An officer has been pulled from patrol while police conduct an internal investigation into a video that shows him pepper-spraying passing motorcyclists on a highway.
Officer W. Figueroa, who has been on the Fort Worth force since 2009, was placed on administrative duties Monday afternoon.
The incident began Sunday afternoon when Figueroa pulled over a red pickup truck and issued citations for the driver having no license and for two passengers for standing in the bed of the truck.
As a caravan of motorcyclists began to pass, an officer emerges from the patrol car with what appears to be a canister of pepper spray in his right hand.
A video shot by one of the bikers with his GoPro camera shows the officer spraying at passing motorcyclists.
Chase Stone, president of an East Texas motorcycle “team” known as the East Texas Heat, posted the video on his Facebook page, writing that he believed the officer’s intention was to cause an accident.
“Law enforcement is here to protect and serve, not intentionally try to harm others,” Stone wrote on his Facebook post in asking others to share the video. “***THIS WAS BEYOND DANGEROUS***.”
Stone said an estimated 200 motorcyclists joined in a “Welcome Back Weather” ride to commemorate the beginning of biking season.
Jack Kinney, another member of the East Texas Heat, shot the video on his GoPro camera and said he had no idea what he had captured until late Sunday night, when he and Stone reviewed the footage.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, film everything. You can delete it later if nothing is on your camera,” Kinney said.
A ‘propaganda campaign’
According to Fort Worth police, the department had fielded several calls reporting reckless driving.
One of the callers stated that multiple motorcycles were racing, stopping and weaving through cars on U.S. 287. Another caller told dispatchers that the cyclists were riding slowly and blocking traffic lanes while several people in the bed of a pickup were standing up, taking photos of the group. One vehicle, that caller added, had even turned sideways, blocking a traffic lane, to allow the cyclists to pass.
A police report states that an officer pulled the pickup over at about 3 p.m. Sunday on a traffic code violation in the 1500 block of the Martin Luther King Freeway, also known as U.S. 287.
Kinney said he witnessed no reckless driving and accused the department of running a “propaganda campaign to try to mitigate the damage.”
“What’s in the video? The people at that time, they weren’t committing any crime,” Kinney said. “They were driving slower than the speed limit and they got pepper sprayed for it.”
Cpl. Tracey Knight, a police spokewoman, said the officer “documented his actions as well as the actions before, during and after the traffic stop, as well as recording it on his body camera and the dash cam of his patrol car.”
She said she could not disclose the reason the officer gave for using his pepper spray because of the on-going investigation.
Knight said a MedStar ambulance was called to the scene because of pepper spray exposure but that all refused treatment except for one male passenger, who requested to be taken to the hospital to be checked out.
Knight said that three people from the pickup received citations — the driver for not having a driver’s license and two passengers for standing in the bed of a pickup truck.
‘White or yellow cloud’
Kinney said he had just removed the GoPro from his helmet Sunday afternoon when he noticed a Fort Worth patrol car on the shoulder of the highway behind a stopped pickup. The pickup, he said, was one of a handful of safety vehicles that had been accompanying the motorcyclists in case of any emergency.
Kinney said he pointed his camera at the patrol car and pickup, continuing to film in that direction over his right shoulder even as he looked forward.
He said he briefly caught a glimpse of the officer and a strange cloud in his side mirror but didn’t realize at that time what had occurred.
“It’s like he [the officer] wasn’t focused on the truck. He was focused on the group [of riders],” Kinney said. “Then I saw some white or yellow cloud. Through the mirror it was smaller. I couldn’t really tell what was going on.”
Stone said he and his wife were riding about an eighth of a mile behind Kinney. Although they didn’t personally see the officer spray the cyclists, Stone said the couple passed by in time to witness some of the aftermath.
“I looked over and I see the people in the back of the truck ducking, covering their eyes. They were covering their mouths and seemed to be in distress,” Stone said. “I was like, something is going on.”
But it wouldn’t be until they returned to Longview and began looking through Kinney’s footage late Sunday night that Stone said they realized just what had taken place.
“When I first saw it I was angry that the officer would attack all those bikers with his pepper spray with the intention of harassing and ultimately causing an accident where people could get hurt or even worse,” Kinney said.
He said the men decided to publish it on social media “to raise awareness and not let this injustice go without notice and without repercussion.”
Stone called the incident “scary.”
“If one or two or three of those riders had their face masks up and that would have hit them in the eyes, it would have more than likely sent them down,” Stone said.
With so many bikers following, Stone said a pile-up with serious injury or death would have likely resulted.
“It would have been a disaster on the highway,” he said.
‘It was very dangerous’
Both Stone and Kinney say they’d like the officer to be investigated and face the same consequences that a civilian would face for such actions.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to lose their job. I know people have families to feed. You have to have money, you have to a have career,” Stone said. “But you’re here to protect and serve … not to harm. His intention was to harm one person, if not more, with that spray. It was very dangerous.”
Kinney said he believes criminal charges would be pressed against a civilian. He said he is skeptical that the police department will fairly investigate one of their own and believes an outside agency like the Texas Rangers should be brought in.
“My belief is that everybody is held accountable equally under the law or at least should be,” Kinney said.
Knight said a link to the video was emailed to the department Monday morning and immediately forwarded to the internal affairs unit and an investigation launched. She said the special investigations unit could potentially also conduct their own investigation into the matter to determine if criminal charges are sought.
“The Fort Worth Police Department takes any complaint of officer misconduct very seriously and this incident will be investigated thoroughly,” Knight said. “If anyone has information they are asked to please contact the police.”