Topic: Professions & Institutions

Wrong Lessons from a YouTube Traffic Stop

A much-publicized police stop in Dallas is a vivid example of how both liberal and conservative tendencies undermine ethical conduct.

A car driven by Houston Titans running back Ryan Moats ran a stop light as he and his wife raced to the hospital to be at the bedside of her mother, who was dying of cancer. As recorded on a video available on YouTube, officer Robert Powell saw the traffic infraction, turned on his siren and signaled the car to pull over. But Moats did not stop until he reached the hospital parking lot. The officer, following procedure, ordered Moats and his wife to stay in the vehicle, and when they did not, drew his revolver. Mrs. Moats ignored the officer’s command and ran into the hospital as her husband attempted to explain the family emergency that had prompted him to run through the red light.

Then ensued a long debate between the NFL star and the police officer, who was alternately confrontational and threatening to Moats. The officer did not allow Moats to enter the hospital, even after a nurse arrived to vouch for the family, and his mother-in-law died before he could see her.

Virtually everyone has condemned the officer for his conduct. Moats, who did not try to use his celebrity status to bully the officer, remained admirably calm during his argument with Powell, but also appeared with his wife to discuss the incident on national TV. With the media in full attack mode and charges of racism being leveled (Powell is white; Moats is black), the Dallas police department went into defense mode. It put the officer on leave, and he was ordered to apologize to Moats, which he did. Shortly thereafter, he resigned, have been called everything from a racist to a monster by editorial writers, thousands of bloggers and talk-show callers.

No doubt about it: Powell messed up. Once it was obvious what was going on, the kind, rational, logical thing to do would have been to remind Moats that personal emergencies do not repeal laws. We can’t just decide to run red lights because we think what we have to do is important; when an officer signals us to pull over, we need to do it; and when an officer tells us to stay by a car, we have to obey. Then he should have let Moats go with a warning and a comforting word. It was time to make an exception to strict enforcement, because this was not a typical situation.

But conservative ideology does not like exceptions. The laws about traffic signals are clear and reasonable, and exist for valid reasons. Making exceptions is a slippery slope, weakening the laws and the public’s respect for them. So Officer Powell treated Ryan Moats like any scofflaw who had run a light, and refused to stop for a police car siren. He was annoyed and authoritarian, and went out of his way to teach the lesson that breaking traffic laws won’t save time…it will cost time. I’ve heard that lecture, and it can be effective. This was not the time to give it.

Ryan Moats, however, was dead wrong too. Yes, he had his hazard lights blinking on as he ran the red light, as many columnists have pointed out. Last I heard, there wasn’t a law allowing you to run lights as long as you had your blinkers on.

Or had a relative dying at the hospital.

Or were late for a plane to get to the biggest appointment of your life.

Or really, really wanted to see the beginning of that movie.

The liberal mindset likes exceptions. It believes exceptions are the solution every time a rule or law causes inconvenience or less than the most palatable result. Sure, he robbed a bank, but his family was hungry. Yes, she killed him, but he was abusive. I know he isn’t the best qualified for the job, but he’s had a tough life: he deserves to be hired.

At no point had Ryan Moats or the vast majority of the public and media acknowledged that he had no right to run through a red light, with or without hazard lights, and that a new “exception” allowing any driver to do this because he happens to think he has a good reason ( the fact that Moats had as good a reason as any doesn’t guarantee that every other light-running driver will have the same priorities) will get people killed. A friend of mine was killed years ago when a driver ran through a stop sign. Maybe that driver had a personal emergency; maybe his mother-in-law was dying at the hospital. I don’t care. That didn’t entitle him to risk the life of Karl T. Dierup.

But Ryan Moats is a celebrity, a sports star, and a generally good guy, so the public and press grants his conduct the benefit of any doubt, unlike the actions of an average, unknown cop responding to a situation—a traffic violation followed by the failure to respond to a police siren—which could easily involve a fleeing felon. Misdeeds committed in the pursuit of family emergencies are widely, if wrongly, justified with Golden Rule distortions, such as, “It’s OK to risk the lives of others in circumstances where they would risk your life.”

How did this scenario play out? Moats was praised for not “losing his cool” during the confrontation with Officer Powell. A YouTube video of the stop resulted in near universal condemnation of Powell from coast to coast, and subsequent appearances by Moats and his family on TV increased the criticism of the officer and his department. The officer issued an apology, and shortly thereafter resigned.

So what has our culture decided is “right” and “wrong,” based on this episode?

  • >It is “right” for a citizen to choose to break traffic rules for a personal emergency, even one that has only sentimental significance. After all, Moat’s mother-in-law was going to die regardless of when they arrived at her bedside. One might mount an ethical balancing argument for carefully running a red light if it might make the difference between life and death, but that was not the situation in Dallas that night. Moats could and should have admitted that his conduct was wrong and irresponsible, both to Powell at the scene, and later. He never did, and virtually no one has suggested that he did anything wrong.

    >So run those red lights with impunity, folks, as long as you have something important to do. Ronnie Moats did.
  • >It is “wrong” for a police officer to enforce the law if the lawbreaker has a touching story, and especially if he is a celebrity. One web report put it, “As if having your mother-in-law dying of breast cancer was not painful enough, Houston running back Ryan Moats had it made worse by a Dallas police officer, who stopped him for running a red light near the hospital, would not listen to his pleas about the circumstances, drew his gun, threatened to arrest him and kept Moats in the parking lot while his mother-in-law died.” Oops, sorry to ruin your day, sir…you’ve suffered enough. Forget about those traffic laws.

These are the wrong lessons, however. Here are the correct ones:

  • >It is irresponsible to violate traffic laws for personal emergencies, no matter how pressing. Ambulances, police cars, and fire engines, all equipped with sirens, can run traffic lights when necessary. If any other vehicle does it, it is dangerous, illegal, and wrong. Flashers or no flashers. Period.

  • >Anyone who engages in the conduct above and is stopped by police has an obligation to admit wrongful conduct and apologize before arguing the officer should make an exception.

  • >An officer who apprehends a citizen should always be respectful and professional, and, if and when appropriate, kind and empathetic.

  • >In view of the dangers of police work and vehicle stops especially, the public and the media should respect the difficult choices officers must make under duress and avoid excessive criticism of their actions, even when, as in this case, they are less than ideal.

  • >Celebrities, sports stars and elected officials must be fair and compassionate, and not seek to use their status to bully, punish or publicly humiliate normal individuals with whom they come into conduct.

Officer Powell and Ronnie Moats both made mistakes in judgement and conduct. Only Moats’ conduct, however, was potentially life threatening, not to mention illegal. Yet only Officer Powell acknowledged his mistakes, and only he lost his job.

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