National law-enforcement experts on Tuesday questioned how New Mexico State Police handled a traffic stop that devolved into chaos on the outskirts of Taos last month.
The New Mexican asked three criminal justice professors to weigh in on issues surrounding the recently released video of the Oct. 28 incident, which shows one officer firing at a minivan carrying five children as the uncooperative driver tries to flee.
The dashboard-camera video of the incident has captured national attention and prompted concerns about the officer’s use of deadly force prior to a high-speed pursuit of the Memphis, Tenn., woman, who had resisted another officer’s attempt to issue her a speeding ticket.
Meanwhile, new information emerged about the driver, 39-year-old Oriana Ferrell — variously spelled “Farrell” in court documents — who faces charges of intentional abuse of a child, aggravated fleeing of a law-enforcement officer and possession of drug paraphernalia, which authorities identified as two marijuana pipes found in her vehicle.
According to a report by an NBC television affiliate in Memphis, Ferrell had been attending the Harding School of Theology while raising her five children as a single mother. She has a YouTube page in which she sings Christian rap music and reveals that she considers herself a poet and a writer. On a blog, she offers parenting advice.
The law-enforcement experts interviewed Tuesday didn’t criticize all the decisions made by officers involved in the incident but focused on Officer Elias Montoya’s decision to shoot at the van’s tires as the vehicle sped away.
John Eterno, a professor of criminal justice at the private Molloy University in New York and a former New York City police captain who trained officers on use of force, questioned Montoya’s use of his handgun.
“Reckless driving is not a reason to start shooting,” Eterno said. “You could have let them go and found them anyway.”
In the video released by state police, Officer Tony DeTavis stops Ferrell and tries to issue her a speeding ticket. But instead of taking the ticket, she drives off. DeTavis catches up with her, and a scuffle ensues between the officer and Ferrell, as well as her 14-year-old son.
Two other state police officers arrive at the scene, and after the family members lock themselves inside the van, DeTavis tries to break a window with his baton. When Ferrell speeds away, Montoya fires three rounds toward the van’s rear wheels, and a chase ensues through Taos, reaching speeds up to 100 mph.
Eterno said it’s easy to criticize an officer’s decision from a distance. He pointed out that DeTavis had a view of the van’s interior, which isn’t visible on the video. Nonetheless, he said, “Clearly, this did not go right.”
State police Chief Pete Kassetas said in a news release Monday that he has “concerns relating to the conduct of the officer who discharged his firearm. … I will take appropriate disciplinary action if warranted.”
A department spokesman, Lt. Emmanuel Gutierrez, said an internal investigation is underway, but didn’t comment on whether any officers had been placed on leave.
Eighth Judicial District Attorney Donald Gallegos said Tuesday he has no plans file any charges against the officers involved. “If I have evidence the officers committed a crime, I’ll charge them,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t have any evidence.”
Whether the officers used appropriate force, the district attorney said, is a matter for their supervisors and their department to decide.
Eterno said it’s clear from the video that DeTavis lost control of the situation during the initial stop, when he walked away from Ferrell’s vehicle and she drove away. The expert said the officer could have taken her car keys or immediately called for backup. He also said DeTavis endangered his life by standing in the highway as he argued with Ferrell.
But Eterno placed the majority of fault in the incident on Ferrell, citing her initial actions. “The woman really needs to be blamed for her conduct,” he said. “She made a very dangerous situation for her children.”
Eterno and Philip Stinson, a professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, cited Tennessee v. Garner, a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled deadly force cannot be used against a fleeing, unarmed driver unless that person poses a threat to the officer or the public at large.
Stinson, a former police officer in New Hampshire and a former criminal defense lawyer, said he doesn’t like to second guess an officer’s decision to use deadly force in life-or-death situations, but he asked, “Where was the threat to officers? I just don’t see it. It’s an inappropriate use of force.”
But Stinson said it’s unlikely a grand jury would indict the officer, given that he thought someone in the vehicle may have had a gun.
Montoya has said in reports, “I heard Officer DeTavis or Officer [Anthony] Luna mention something about a gun.” Montoya wrote that when the vehicle started driving away, “I fired my duty weapon three times at the left rear tire in an attempt to immobilize the vehicle with the intention of keeping vehicle in the remote area, so as to not put any other human life in jeopardy.”
Montoya also wrote that he chose to shoot at the tires “because of all the people in the vehicle,” and that, “I may have exaggerated in keeping my muzzle down so no innocent person would get hit with the shots I fired.”
