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Father ‘utterly terrified’ after trooper points gun at his 7-year-old during traffic stop

The Washington Post The Washington Post 16/08/2016 Amy B Wang
© Kenneth Walton, Facebook

At first, Kenneth Walton thought the Arizona state trooper following him and his 7-year-old daughter wanted to warn him of a broken taillight.

They were in a rental car, on a stretch of Interstate 40 between Las Vegas and Flagstaff, Ariz., on what was supposed to be a fun Grand Canyon vacation. It was dark, and Walton knew he hadn’t been speeding, so — not thinking much of it — he pulled over on an off-ramp, rolled down his driver’s side window and waited.

That’s when things went “terribly awry,” according to the San Francisco man’s account of what happened last Thursday.

“Tonight, I was arrested at gunpoint by an Arizona highway patrol officer who threatened to shoot me in the back (twice) in front of my 7-year-old daughter,” Walton wrote on Facebook, hours after the incident. “For a moment, I was certain he was going to kill me for no reason. I’m alive, and I need to share the story.”

His post, published early Friday morning and updated throughout the weekend, went viral, serving as a lightning rod for discussions about what is appropriate during interactions with law enforcement.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety confirmed that the traffic stop took place but disputed the tone and some of the details in Walton’s Facebook post, calling it “inflammatory” and “irresponsible.” The department is standing by the trooper’s actions, including his threat to shoot Walton during the traffic stop, said Capt. Damon Cecil of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

“We sympathize with them; I don’t think there’s any law enforcement official who would not be just as angry, just as fearful and terrorized if [they were in a similar situation and] officers had guns pointed out,” Cecil told The Washington Post. “It’s a scary situation. But in light of that, this is a positive story. … This case is a prime example of how things should be done.”

According to the DPS, the traffic stop occurred around 7:43 p.m. on Aug. 11, after the license plate on Walton’s rental car came up as stolen. The trooper requested backup and followed the rental car on the Interstate 40 until it exited the highway.

© Arizona Department of Public Safety

The trooper then approached the car with his gun drawn — actions the department said are appropriate for anything considered a “high-risk traffic stop … when serious crimes or hazardous conditions may exist.”

“Initially the driver, identified as Kenneth Walton, was not responding to officer’s commands while seated in his vehicle so the trooper moved up the passenger-side window and got the occupant’s attention by tapping on the window with his hand,” DPS said in a short statement. “It was at this time the trooper realized there was a child in the car as she sat up into view. Mr. Walton was ordered out of the car and detained in handcuffs while the trooper conducted his investigation.”

The trooper, identified as Oton Villegas, has been with DPS since 2009, the department said. Villegas has not had major disciplinary actions. In 2013, he was named along with several other officers in a civil rights lawsuit that was settled and dismissed without prejudice, Cecil said.

According to Walton, however, the department’s account is inaccurate: He says the first command came when the trooper tapped on the front passenger window, gun in hand, not before. In addition, Walton said his daughter was sitting in a booster seat in the rear passenger side of the vehicle, not in the front, and was in view — not crouched or reclined — the entire time.

Walton said the DPS statement omitted or downplayed details about how the incident unfolded, including how the trooper (referred to by Walton as an “officer”) interacted with his young daughter.

In his paragraphs-long Facebook post, Walton recounted trying to stay calm while the trooper reportedly escalated the situation.

Suddenly, the officer rapped on the rear passenger side window with his pistol. My daughter, who was sitting inches from the barrel of his gun, jumped with fear as the officer yelled at me to roll down the front passenger window, his service weapon pointed directly at me. I knew something was terribly awry and I tried to remain calm, keeping my hands visible as I slowly fumbled for the window controls in an unfamiliar car.

My daughter rolled down her window and I explained that we were in a rental car, that we had no weapons, and I was having trouble figuring out how to roll down the front passenger window from my driver’s side door. The officer didn’t listen, and kept yelling louder and more insistently, ordering me to comply with his request as he leered at me down the barrel of his pistol. My daughter panicked and tried to get out of her booster seat to reach forward to roll down the front window, and the officer screamed her at her not to move as he pointed his pistol at her.

Walton said he was somehow able to roll the passenger window down, at which point the trooper ordered him to exit the car with his hands up. As he did so, Walton said the trooper came over to the driver’s side of the car and screamed at him to face the other direction.

Then, as I had my hands in the air, he yelled, at the top of his lungs, in a voice I will never forget, as my daughter looked on in terror, “Get your hands away from your waist or I’ll blow two holes through your back right now!” My hands were high in the air as he said this, and I was not in any way reaching for my waist. I was utterly terrified. I’ve heard stories of police yelling out false things like this before they unjustifiably attack someone as a way to justify the attack, and I thought this was what was happening to me. I braced for bullets to hit me and all I could think of was my daughter having to watch it happen and being left alone on the side of the highway with an insane, violent cop.

Walton said he got down to his knees and backed gradually toward the trooper, following every order “as slowly and deliberately” as possible. He was handcuffed and placed in the back of the trooper’s car, while more law enforcement arrived soon afterward. His daughter remained in the rental vehicle, frightened and still strapped to her booster seat, he said.

Cecil said it was appropriate for Villegas to have escalated the traffic stop, given the circumstances.

A DPS patrol vehicle. © Arizona Department of Public Safety A DPS patrol vehicle.

