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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trooper vs. Cop

Trooper vs. Miami cop: police, public see clash differently
The Miami Herald by Diana Moskovitz and David Ovalle - November 5, 2011

A dashboard video cam that captured the image of Florida state trooper Donna Jane Watts marching a uniformed, handcuffed Miami police officer to her squad car, all the while berating him for speeding, has sparked a figurative slugfest in the blogosphere that seems to be intensifying by the hour. The core issue that has transfixed Miami’s law enforcement community in the past few days appears to be this: whether Watts, a trooper with a no-nonsense attitude, crossed the line when she sped south on Florida’s Turnpike behind the police car of Miami officer Fausto Lopez, as he broke speed limits to get to an early-morning off-duty assignment. When Lopez finally stopped — and there is considerable debate over whether he was traveling the previously reported 120 miles per hour — Watts approached him like any other suspect and not a brother officer on the side of the dark road. She pulled her sidearm — highly unusual for a speeding stop — aimed and shouted at him as she approached. Then she cuffed him and escorted him back to her vehicle. Therein lies the firestorm. Watts violated one of the unwritten rules of the profession: It holds that an officer should try at all costs to avoid pulling over a fellow officer for minor infractions. Kick it to the higher ups and let them hash it out. “This is not police corruption,’’ said retired North Miami Police Maj. Bob Lynch, a police instructor. “These are not criminal offenses, but traffic violations.” He says he warns his classes: “Don’t ever put yourself, on-duty, in a position where you’re asking for a confrontation.” Many outside law enforcement are also upset, but for an entirely different reason. They want to know why any officer would feel he or she has carte blanche to break laws they have been sworn to uphold. Or, as Herald reader Joe Canas of Kendall said in response to an online query, echoing many: “I can’t remember a single time where a police car was ever following posted speed limits. All of them — and I mean all of them save for FHP — get on the left-most side of the highway and speed with impunity.” Lynch and other trainers say both law officers are to blame — Lopez for speeding enough to warrant FHP attention, and Watts for agitatedly handcuffing a uniformed officer, despite his polite protests. “I felt the gun should have been put away and I don’t think she should have made the physical arrest,” said Francis “Bucky” Greene, a former Miami-Dade sergeant and retired police trainer. “If she called a supervisor to come to the scene, I think the guy would have his [city-owned] car taken away on the spot.”


Fueled by anger from both law enforcement and citizens, the video of the traffic stop has gone viral. Officers have mocked Watts in online postings, doctoring photos. Conversely, Watts supporters have started a Facebook page. Here is what is known about the early morning incident from Oct. 11: Watts, while on patrol, spotted a police cruiser whiz past her in the southbound lanes of Florida’s Turnpike in Broward. In her report, Watts would write that Lopez was weaving in and out of traffic at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour. With lights and sirens blazing, she began following the sedan. A recording later released by FHP at the request of the news media showed that superiors tried unsuccessfully by radio to get Watts to stand down and “back off.” But she did not. Ultimately, Watts released Lopez after issuing him a ticket charging reckless driving, a second-degree misdemeanor. And then there are the unknowns: Since she pulled her firearm, Watts must have thought she was in danger, so why didn’t she wait for backup? Once she realized it was a fellow law enforcement officer, why didn’t she request a supervisor? Did the chaotic back-and-forth over the radio prevent Watts from hearing the admonition to “back off?” Lopez would later say he hadn’t realized the flashing lights of the FHP squad car were for him and he moved to another lane to get out of the way. He has hired a lawyer. Miami’s police union had harsh words for the trooper. “The law enforcement community is not upset with her because for her traffic summons,’’ Miami Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Javier Ortiz told The Herald. “We’re upset with her because of her reckless behavior in pulling a firearm on a uniformed patrolman in a marked patrol unit.” In the aftermath, an online law enforcement message board,, exploded with opinions, many threatening toward Watts. His photo has been plastered across the Internet, sometimes digitally altered to include a bottle of vodka.


