was also in the midst of nationally discussed matter involving San Marcos on Aug. 5, 2008, when two San Marcos residents, Michael Gonzales and Krystal Hernandez, sped down Interstate-35 trying to rush their teacup poodle, Missy to a 24-hour veterinary clinic in New Braunfels. Stephens pulled them over for driving at high speed. The traffic stop that took 17 minutes from the beginning until the residents were released. Gonzales and Hernandez both said Missy was alive, but died during the traffic stop.
Officer Joyce Bender, who assisted Stephens with the stop, said Missy was not breathing and she believed Missy was already dead. Bender, at the time, did not have any veterinary training. Gonzales and Hernandez both complained that Stephens was insensitive after Gonzales said Stephens told him, “dude you need to chill out, it’s just a dog you can always get another one.” Stephens was ordered counseling for the incident, and Gonzales’ traffic violation was dropped.Email | Print