“Our trooper had a set of facts in front of him and responded the way he was trained, the way that was safest for him and his public,” Cecil said. “Putting yourself in the trooper’s position: He’s giving commands, he’s yelling, he’s not getting a response. Should he de-escalate the yelling? Or should he escalate? … You weren’t there. And I wasn’t there.”

Cecil confirmed that Villegas pointed a gun at the 7-year-old, but did so unintentionally, and that he threatened to shoot Walton because he “perceived a threat.”

“We’re not disputing that our trooper said those things,” Cecil said. “He absolutely did.”

Walton initially said on Facebook that dashboard camera footage would bear out his account of the traffic stop because he was under the impression all Arizona law enforcement officers had dashboard or body cameras. DPS told The Post there is no dashboard or body camera footage available from the incident, nor is the agency aware of any amateur video taken at the scene — only audio from the trooper’s vehicle before he walked to Walton’s car and after he returned with Walton in custody.

According to DPS, an investigation ultimately found the rental car company had not replaced the license plates when the front plate was reported stolen, which is why it had been flagged in the system.

To complicate matters, Fox Rent a Car said the license plate number in question should have never been placed in the stolen-plates database in the first place.

The rental car, a 2015 Nissan Altima, was registered in Arizona, which only issues rear license plates, according to Fox Rent a Car chief operating officer Sean Busking. Last November, the car was reported stolen in California, Busking said. Five days later, the Oakland Police Department recovered the vehicle — along with its one and only rear license plate — and cleared it to return to the rental fleet, he said.

“Oakland’s police department must have been unaware that Arizona does not issue front license plates when they issued their ‘stolen plate’ report,” Busking told The Post. “However, we are surprised that the Arizona Department of Public Safety would suggest that Fox is somehow responsible for replacing a front Arizona plate [that] never existed.”

Regardless, Walton and his daughter were released that night without a citation.

“Fortunately, the subject in this case was compliant with the trooper and the situation ended peacefully with no one being harmed,” Flagstaff District Commander Captain Ezekiel Zesiger said in a statement.

Walton disagreed, saying the trooper’s aggressive arrest had left both of them physically unharmed but emotionally shaken.

“In the process of scaring me, he basically traumatized my daughter,” Walton told The Post. “That’s sad because we’ve taught her that [a police officer is] who you go to, that’s who you always trust. That’s something we would still like to instill in her but I don’t know how we do that now.”

In his Facebook post, Walton said he believed the traffic stop might have ended differently had he not been a “scrawny, 48-year-old white guy” wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, cargo shorts and hiking boots, as he was at the time.

If you are a person who has ever looked skeptically at the claims of Black Lives Matter, or others who talk about police violence, I urge you to consider what happened to me and put yourselves in the shoes of others. I just survived a bizarre gunpoint situation in which I was as innocent as Philando Castile, who was not as lucky as I was. We live in a society where anywhere and everyone can have a gun at any time, and police are responding with fear in dangerous ways. I got lucky tonight. My daughter and I made it to the Grand Canyon and I’m going to try to salvage what’s left of our vacation. Many others — because of the color of their skin or the way they look or because of simple bad luck — did not meet the same fate.

DPS took umbrage to the post, in particular the insinuation that race played a part, Cecil said.

“[Walton] has an opportunity as a parent to use this as a learning experience. A teachable moment for his daughter — a valuable lesson about the community and interactions with law enforcement,” Cecil said. “But instead he chose to make it a negative in a very irresponsible way.”

Walton said he has no intention of inciting anyone, he said, or of being representative of any movement.

“It was the first time in my life when I had been approached by an officer with a presumption of guilt and … I guess I got a taste for what it’s like,” Walton told The Post. “I had a realization as a middle-aged white male for what it may be like out there. If this is the sort of aggression people face out there, I can understand why there are problems.”

Reached by phone on Tuesday, while he was on way back from vacation, Walton said he was still shaken but considering taking his Facebook post down because of all the attention it had received. Some commenters were sympathetic, while others attacked his credibility, calling out his involvement in a 1999 eBay art forgery scandal — something Walton said he has never tried to hide.

“I cooperated with the authorities, plead guilty, served 9 months of probation and took responsibility for my actions,” he wrote in an update to his Facebook post over the weekend. “I make no excuses for it. If you think that has anything to do with this, there is nothing I can do to change your mind.”

This latest incident comes following nationwide unrest after deadly shootings by police officers in Milwaukee, Falcon Heights, Minn., and Baton Rouge, that resulted in fatal encounters.

So far, more than 250 people have been shot and killed by police officers in the first three months of 2016, according to The Washington Post database on police shootings.

Walton and his daughter eventually made their way the next day to the Grand Canyon — the first time for both of them — and tried in vain to shake what had occurred on the highway.

“I was pretty distracted over the next couple of days at the Grand Canyon, thinking about what had happened,” Walton told The Post. “Things will get back to normal eventually.”

Cecil said DPS has not received a formal complaint from Walton. The department, he added, has not been in direct contact with Walton since the traffic stop.

“Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Cecil said. “This is not a situation where we feel that we need to reach out to him. He’s the one who started this negative relationship and negative communication.”

Read more:

Comprehensive coverage of police shootings from The Washington Post

Could self-driving cars be one solution to police shootings during traffic stops?

The complexities of traffic stops, from a police officer’s perspective

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