Fault Lines
20 September 2017

Arizona DPS: It’s Okay to Scream and Threaten Motorist and Child

August 18, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Like any good officer, Captain Damon Cecil of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, defended the actions of a state trooper who pointed a gun at a 7-year-old girl and threatened to shoot her dad following a traffic stop.

The trooper, Oton Villegas, came into contentious contact with Kenneth Walton as Walton and his daughter were headed to a Grand Canyon vacation in a rental car. Villegas initiated a traffic stop on a stretch of highway between Las Vegas and Flagstaff, Arizona. This is where things got dicey.

Walton thought the trooper wanted to warn him about a broken taillight or something, as he knew he hadn’t been speeding but had seen the trooper following him. Villegas thought the car was stolen and was initiating a high-risk felony stop. As you might imagine, approaching the situation with two very different mindsets, each person’s perception of the encounter is different.

Walton largely made his story known through a Facebook post after the incident. He maintains he pulled over, rolled down his window, and patiently waited. He claims the officer instead approached the rear passenger side, where he 7-year-old daughter was seated, and suddenly rapped on the window with his pistol, terrifying his daughter. He says the trooper pointed the pistol at both his daughter and himself while ordering him to roll down the passenger window. Apparently, he struggled finding the correct switch in the rental car and was unable to immediately roll down the window. All the while, he claims the trooper continued to escalate the situation by yelling louder and more insistently as he leered at him down the barrel of his pistol.

Walton goes on to describe his attempts to follow instructions which included stepping out of the car, hands high in the air. He claims the trooper yelled “Get your hands away from your waist or I’ll blow two holes through your back right now!” Yet, he maintains his hands were never near his waist and the trooper must have been attempting to justify his actions. After his arrest, the trooper verified the vehicle was not stolen (though it’s plates had previously been reported stolen) and let him return to his daughter.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety disputes some of the details in Walton’s story, calling it “inflammatory” and “irresponsible.” In short, Captain Damon Cecil confirmed most of the story and is standing by Villegas’ actions:

Cecil confirmed that Villegas pointed a gun at the 7-year-old, but did so unintentionally, and that he threatened to shoot Walton because he “perceived a threat.”

“We’re not disputing that our trooper said those things,” Cecil said. “He absolutely did.”

Not only did Villegas say he would “blow two holes through [his] back,” DPS does not dispute the gun was pointed at the 7-year-old. Villegas said and did many of the things Walton accused him of, yet Cecil sees no problem.

Cecil said it was appropriate for Villegas to have escalated the traffic stop, given the circumstances.

“Our trooper had a set of facts in front of him and responded the way he was trained, the way that was safest for him and his public,” Cecil said. “Putting yourself in the trooper’s position: He’s giving commands, he’s yelling, he’s not getting a response. Should he de-escalate the yelling? Or should he escalate? … You weren’t there. And I wasn’t there.”

Agreed. We weren’t there. But, Walton was, despite his past, as a scammer and a liar. While he may not be the trustworthiest source, it doesn’t mean he lied this time. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Yet, DPS concedes many of his facts. In any event, that’s not the point of this post. This is a focus on perceptions: two of them from the same scene and one from an armchair quarterback captain.

In Walton’s mind, the aggressive guns-drawn approach was overkill for a taillight. Once confronted with a very different situation from what he was expecting, perhaps he too became a little disoriented and did have trouble maneuvering the window controls in an unfamiliar vehicle. Perhaps, as a father, he was concerned for the safety and well being of his young daughter.

People often report being nervous during a simple traffic stop. Couple that with a gun in your face and the nerves dramatically increase. Does that mean he was a threat? Does that mean the trooper needed an aggressive show of force? Maybe. But perhaps there was a better way to achieve the same result.

