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State cop van debacle: Call it unacceptable

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico State Police officer’s dash-cam video of a traffic stop near Taos has become the Zapruder film du jour, watched over and over, picked apart and analyzed.

The incident begins with a simple speeding stop. Oriana Farrell of Memphis, Tenn., driving a Kia Sedona minivan, was clocked going 71 in a 55-mph zone on N.M. 518 outside Talpa on Oct. 28.

The incident video runs nearly 45 minutes, but the last 18 minutes are where the traffic stop starts to go bad. That’s when NMSP Officer Tony DeTavis explains that Farrell has to make a choice between accepting the $126 ticket and agreeing to pay the fine by mail or choosing to contest the ticket in court in the next 30 days.

The officer keeps his cool through a lengthy argument in which Farrell continues to say she can’t make the choice on the spot and he continues to tell her she has to.

When DeTavis decides to return to his cruiser while she keeps considering the choice, Farrell slowly drives off.

Did she think they were done? Was she trying to evade police? Was she concerned about the marijuana pipes in the van? Whatever her reasoning, it’s a big mistake to drive away from a traffic stop. Farrell made a bunch of mistakes, beginning with presuming that a police officer wants to engage in a Socratic dialogue while issuing a speeding ticket. But mistakes made by a tourist driving through New Mexico 16 miles per hour over the speed limit aren’t nearly as concerning as those made by trained police officers who are supposed to be New Mexico’s law enforcement elite.

At left, Oriana Farrell is held on to by a New Mexico State Police officer as her 14-year-old son gets out of the car at right. (Courtesy Of New Mexico State Police)

At left, Oriana Farrell is held on to by a New Mexico State Police officer as her 14-year-old son gets out of the car at right. (Courtesy of New Mexico State Police)

When DeTavis pulls her over a second time, his demeanor is completely different, and the situation quickly goes downhill.

He yells at her to get out, which causes the children in the minivan to erupt into a chorus of screaming. Even before backup arrives and the Tasers, baton and guns come out, it’s clear he has lost control of the situation.

He yells. He argues. He stands in the roadway. He doesn’t take her car keys. He grabs at her but doesn’t forcibly remove her from the van.

Only one voice continues to be calm, and that voice belongs to Farrell.

“Sir, are you going to grab me again?”

“I’m asking you to work with me as I am with you.”

“I’m not going to leave my children, sir. I am responsible for them.”

“I’m in the middle of nowhere.”

Once she is finally persuaded to leave the minivan, Farrell continues to remain calm. And she cooperates until DeTavis has her standing behind the vehicle alone, tells her to turn around and advises her that two other officers are on their way. As soon as she hears that, she runs for her vehicle, and a YouTube sensation is born.

The picture of police breaking out the windows of and shooting at a minivan full of scared tourists – a single mom and her five children – on a desolate stretch of mountain road is a nightmare for the Tourism Department and a black eye for us all.

Farrell said through her lawyer that she was afraid – and can you blame her?

Gov. Susana Martinez was asked recently to comment on a state prison policy that allows certain inmates – including convicted murderer Michael Guzman – private visits with their spouses and pronounced it “disgusting.”

She went on to unleash the type of scolding harangue that has become one of her signatures.

“The fact that this man is in for murder, and he was sentenced to death, and then it was commuted, and then he married someone after he was in prison, and then he fathered four children that he does not take care of is unacceptable – completely unacceptable.”

I’ve made no exhaustive study of the governor’s elocution, but I know from reading newspapers and watching the television news that she finds many things “unacceptable” or “completely unacceptable.”

The fact that radioactive waste still remains to be cleaned up at Los Alamos National Laboratory: “It was and still is completely unacceptable and is now a top priority.”

The prospect of returning veterans having trouble finding jobs: “It is unacceptable that these heroes might come home from Iraq and Afghanistan only to stand in the unemployment line.”

A delay in getting the heat turned back on in northern New Mexico after a cold snap: “It is unacceptable that so many are still without power in Taos and Española.”

New Mexico’s annual death toll from drunken driving, the state’s high school dropout rate, third-grade reading proficiency, the state budget deficit she inherited, a child dying of heatstroke after being left in a hot car – Martinez has called them all out as “unacceptable.”

One of Martinez’s strengths as a politician is that she spent her life as a prosecutor and so she sees things in black and white and expresses herself plainly, as though she’s making an argument to a jury.

We like things simple, and Martinez’s habit of identifying things that most people would find unacceptable and calling them out probably plays a factor in her enviable in-state approval rating and out-of-state buzz.

She’s been much more cautious on this one, even though the chain of command for the State Police goes through the Department of Public Safety and then to the Governor’s Office. I’d like to hear the governor weigh in on State Police officers screaming at a woman with a car full of kids, busting out the window of a car full of kids with a baton, aiming Tasers at children, and then shooting at a car full of kids when it drives away – all over a speeding ticket.

I’d hope she calls it what it is: “completely unacceptable.”

And then I’d hope she would order up an overhaul of training on how to keep a State Police traffic ticket from escalating into an embarrassing Internet sensation.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.