Completely Unprofessional and Very Reckless

November 13, 2011

By Timothy Janowick

“Completely unprofessional and very reckless,” is Miami Police Sergeant Javier Ortiz' characterization of Florida State Trooper Donna Watts’ conduct in the arrest of Miami Officer Fausto Lopez for speeding at 120 miles per hour in his marked squad car.  However, his characterization is incorrect in its application to Trooper Watts. Rather, Officer Lopez proved to be the party acting unprofessionally in his role as a police officer and with great recklessness towards himself, the public, and Trooper Watts.

Particularly disappointing is the number of police officers around the country condoning Officer Lopez’ conduct on October 11 and condemning Trooper Watts for failing to provide Lopez with professional courtesy. Deflecting focus towards the idea of professional courtesy is a defense mechanism to avoid confronting the true issue in this incident - a fellow officer's poor conduct. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has been known to say, "Denial kills you twice." As you'll soon see, we do quite a bit of killing - of ourselves and innocent individuals - in the midst of our denial.

The question of ethical and professional conduct arising in this situation is certainly worthy of examination and discussion amongst each other, by supervisors in roll call, by administrators determining where their agencies ethical bar rests, and in training where survival tactics are not just about DT and firearms. Additionally, Officer Lopez' driving behaviors are symptomatic of a larger problem in law enforcement when considering our culture and officers' control over reducing line of duty deaths.


What has law enforcement not learned from the driving actions of Illinois State Trooper Matthew Mitchell, who lost control of his 126-mile per hour squad car and killed teenage sisters Kelli and Jessica Schlau?  "My daughters were killed by someone who was sworn to protect and serve them," their mother, Kimberly Schlau noted during an interview on the Today show.  Is this how we serve our public?

But Trooper Mitchell is not the only law enforcement officer who has killed innocent people in the course of driving recklessly. Trisha Stratman of the LaCrosse County (WI) Sheriff's Department is charged with negligent homicide after allegedly driving through a red light at 90 MPH, killing 16-year Brandon Jennings in July 2010.  In 2009, Milford (CT) Police Officer Jason Anderson was accused of killing 19-year-olds David Servin and Ashlie Krakowski while driving 94 MPH during routine patrol. Or Officer Teddie Whitefield of the Wichita Police Department killed 18- and 13-year old cousins as his broadsided their vehicle at 80 miles per hour while on patrol.

Where was the need for these officers to drive at such high rates of speed? What was Officer Lopez' need to drive at 120 MPH while off duty in his marked squad car and risk his life, the life of Trooper Watts, and the lives of the innocent drivers and passengers on the freeway? Where was his respect for his family, his colleagues, and those he is to protect and serve?

The public thrusts a significant trust upon police officers who swear their oath of office. With that oath comes great responsibility to exercise one's conduct on duty and off duty with integrity, respect, and professionalism.  Officer Lopez fails to conduct himself with any of these characteristics when he chose to drive with excessive speed.  As Trooper Watts conducted her patrol on the highway, Officer Lopez whisked past her marked patrol car with impudence. How can the public expect to take our holding them accountable seriously if we cannot hold ourselves and each other accountable? The integrity of the police officer is eroded through "in your face" conduct violating the law, the public trust, and expectations of professional behavior.

Officer Lopez acted unprofessionally towards the public by driving at an excessive speed through traffic. His lack of professionalism and utterly disrespectful attitude towards the profession is amplified in his failure to stop for Trooper Watts over the 12 miles covered in 7 minutes. In doing so, he demonstrated the ultimate lack of professional courtesy by willingly and flagrantly disobeying the law in the presence of another law enforcement officer, then adding insult by causing Trooper Watts to pursue him.  When we err in the presence of each other, we should be quick to respond and acknowledge this to our peers.  Forgiveness may come as a professional courtesy provided our actions are not so egregious. 

That's right - professional courtesy is not necessarily about "getting a break" when stopped for a traffic violation, but it is more about how we conduct ourselves when in the midst of another police officer.  We need to reorient our compass on professional courtesy.


One of the five tenets of the Below 100 campaign focuses on officers' predilection to driving at excessive speeds - whether in response to routine calls, during emergency calls, and in pursuits. We bury more police officers in this country as a result of driving-related factors than those killed feloniously in the line of duty.  A majority of those officers would be alive today had they adopted safer driving practices and slowed their speeds. Baltimore Officer Thomas Portz, Jr. died earlier this year after ramming the back of a fire truck; he had been driving 21 MPH over the speed limit during regular patrol.

"We seem to have come to an acceptance on this and this is wrong," Dale Stockton, editor of Law Officer magazine stated when conducting Below 100 Train-the-Trainer program at the ILEETA's conference in April. The statement is a stark truth we must acknowledge and embrace in order to affect change.

In advocating a change to the police culture, Brian Willis challenges us with the question: What's Important Now?  Officer Lopez should have considered this powerful question as he raced by traffic at 120 MPH.  What's so important about driving at such a reckless speed? What's important about my high speed around all this traffic? What's important now about slowing down so I see my family again? So I meet with my colleague again? So those around me can arrive safely at their destination? What's important now about the trooper behind me signaling me to stop? What's important now about my department's image? My image? 

"Why do cops speed? Because they can," the old joke tells us. The time has come to change our behavior - our culture - as police officers. We can't speed and drive without due safe regard for the public, our families, and ourselves. As Chief Jeff Chudwin of Olympia Fields (IL) noted at ILEETA, "Where we go from here will be based on how much we embrace each other."

Completely unprofessional and very reckless? Trooper Watts? Really? 

Frankly, the time has come to get over ourselves, to reorient the definition of what professional courtesy really entails, and to become consistent role models to the public we protect and serve. 

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