Uniformed Hialeah officers posed for a photo comically re-enacting the episode. The make-believe Watts is a male wearing a blonde, curly wig to mimic the real trooper. “It’s the classic thin blue line,” Lynch said, explaining the backlash and not his own feelings toward the incident. “One of my buddies gets shafted, and we all think it’s wrong. We’re all going to defend him and sometimes it gets out of hand. It’s childish and it needs to stop.” This wasn’t the first time the decision of an officer to ticket another officer has been questioned. In 1997, a confrontation between two officers that began with a traffic stop vaulted into prime time news across the country after it was caught on camera. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office pulled over Metro-Dade police Maj. Aaron Campbell because he changed lanes without signaling. Campbell, who is black, believed he was pulled over because of racial profiling and because he was driving a new car with Miami-Dade license tags. Deputies denied the accusation. The confrontation resulted in a full-blown trial, a lawsuit that was later dropped and a lot of bad feelings. In 2006, the issue arose again when Miami police Lt. Armando Bello got news that his son, a Miami-Dade officer, had been critically injured in an off-duty crash. Bello, in the Florida Keys when he got word of the accident, jumped in his Mercedes and raced north. FHP trooper Jose Burgos ticketed him for going 91 in a 55-mph zone. In later reviewing the ticket amid an outpouring of criticism, FHP said the trooper didn’t know about the crash, which resulted in the death of Bello’s son. This isn’t the first time Watts has ticketed a fellow cop. Broward court records show she cited Miami Beach officer Philip Elmore in June for going 82 in a 55 mph zone. The case went to trial and Elmore was convicted but adjudication was withheld, according to records. The records did not indicate if Elmore was on or off duty or what kind of vehicle he was driving. Watts became a deputy with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office in 2003. Before coming to South Florida, she patrolled the western Panhandle for FHP. In 2008, she was among a dozen or more troopers honored for making more than 100 drunk-driving arrests the prior year.


Lopez , a Miami cop for five years, has received several commendations for good work, according to his personnel jacket. Earlier for this year, he was written up for failing to immediately report damage to the driver’s side fender of his cruiser. And his record shows a driving complaint reported to internal affairs in 2009, but it doesn’t show how it was resolved. His lawyer, Bill Matthewman, said he understood that it was dismissed. “You know, for being on the street that long and having no complaints of any merit at all, it shows that he is a very level-headed and reasonable officer who treats people fairly,” Mattewman said. Outside the law enforcement community, the response to the incident has little to do with Lopez’s record. Many are nursing a grudge, saying they’ve spent a lifetime watching police cars bob and weave through traffic at reckless speeds, and switch their lights and sirens on and off at intersections, solely to avoid obeying traffic lights. “Many times I see Dade-based police speeding north in Broward County,” said Sean Schwinghammer of Miami Lakes. “I have called police departments about it regularly and reported the numbers on the back of the cruisers. Only once was I called back, and they told me they would deal with it.” Dennis Chang of Miami concurred that police drive as if the laws apply to others and not them, adding: “If we are observing the speed limit, why aren’t they?” On the LEO website used by law officers, one person posted: “Please know tonight that citizens across this country are reading your posts….I support law enforcement but am telling you now that you are and will lose in the COURT of PUBLIC OPINION on this issue if you continue to debate this in open forums.’’ Ultimately, the stop and the furor it has generated underscores a characteristic of many professions, not just law enforcement, said professor Dennis Kenney, a former Polk County law officer who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Each profession has its courtesies, fair or not — and citizens can feel slighted when officers catch a break from a fellow cop. “They are right,’’ Kenney said. “The law should apply evenly to everyone. To the citizen who is getting the ticket, it’s expensive. To the officer writing the ticket, it’s work product,’’ something they do all day, every day. El Nuevo Herald staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Only twice have I ever had a police officer treat me as a citizen. Once, several years ago a female took my word and the word of a neighbor over a reckless driver in the neighborhood. She went to the neighbors door and told the man about his wife's boyfriend almost killing us. I was shocked. Several years later I needed LE. She arrived. By this time she had become like all the rest...nothing she could do about the situation.

The second time a young male officer assisted me with a flat tire. He had a great attitude and his superior was excellent, too. He was young. He said it was his job to boot bad cops. I wondered how long that would last until the group mentality would consume him.

It is understood that you don't speak of such things. People will say,"If you tell anyone about this I will be killed." They know about the "brotherhood" and expect very little of them.

If you want law enforcement, you must pay a private entity.

But, I can say I have never seen a police officer driving recklessly. I've heard of three or four people being hit by them in minor traffic accidents and taking the blame because they didn't want them to get in trouble. But, nothing doing 120 m.p.h.!

For the Fraternal Order of Police to say this woman should be Baker Acted is absurd. Not to mention other police officers mocking her appearance online. That shows their bigotry and bias and demonstrates the need to weed them out. If they would do this to another police officer, though not of their own branch, what can a regular citizen expect?