No doubt, the life of any law enforcement officer is dangerous. They are at risk during any encounter, even a traffic stop. Couple that traffic stop with the possibility of a felony (a stolen car) and the officer’s perceived danger is heightened. In Villegas’ mind, he was attempting to stop a potentially dangerous felon and car thief. As such, was Villegas reacting appropriately? Did his adrenaline get the best of him? Could he have handled things differently? According to Cecil, the trooper responded in the way he was trained. Are officers really trained to attempt a felony traffic stop alone? Are officers trained to approach the potential felon not knowing what threats might be lurking inside the vehicle?

According to Duane Wolf, a career officer and police instructor, the trooper’s actions were anything but standard operating procedure – well, at least not in line with his teaching and best practices for officer safety. Wolf details tips for officer safety in the felony stop: (1) don’t rush the suspect vehicle, rather set up a safe distance and have the suspect come to you; (2) use tactical breathing, slow and deliberate to avoid poor decisions based on the stress of the event; (3) safely and tactically follow the suspect until sufficient back up arrives; (4) practice with your partners, develop a game plan to follow; and (5) control the scene by controlling yourself and other officers. Each of these tips is related to controlling the adrenaline and stress of the situation to make better decisions that promote safety while still completing the arrest or detention.

Villegas did none of these things. Yet, Cecil defends his actions anyway. Villegas had been following the car for some distance, at least long enough to check the plate and receive information about its reported stolen nature. During that time, the driver had not attempted to flee or evade the trooper. With lights and sirens engaged, the driver peacefully pulled over. Again, no attempt to flee or avoid contact. The driver didn’t immediately exit the car and attempt to flee or rush the officer.

Villegas didn’t wait for backup. Villegas did not seek to have Walton exit the vehicle and come to safety. Instead, he rushed the car, gun drawn, appearing on the passenger side suddenly and near a young child. He immediately started shouting and even threatened to shoot Walton because of a perceived threat. Luckily, the threat turned out not to be real, but isn’t that exactly why officers are taught to wait for backup?

Yes, situations can be dangerous, scary, and even terrorizing. And, for Cecil, that’s ok and to be expected:

“We sympathize with them; I don’t think there’s any law enforcement official who would not be just as angry, just as fearful and terrorized if [they were in a similar situation and] officers had guns pointed out,” Cecil told The Washington Post. “It’s a scary situation. But in light of that, this is a positive story. … This case is a prime example of how things should be done.”

So while there may have been a better, and safer, means to affect a felony stop, Cecil and the Arizona DPS have signed off on Villegas’ method as A-OK. It’s a prime example of how things should be done. Never mind that it creates a scary situation. Even officers in the same situation would be terrorized by guns pointed at them. That’s just what policing has come to for some. Don’t call out the bad cop or the not-so-great procedure, just defend the officer’s actions.

19 Comments on this post.

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  • FlameCCT
    18 August 2016 at 10:23 am - Reply

    It was a high risk felony stop. An LEO from Hatch NM made a similar stop just last week and is now dead. We’ve had numerous LEOs shot and killed making similar stops over the past year in the Albuquerque.

    Sounds more like the convicted scammer and previous lawyer was trying to pull another scam on Arizona DPS.

    • Andrew Fleischman
      18 August 2016 at 1:26 pm - Reply

      Maybe you’re right that the complainer is a scammer and a liar, and we should not believe his account. But the officer has already corroborated the most important point–he pointed his gun at a child.

      Would it change your mind to note that fewer than one in a million stops results in an officer death?

      Is it worth placing a child at a serious risk of death or injury on the off chance that it reduces an already tiny chance of danger?

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2015/07/23/so-much-for-the-ferguson-effect-killings-of-cops-are-down-25-percent-for-the-first-half-of-2015/?utm_term=.e37c5ac08aa8

      Every year, dozens of police officers are killed in traffic accidents because they speed or drive recklessly. Strict traffic enforcement against police would save blue lives and make the public safer. A damn sight better than pointing guns at children.

