Ryan Moats Police Encounter

When Ryan Moats, an NFL football player, raced to the hospital with his wife to visit his mother-in-law before she died, he ran red lights, ran stop signs, and failed to stop for a police officer trying to pull him over.   To read the blogging and reporting on this incident, one might think the police officer beat him within an inch of his life.  Nothing of the sort happened.  Before you jump on the all too familiar anti-police bandwagon, watch the video and consider the following points.  

(Here is the two part video.  The first part is most important and about half of the second.) http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/30/dallas-police-officer-makes-death-even-worse/

We can certainly all agree that Mr. Moats’ vehicle was driving fast and did not stop for the police officer, whose sirens were visible and audible to the driver.  There is no way for the officer to know why the driver refused to stop, so the officer must address the situation at that moment as if the driver and passengers are a potential safety threat.  The fact that the driver pulled into the hospital would not reduce the officer’s concern.  With the benefit of hindsight and the glare of after-the-fact scrutiny under which police are always judged, Mr. Moats’ conduct was consistent with a person whose family member is dying.  However, there are an infinite number of less benign scenarios.  For example, shooting victims are often brought to the hospital by their comrades who may or may not still be armed.  Moreover, there have been situations in which gang members or family members attack rivals in hospital emergency rooms.  In any event, the officer’s demeanor when the car stopped and people began to stream out of the car was certainly not out of line.

When Ryan Moats got out of the car, he and other passengers immediately began screaming at the officer, who was alone.  While we can all sympathize with Mr. Moats’ concern for the health of his mother-in-law, take one minute to look at the situation from the officer’s perspective.  He has just followed a vehicle that refused to stop.  Red flag.  People emerge from the vehicle in an emotional state.  Red flag.  The occupants and driver begin yelling at him as he tried to understand and gain control of the situation.  Red flag.   And, the officer was outnumbered and unable to know whether the occupants were armed or how many other people might be in the vehicle.  In sum, there was no way that the officer could simply let everyone in the car do what they please in this situation — at least not until people calmed down and explained what was going on.

The situation would have been far different if Mr. Moats had behaved differently.  First, he could have pulled over when the officer turned on the lights and siren.  When the officer approached his car, he could have calmly explained the situation and would probably have gotten a police escort to the hospital.  Even if he didn’t pull over, he could have obeyed the officer’s initial commands at the hospital and given the officer a few moments to assess and understand what was going on.  Even if he had exited the vehicle in a calm manner and explained the situation, I’m sure the officer would have proceeded differently.

The officer in this case has reportedly apologized, but I do not believe he has anything to apologize for, except to placate the media and his chief, who has already determined his guilt before a hearing.  I am sure that his apology has more to do with Mr. Moats being an NFL player than the officer feeling truly remorseful.  What was the officer supposed to do?  Simply let the driver and his passengers walk away because they said their mother was dying?  That’s simply unrealistic.

People have to understand that, from a police officer’s perspective, the moment of contact with a motorist is a dangerous situation, especially a motorist who has refused to stop, and especially when the officer is alone.  Faced with emotional people who are ignoring lawful commands, I would expect that officer to use a stern tone and try to freeze the situation until all the facts can be discerned.  That is what this officer did.  The encounter did not take an inordinate amount of time, and the officer was not rude or verbally forceful until the occupants of the vehicle demonstrated no intention of obeying his lawful commands.  On Law and Order or CSI, perhaps the super-police could read the minds of the occupants.  But in real life, that is too high a standard.

I have read articles and blog entries about this situation in which people accuse the officer of murder and call for the officer’s resignation.  Each position is utterly ludicrous.  Ryan Moats’ behavior was the proximate cause of his being pulled over and detained for several minutes as the officer awaited back up, figured out what was going on, and got control of a potentially volatile situation.  It is certainly unfortunate that Mr. Moats was unable to say goodbye to his mother-in-law, but if he had acted differently, he would have had that opportunity.

The main lesson to be learned from this situation must be learned over and over again:  before condemning police officers for not living up to television-standards, understand the facts and understand the nature of the job.  Of course, some police officers make mistakes and even purposefully cross the line of proper conduct.  The Ryan Moats incident, however, was not such a case.

(Maselli Warren’s Peter B. Paris is a former police officer and represents police officers accused of misconduct.)