Viral traffic stop video disputed

Courtesy Taos Police Department
Posted

A Facebook video of a traffic stop in Taos that ended with two people in jail has gone viral online and is shedding new light on the February incident.

The 46-second video shows the culmination of a half-hour traffic stop where New Mexico State Police officers ask the driver, former Taos resident Philip Page, to "unlock his window" that's rolled down only a few inches. After Page doesn't roll down his window any further or exit the vehicle, an officer smashes the driver-side window and with the help of two other state police officers pulls Page to the ground.

Page and Angela Fisher-Herrera, the passenger who recorded the video on her cell phone, were each charged with misdemeanors. They spent several days in the Taos County jail, she said. The charges were dropped in March for "lack of prosecution" but refiled by the state in April.

It was the refiled charges, recently issued bench warrants for their arrests and problems with getting the state to hand over State Police video footage that prompted the couple to release the video clip Friday (Aug. 3), she said.

"My hope is that the judge will see that the community finds this unacceptable," read Page's original Facebook post. "Help in any way you feel inspired. Please, email the court. This affects you, too. If we allow this to continue, it will get worse."

The couple's video has been viewed more than 125,000 times.

But New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas told The Taos News showing the public only small portion of the interaction is a "disservice to law enforcement."

If the public is going to be put in a position to review or have a critique of officer behavior, he said, "They need to have an entire picture. It's my job to slow everything down and look at the totality of the circumstances."

State Police Officer Eduardo Cabanas stopped the defendants' car because the driver was allegedly not wearing a seat belt, according to the original criminal charges filed in Taos Magistrate Court the day after the Feb. 18 incident. Herrera-Fisher said in a Tuesday (Aug. 7) interview they were wearing their seat belts, and Page can be seen wearing a seat belt in the short Facebook video, which documents the incident after the couple had talked with Cabanas for more than 10 minutes.

According to an internal state police review of an officer's camera footage, Page was asked a total of 14 times for his identification, asked 20 times to either unlock the door or roll down the window and another three times to exit the vehicle, said Lt. Elizabeth Armijo, spokesperson for the New Mexico State Police, in a Tuesday email.

The Taos News requested footage from both the vehicle dash camera and the officers' body cameras. The videos had not been released as of press time.

The couple also has a 12-minute video of the incident, which they have not released online in case it's needed as evidence in court, Fisher-Herrera said.

The couple, who by February had lived in the Taos area for two and a half years, dispute the state police's accounting of the events that led up to the smashed window, criminal charges, jail time and the financial fallout caused by the incident.

Cabanas "did not introduce himself," said Fisher-Herrera. "Our (unreleased) video shows that."

"I was never asked to identify myself. (Page) did not ID himself because he'd (first) been told to get out of the vehicle. No one should ever have to exit their vehicle for nonviolent stops like that. We decided not to do what he was asking because it was unlawful and we did not feel safe to do so," she said.

The couple was pulled over near the intersection of Dea Lane and Alexander Street, an industrial part of Taos that Fisher-Herrera said was deserted that Sunday afternoon in February. "(Cabanas is) shrieking. He's aggravated and he's yelling at us," she said, explaining why they felt unsafe complying with his orders. So she called 911 and two additional state police arrived on scene, as did a town of Taos officer.

"Calm down, calm down," Page says in the cell phone footage. "This is completely unnecessary…"

State Police Sergeant Dominic Lucero broke the window, Cabanas grabbed Page's arm and State Police Officer Bryan Donis opened the car door before the three pulled Page from the car, according to the initial criminal complaint.

Both driver and passenger were each charged with three misdemeanors, including dialing 911 to report a false complaint. Page also was charged for not wearing a seat belt.

The defendants say they did not appear in court after the charges were refiled because certified letters advising them of a new court date were not received at their requested address, according to emails Page and Fisher-Herrera sent to the magistrate court. The court has issued a bench warrant for their arrest. Page said they are returning to New Mexico to speak with a public defender and deal with the situation.

The defendants see their interaction as part of larger issue with law enforcement using excessive force both locally and nationally. Fisher-Herrera said they've heard of at least one other traffic stop in Taos that mirrors their own.

Furthermore, Taos was in the spotlight in 2013 when Oriana Farrell, a black mother of five, drove away from a traffic stop with children and was fired at by a state police officer who was dismissed and later hired by the Taos County Sheriff's Office after he had been found not guilty in court. And recent traffic stops that turned deadly, such as the 2015 death of Sandra Bland in Texas and the 2017 death of Philando Castile in Minnesota, ignited a fierce public debate around those issues, particularly when people of color are pulled over.

"If we were black, would we have survived this situation?" Fisher-Herrera asked.

Local reaction of the Taos News Facebook page showed a similar debate playing out, with some calling out what they see as excessive force on the part of state police and others deriding the defendants for not following orders.

Law enforcement contacted for this story roundly agreed the side of the road is no time to argue.

"Nobody wins in that scenario. Take that citation to court," said Kassetas. "I understand the initial shock of seeing a state police officer grabbing a window and pulling them out of the car but...ultimately, if the two people would have complied with the lawful orders, we wouldn't have had to take it this far."

"If one voluntarily complies with the laws, they will never even have to have any interaction with law enforcement," wrote Taos Police Chief David Trujillo in a Monday email. "It's not okay to negotiate your actions with authority! That is what Courts are for!"

"I have received several social media posts of the video with citizens asking why our officers aren't fired, etc. I have to explain that it is not our agency," Trujillo added.

Yet Fisher-Herrera suggested that to simply "obey and comply" with an officer's orders that seem unlawful and unsafe is a "dangerous mentality."

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