But Eterno said Montoya’s target was irrelevant because the bullets could have hit anything. “It’s very hard to hit a moving target,” he said. “Anyone worth their salt could tell you that.”
Stinson agreed, adding that some law-enforcements officers “aren’t very good shots,” and that Montoya could have killed someone.
A criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York, Eugene O’Donnell, said he had been using video of the incident in his classroom Tuesday to demonstrate how something like a seemingly routine traffic stop can veer out of control.
O’Donnell, a former police officer with the New York Police Department, said “there’s no justification” to fire at a moving vehicle in such a case. O’Donnell also stressed that in many jurisdictions, officers would not have engaged in a high-speed chase after Ferrell fled a second time.
“They could wait and get her at her home,” O’Donnell said. “Why did they think she had to be taken into custody then and there?”
But prior to the gunfire and pursuit, the experts said, the video showed DeTavis had mostly kept the situation in check.
O’Donnell said stopping a vehicle without backup can be a difficult situation for an officer. “When you pull someone over, you have no idea how it’s going to end,” he said, adding that Ferrell raised “a red flag” when she didn’t cooperate with DeTavis.
Eterno noted the officer’s professionalism when initially dealing with the driver and the fact that the officer did call for backup.
While watching the video, Sinson said, he thought Ferrell’s 14-year-old son — who eventually rushed the officer — might have had a weapon. “My blood pressure went up when he got out of the car.”
Lt. Edwardo Martínez, commander of the state police substation in Taos, said the only gun discovered in the minivan was a toy.
The experts interviewed Tuesday also didn’t find fault with DeTavis’ use of the baton to smash a window.
Ferrell’s lawyer has publicly challenged the charges against her and said she fled because she feared for her safety and that of her children. The children in the vehicle, ranging in age from 6 to 18, were later placed in the care of a family known to Ferrell. The 14-year-old boy who rushed Officer DeTavis was initially arrested but has since been released.
The defense attorney, Alan Maestas, has said Ferrell was driving across the country on what was intended as an educational trip with her five home-schooled children. During her arraignment, however, he suggested the family was in the process of relocating to Los Angeles.
Prosecutors said a nationwide background check on Ferrell returned two prior arrests for driving while intoxicated. She disputed that claim in court, telling 8th Judicial District Judge Jeff McElroy that she had never been convicted of any such charges.
In pleading for Ferrell’s release at a Nov. 12 hearing, Maestas said his client intended to establish residency in Pecos or with friends in Santa Fe while contesting the charges against her. “Ms. Ferrell has been told that if she doesn’t get out of jail, they are going to take her kids and ship them to their dad in Atlanta,” the attorney said. “These kids want to stay together, and sending them to their dad is not the answer.”
Maestas suggested the children’s father was abusive toward their mother.
The attorney also presented the judge with 12 letters attesting to Ferrell’s character from ministers, neighbors and other Memphis residents familiar with her.
The Memphis television station reported that friends of Ferrell said she “was a godly woman.”
The station also linked to Ferrell’s YouTube page, http://bit.ly/1bP63xy, which revealed the woman had a passion for music. In one video, called “That’s a (W)rap,” she walks through her home singing, “Caught up in the rapture of God.” The rest of the song talks about how she has cleaned up her act and mixes in a few biblical references.
Ferrell’s website, orianalee.wix.com/orianalee, lists music she has recorded. She also offers life coaching and advertises what looks to be a school program called “True Skool Akademy,” which bills itself as “holistic-based, Afrikan-centered Teaching.”
In one post on her blog, orianalee.blogspot.com, she wrote, “Don’t know how to be a Father, and don’t wanna be… but a purposed, called, dedicated, original, unique, sharp-skilled and hard loving Mami… aww, sooky sooky, I AM!!” She also posts pictures of herself with her children.
Additionally, a twitter account, @orianalee, which was linked to Ferrell’s YouTube page, shows pictures of Ferrell’s travels through New Mexico, such as a stop near the Pecos River. Another shows that she had stopped in Mora and took a photo of a scenic marker sign describing curanderas, or folk healers.
Montoya, the officer who fired the shots at the van, is the son of a minister and was profiled by The Taos News in 2010 for his work mentoring at-risk boys in a program started by the Taos-based social services organization Nonviolence Works.
This is a joint report by Chris Quintana of The New Mexican and Andrew Oxford of The Taos News. Contact Quintana at 986-3093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Oxford at 575-758-2241 ext. 122 or email@example.com.