      • FlameCCT
        18 August 2016 at 3:38 pm - Reply

        When an LEO is approaching a vehicle with what appears to be only one occupant then is startled by another unseen occupant then it is normal to bring the firearm to bear on the potential threat until it is determined whether it is an actual threat or not.

        We had an LEO in Rio Rancho NM make a similar felony stop. Approached the vehicle on the driver’s side, was shot and killed from the front seat passenger firing past the driver.

        • Clark Crimcops
          19 August 2016 at 11:33 am - Reply

          While it was only a link, I find it disturbing that you even choose to mention Walton’s ” …past, as a scammer and a liar,” yet didn’t include any of Villegas’ previous complaints of civil rights violation including at least one pending lawsuit. https://dockets.justia.com/docket/arizona/azdce/3:2013cv08229/806213.
          It should also be noted the Arizona State Police’s habit of “losing” dashcam footage in controversial incidents, including this recent arrest where Captain Damon Cecil lied to the public with an account that independent video contradicted.

        • Clark Crimcops
          19 August 2016 at 11:43 am - Reply

          Nice try, but Officer Gregg Benner wasn’t killed in a “similar felony stop.” He was shot after the suspect held the driver at gun point and forced her to lead Benner on a high speed chase. The chase ended when the suspect shot the driver and pushed her out of the vehicle right before he shot and killed Benner.
          That isn’t similar at all.

        • Thomas
          19 August 2016 at 12:48 pm - Reply

          So because the LEO was “startled by another unseen occupant” it was totally cool to point the gun at the 7 year old girl because, you know, she might have been packing heat? LOL you cannot be serious my man. The 7 year old girl was a “potential threat” thus making it “normal to bring the firearm to bear on the potential threat?”

          I think you are trolling us.

    • John
      18 August 2016 at 1:41 pm - Reply

      Then call for backup. That the LEO didn’t is his failure, not the person he could have ended up shooting.

    • Christopher Best
      18 August 2016 at 9:09 pm - Reply

      “It was a high risk felony stop.”

      Then he was an idiot for approaching the vehicle that way and has no business carrying a badge and gun.

  • Tom H
    18 August 2016 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Had the officer shot Walton I suspect Captain Cecil would have been fine with that outcome also. “Ex-con dies after reaching for waistband” would have been the headline and there would only be one side to the story. Captain Cecil presents medal to officer for brave action.

  • mick savage
    18 August 2016 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    re flamecct:

    badge bunny – it was not a high risk felony stop – it was an idiotic mistake on part of arizona dps.
    the hatch stop was a totally different situation – the new mexico state patrol didn’t do the right thing there either. unfortunately for the new mexico state patrol things turned out differently and the perps shot a citizen while carjacking to escape.
    so look at the circumstances of individual cases instead of blanket absolution for corrupt and incompetent highway patrol.
    and by the way what excuses do you have for the pukes who shot an unarmed homeless guy and then the corrupt machine in abq trying to ruin the da who wanted to prosecute the murderers or the idiots in deming who subjected the two individuals to anal rape in silver city and had to cough up millions to resolve? or the pukes in cruces who kept a guy in solitary for 22 months and had to pay a million a month for their corrupt stupidity? u do realize if you’re a taxpayer u pay for it? or how about the corrupt silver city pukes who did a two hour traffic stop for the da because a citizen reported her “erratic” driving and then changed her tire and let her go?
    ugh u badge bunnies never get it…

    • FlameCCT
      18 August 2016 at 3:48 pm - Reply

      I see mick savage has the Progressive talking points down while not following the advice of looking at the circumstances of individual cases.

      I would also note that the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho area has had several LEOs shot and killed in just the past year while making similar stops.

      BTW: Are you referring to the corrupt DA that paid off people, numerous times, to keep her druggie, thief son out of jail?

      • Clark Crimcops
        19 August 2016 at 11:57 am - Reply

        “I would also note that the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho area has had several LEOs shot and killed in just the past year while making similar stops.”

