Dallas police chief apologizes for conduct of officer who drew gun on NFL player outside hospital

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Dallas police chief apologizes for conduct of officer who drew gun on NFL player outside hospital 3:33 PM CT

03:36 PM CDT on Thursday, March 26, 2009

By STEVE THOMPSON and TANYA EISERER / The Dallas Morning News


Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle stood in front of a dozen news cameras this afternoon at police headquarters to apologize for the behavior of an officer who stopped a family outside a hospital emergency room.

Kunkle said Officer Robert Powell has been placed on paid administrative leave in connection with an incident last week in which he stopped a family rushing to visit a dying mother, detaining them for 13 minutes to write a traffic ticket.

“His behavior in my opinion, did not exhibit the common sense, discretion, the compassion that we expect our officers to exhibit,” the chief told a packed audience of media outlets that included Inside Edition.

During the traffic stop, caught on the officer’s in-car camera, Powell berated the driver, 26-year-old NFL running back Ryan Moats, and threatened him with arrest for running a traffic light.

“I can screw you over,” said Powell, 25. “I’d rather not do that.”

At one point during today’s news conference, Kunkle seemed to restrain himself from being even more candid with his views on the incident.

“When we in the command staff reviewed the tapes,” he said, “we were embarrassed, disappointed — it’s hard to find the right words and still be professional in my role as a police chief.”

The chief also praised Moats and his family for how they handled the officer’s behavior.

“They exercised extraordinary patience, restraint, dealing with the behavior of our officer,” Kunkle said. “At no time did Mr. Moats identify himself as an NFL football player or expect any kind of special consideration. He handled himself very, very well.”

Moats rolled through a red light as he and his wife were en route to Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano. A Dallas police squad car pulled their SUV over near the hospital’s emergency entrance.

Moats and his wife implored the officer to let them hurry on to the bedside of her ill mother.

“You really want to go through this right now?” Moats pleaded. “My mother-in-law is dying. Right now!”

His wife, Tamishia Moats, said Powell “was pointing a gun at me as soon as I got out of the car. It was the weirdest feeling because I’ve never had a gun pointed at me before under those circumstances.”

Powell then spent long minutes writing Moats a ticket and threatening him with arrest.

Powell could not be reached for comment.

Kunkle, asked about Powell’s reaction to the investigation, said the officer told a member of the command staff that he was just doing his job.

“My understanding is that Officer Powell, even when he saw the videotape, believed he had not acted inappropriately,” Kunkle said.

“I’ve read some of the comments in some of the publications, and the majority of the comments reflect my position — that at the point the officer was told that they were responding to a dying family member, that should have been his concern: to allow those people to get access to that family member.”

The scene, captured by the officer’s dashboard video camera, prompted apologies and the promise of an investigation even before Kunle met the media.

“There were some things that were said that were disturbing, to say the least,” said Lt. Andy Harvey, a police spokesman.

Harvey said Powell told his commanders that he drew his gun but did not point it at Moats or his wife.

The lieutenant said it’s not unusual for officers to draw a gun in traffic stops if they feel threatened.

Moats’ mother-in-law, Jonetta Collinsworth, was struggling at 45 with breast cancer that had spread throughout her body. Family members rushed to her bedside from as far away as California.

On March 17, the Moatses had gone to their Frisco home to get some rest. Around midnight, they received word that they needed to hurry back to the hospital if they wanted to see Collinsworth before she died.

The couple, along with Collinsworth’s father and an aunt, jumped into the SUV and headed back toward the hospital. They exited the Dallas North Tollway, just down the street from the hospital.

Moats turned on his hazard lights. He stopped at a red light, where, he said, the only nearby motorist signaled for him to go ahead. He went through.

Powell, watching traffic from a hidden spot, flipped on his lights and sirens. In less than a minute, he caught up to the SUV and followed for about 20 more seconds as Moats found a parking spot outside the emergency room.

Tamishia, 27, was the first out. Powell drew his gun and yelled at her to get back in.

“Get in there!” he yelled. “Let me see your hands!”

“My mom is dying,” she explained to him.

Powell was undeterred.

“I saw in his eyes that he really did not care,” Tamishia Moats said. “Honestly, I don’t think I cared that he had a gun pointed at me. My train of thought is that I’m going to see my mom in the hospital before she dies.”

Tamishia Moats and her great-aunt ignored the officer and headed into the hospital.

“It was almost like a movie,” she said, “It felt like we had robbed a bank or something.”

Ryan Moats, who stayed behind with the father of the dying woman, said Powell also pointed his gun at him. He said he put his hands on the car because he was afraid that he might get shot.

“I put my hands on the car so he couldn’t say I reached for something,” Ryan said. “He didn’t ask me to put my hands on the car. I just did it to try to protect myself. I was pleading with him.”

He tried to explain the situation to the officer.

“I waited until no traffic was coming,” Moats told Powell, explaining his passage through the red light. “I got seconds before she’s gone, man.”

Powell demanded his license and proof of insurance. Moats produced his license but said he didn’t know where the insurance paperwork was.

“Just give me a ticket or whatever,” he said, beginning to sound exasperated and a little argumentative.

“Shut your mouth,” Powell told him. “You can cooperate and settle down, or I can just take you to jail for running a red light.”

There was more back and forth.

“If you’re going to give me a ticket, give me a ticket.”

“Your attitude says that you need one.”

“All I’m asking you is just to hurry up.”

Powell began a lecture.

“If you want to keep this going, I’ll just put you in handcuffs,” the officer said, “and I’ll take you to jail for running a red light.”

Powell made several more points, including that the SUV was illegally parked. Moats replied “Yes sir” to each.

“Understand what I can do,” Powell concluded. “I can tow your truck. I can charge you with fleeing. I can make your night very difficult.”

“I understand,” Moats responded. “I hope you’ll be a great person and not do that.”

Hospital security guards arrived and told Powell that the Moatses’ relative really was upstairs dying.

Powell spent several minutes inside his squad car, in part to check Moats for outstanding warrants. He found none.

Another hospital staffer came out and spoke with a Plano police officer who had arrived.

“Hey, that’s the nurse,” the Plano officer told Powell. “She said that the mom’s dying right now, and she’s wanting to know if they can get him up there before she dies.”

“All right,” Powell replied. “I’m almost done.”

As Moats signed the ticket, Powell continued his lecture.

“Attitude’s everything,” he said. “All you had to do is stop, tell me what was going on. More than likely, I would have let you go.”

It had been about 13 minutes.

Moats and Collinsworth’s father went into the hospital, where they found Collinsworth had died, with her daughter at her side.

The Moatses, who are black, said Wednesday that they can’t help but think that race might have played a part in how Powell, who is white, treated them.

“I think he should lose his job,” said Ryan Moats, a Dallas native who attended Bishop Lynch High School and now plays for the Houston Texans.

Powell was hired in January 2006. Assistant Chief Floyd Simpson said Powell told police officials that he believed that he was doing his job. He has been re-assigned to dispatch pending an investigation.

“When people are in distress, we should come to the rescue,” said Simpson. “We shouldn’t further their distress.”

Collinsworth was buried Saturday in Louisiana.

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