On Tuesday Oct. 11 at around 6:30 a.m. Florida Highway Patrol Trooper D.J. Watts was patrolling Florida's Turnpike in suburban Miami. What happened next is legally in dispute but Watts says she spotted a marked Miami Police Department patrol car traveling at high speed weaving in and out of traffic, no lights, no siren. Watts pursued.
The chase went on for 12 miles with the Miami PD patrol car reportedly hitting speeds in excess of 120 mph in the early morning commuter traffic. Watts was reportedly asked to stand down by her supervisor and let the incident be handled through interdepartmental diplomatic channels. Watts apparently did not hear the order to abandon the pursuit. She took down the patrol car, driven by Officer Fausto Lopez. During the traffic stop, she detained Lopez at gunpoint and held him in cuffs until ordered to release him.
This incident has become a flashpoint in an interdepartmental war between the Miami PD and the FHP. It's also become the source of hot arguments on numerous Internet forums, including POLICE Magazine's Facebook page and the comments section of various news articles on PoliceMag.com.
I'm not here to defend the actions of either officer. So much is wrong with this situation that there's plenty of blame to go around.
Let's start with Lopez. He's hired a lawyer to plead not guilty to charges of reckless driving, a misdemeanor under Florida law. The lawyer says he wasn't even speeding. OK, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt under the law. But if he was really going 120 mph down a crowded highway just because he was reportedly late for his off-duty job, then Lopez needs to seriously consider another profession.
That may sound harsh. But let's look at this from the point of view of the people of South Florida. Lopez is accused of not only driving like a lunatic and endangering the public in his take-home patrol car but having the arrogance to believe that he could do so with impunity just because he is a cop in a marked car.
If you take nothing else away from this editorial, please take this: You shouldn't be going that fast in traffic, even if it is a code 3. That is pushing the envelope of your patrol car, and it is well beyond the abilities of the vast majority of police drivers. Driving that fast in traffic, even in response to an emergency call, is foolish. It endangers the public and it endangers you. There's a reason why so many officers are killed in single car accidents. Slow down.
Trooper Watts also needs to be disciplined and retrained. She chased after Lopez at high rates of speed in traffic, also endangering the public, when she could have easily radioed ahead to other troopers. She was ordered to stand down by her supervisor but either ignored that command or didn't hear it because she was so focused on her quarry. Then after Lopez stopped, she felt so endangered that she approached the vehicle with her gun drawn. Which makes no tactical sense. Why didn't she call for backup? Why didn't she take cover and call out the driver?
Most cops are incensed that Trooper Watts handcuffed Lopez during the stop. This act violates blue on blue courtesy. But this is a minor concern compared to some of her decisions during this incident that imperiled herself and the public.
Both Lopez and Watts are back on duty. Lopez faces a hearing on his reckless driving charge and hopefully some kind of departmental discipline, if he is found guilty. At the very least he should lose his take-home car privilege. There is no indication that Watts will be censured for her actions. But I urge the FHP to give her some remedial training before she gets herself killed.
And the repercussions from this incident are still being felt. An on-duty Miami PD officer recently pulled over an FHP trooper who was also on duty in apparent retaliation. Unfortunately for him the trooper's brother was an internal affairs investigator for the Miami PD and the traffic stop was outside of the officer's jurisdiction. That officer received a "formal warning" from acting Miami PD Chief Manuel Orosa. All I can say is: He's lucky I'm not his chief. That kind of fraternity prank nonsense would not be tolerated, and I'd make sure my officers knew it.
Society has entrusted you with arrest powers and the ability to use force to effect an arrest or protect yourself or others. That's a responsibility that should only be bestowed upon mature adults. If you can't act like grown-ups, turn in your badges. And, yes, acting like a grown-up means not driving 40 to 50 miles over the speed limit and endangering other motorists and yourself just because you know your colleagues won't give you a ticket.