        Well, I would like to point out how that is a complete fabrication. Only 9 police officers have been shot and killed in the entire state of New Mexico this century, and only one, James Francis McGrane, was killed conducting a traffic stop even remotely similar to this one. That incident occurred ten years ago and 350 miles away and in a completely different state than this incident, so I don’t see the relevance.

  • DaveL
    18 August 2016 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    So an extremely rare outcome under similar circumstances is all it takes to justify, at the very least, the threat of deadly force?

    That would be an… interesting principle to apply to civilian self defense. Of course it would never apply there, because its ridiculousness would be immediately apparent, and it would be revealed as nothing more than an excuse for giving police a blank check on violence because they are police. We can’t have that, now can we.

  • DaveL
    19 August 2016 at 5:19 am - Reply

    I would also note that the Albuquerque/Rio Rancho area has had several LEOs shot and killed in just the past year while making similar stops.

    According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, there has been only one such killing in the past year in that area, Officer Daniel Webster. 15 months ago there was an incident where an officer was shot during a pursuit that began as a traffic stop, but that’s hardly a comparable circumstance.

  • Anonymous
    19 August 2016 at 8:46 am - Reply

    DaveL,
    The answer to your question is a resounding YES. Say the odds at a high risk stop (vehicle reported stolen) of violent confrontation is 1 in 500. You ABSOLUTELY draw your weapon all 500 times. Any officer will make 500+ stops over the course of a career, making it likely that in at least one stop they will definitely need that weapon. This is basic common sense. Maybe you would prefer police to take that risk, and let them and that 1 resisting motorist and any bystanders deal with the consequences. I disagree. Maybe you should become a cop and you can take that risk if you feel it is an appropriate risk to bear for you, and your family.

    • rojas
      20 August 2016 at 2:58 pm - Reply

      Drawing absolute inferences from made up data sets is not common sense.

      New York compiles and publishes an annual firearms discharge report.
      Referring to the 2011 report which comes up in a google search for “police accidental discharge statistics”. In the period from 2002 to 2011 there were 495 incidents resulting in firearms discharge from “ADVERSARIAL CONFLICT” and 216 incidents of “UNINTENTIONAL DISCHARGE”.

      Note that discharge during adversarial conflicts also include data for unintentional discharge. For example, in 2011 there were 2 incidents of unintentional discharge during adversarial conflicts and 13 incidents while handling a firearm. Six officers and one civilian were injured in the 15 incidents.

      Of course “unintentional discharge” is soap seller speak for negligent discharge.
      With ratios of incidents of negligent discharge running greater than 40% of incidents when officers intend to shoot someone it flies in the face of common sense to create more opportunities for police to shoot innocent people, themselves or a bystander.

      A reasonable officer would recognize risk and address to root cause. Unfortunately the ranks are infected with ass hats like Captain Damon Cecil. Expect more of the same.

  • DaveL
    20 August 2016 at 6:06 am - Reply

    What if that number is more like 1 in 500,000? That’s much more in line with reality, given the number of traffic stops is in the millions or trends of millions annually, and the total number of officers feloniously killed is in the dozens.

    Am I allowed, as a civilian, to point a loaded gun at someone who’s made no aggressive moves, on a 0.001% chance they might be a murderer? Is that you’re idea of a reasonably perceived threat? Or does that only apply to police?

  • Anonymous
    21 August 2016 at 6:26 pm - Reply

    Rojas,
    You don’t make any sense. Even DaveL has no idea how the stats you cite have anything to do with our discussion.
    PS please sign up to be a cop so you can show everybody else how easy it is.

  • DaveL
    22 August 2016 at 4:58 am - Reply

    That’s enough of that nonsense. We don’t expect people to get a plumber’s license before they can complain about leaky pipes, we don’t require them to become licensed mechanics before they earn the right to tell a technician he can’t take a dump on their upholstery. I know I don’t get immunity from criticism from outside my profession, and I don’t see why police should either.