Expert: Officer displayed 'contempt of cop' reaction; Internal Affairs record shows 12 disciplinary actions
by David Crowder
Posted on April 22, 2009
The arrest of a ABC-7 reporter and photographer Wednesday appeared to a former El Paso assistant police chief to have been an overreaction by an officer who saw his authority being challenged.
“It’s a national phenomenon that’s being studied, and it’s called ‘contempt of cop,’” said George DeAngelis, a former assistant chief in the El Paso Police Department with 28 years experience.
After watching the video more than once of the encounter that led to the arrest of KVIA reporter Darren Hunt and photojournalist Ric Dupont, DeAngelis concluded that both were at fault.
But he had a lot to say about the behavior of Sgt. Raul Ramirez, a supervisor with 19 years on the force.
“People go to jail in contempt-of-cop situations more than any reason nationally,” DeAngelis said. “You could see it in the video. The situation became more personal between the officer and the reporter than the overriding issues of public safety.
“You can see it, and you and hear it in the language of the officer when he said, ‘I gave you an order.’ That’s what contempt means: ‘How dare you not obey my order.’ It’s personal. You’re challenging the officer’s authority. It has nothing to do at that point with the overall safety of the scene. That’s why you see him reacting emotionally rather than rationally.”
Police departments around the country have recognized the problem and are coming up with ways to determine when officers are showing signs of inappropriate reactions to the public they deal with every day.
Hunt and DuPont were covering the scene of an accident in which a semi-tractor trailer overturned, blocking the three west-bound lanes of Interstate-10.
The journalists had parked in front of several police and emergency vehicles on the inside shoulder of east-bound side of the interstate and had conducted one interview with a witness when Ramirez climbed the barrier fence in the middle of the freeway and began ordering the journalists to leave.
That in itself was surprising, said DeAngelis, who teaches criminal justice at Park University in El Paso.
“You have to remember, he’s a supervisor,” DeAngelis said of Ramirez. “He should be directing that scene. But you can see he’s climbing the fence. His body language is very aggressive. He feels his authority is being challenged. He has one thing on his mind: ‘I’m going to show you who’s in charge here.’ All sense of reasonableness has evaporated.”
DeAngelis conceded that it is easy to criticize and second guess an officer after the fact, and he noted that, technically speaking, the news media should not be working on the interstate median, though it is routinely done.
“But the proper way to have handled it would have been to explain the problem, to give the lawful order for them to leave the scene. Then, if he felt himself losing it because of Mr. Hunt’s reluctance to go, he could have directed one of the officers to be sure that Mr. Hunt is leaving.”
Hunt could not be reached for comment, but KVIA’s assignments editor, Carlos Rosales, who has worked as a newspaper photographer and a TV cameraman and editor in Dallas and El Paso, said TV news teams have used the median shoulders to cover freeway accidents for years.
“Everybody does it that way,” Rosales said. “You go to the median and park in front of the emergency vehicles so drivers can see them. We were parked in front of several police units. … It’s the same way everywhere. You just don’t get in the way and you don’t obstruct traffic.”
After being arrested, Hunt and DuPont were taken to the West Side Regional Command Center where, after a review of the circumstances, they were released from custody without being charged with any offense.
“Anytime an arrest is made, it will typically be reviewed by a supervisor,” police spokesman Javier Sambrano, a former TV reporter himself, said. “Since they were arrested by a sergeant, it was reviewed by the West Side commander.
“After a review of everything, the commander felt there was not enough probably cause to continue with the arrest. His decision was that it didn’t meet the elements or wasn’t strong enough.”
Sambrano said future officers do receive an hour or two of training on how to deal with the news media while they are in training at the police academy.
But officers evidently do not receive additional training on the subject later in their careers.
Sambrano also said TV news teams routinely set up in the median of the freeway on the opposite side of an accident to do their jobs and that there is no local police policy prohibiting them from doing so.
It is, however, against the law to use the shoulders on either side of the interstate for any reason except an emergency.
Asked if there was some reason for Ramirez to have reacted the way he did, Sambrano said that is being investigated, and the officer will remain on desk duty until a decision is made.
Management needs to watch for warning signs
DeAngelis said many police departments have come up with systems for monitoring officers -- not just the public complaints lodged against them but also the types of arrests they make.
Management and supervisors need to watch officers who make high numbers of arrests for certain types of arrests, such as public intoxication, resisting arrest and assault on a peace officer, he said.
"Officers who have a high incidence of being assaulted or being resisted," DeAngelis said. "That could be an indication of the contempt-of-cop situations in which they are reacting emotionally instead of rationally.
"When an officer has a record of those kinds of arrests, they really need to look at what's going on in his personal life."
DeAngelis, who was the No. 2 officer in the El Paso Police Department and left the force in 2002 in the furor that erupted after he lodged a complaint against then-Chief Carlos Leon, said the department had such a system in place.
But, he said, it was dismantled because of complaints from the police union about maintaining information that also included motor vehicle accidents, sick days and tardiness in officers' records.
Police spokesman Javier Sambrano said the department does not track the types of arrests made by officers.
Sgt. Ramirez's Internal Affairs record
The police department has released Sgt. Ramirez's Internal Affairs record showing 12 sustained instances of disciplinary action since 1992. (Download a copy below)
None of those instances in the released record involved complaints by the public. They were all internal issues.
The latest sustained complaint, an absent without leave finding for which Ramirez received a 22-hour suspension, was in March 2008, resulted from his failure to show up for work without notifying a supervisor.
That month, Ramirez was also reprimanded for unprofessional conduct.
Sambrano said that had to do with Ramirez sending messages "to officers who didn't want those messages."
Sambrano said he had no information about the nature of those messages.
In all, Ramirez has received six written reprimands, two counseling orders, and four suspensions ranging from 22 to 28 hours.
"Twelve disciplinary actions in 19 years of service is a relatively low number, and the nature of the complaints has not been anything of the nature we're looking into now," Sambrano said.
However, the released Internal Affairs list did not include any information about complaints lodged against Ramirez by members of the public that were not sustained.
"We will have that, but it will take a little longer," Sambrano said.
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