An attorney for two SWAT officers who were reassigned from their unit in the wake of a two-hour police pursuit is accusing department officials of making a “knee-jerk decision” based on public perception.
One day after last week’s slow-speed chase of a drug suspect, officer Dennis Alise was transferred to patrol and officer Brian Gentry was stripped of his gun and badge and placed on desk duty, said their attorney, Terry Daffron Porter.
Portions of the May 27 chase were shown on local television news stations and it quickly became a hot topic on social media sites.
Alise had been driving the armored Bearcat vehicle that struck the Nissan involved in the chase, sending it into a concrete highway divider on Interstate 30 and ending a two-hour pursuit that at one point had weaved into Arlington residential neighborhoods.
Gentry was the SWAT officer criticized on social media after TV footage appeared to show him hitting the suspect, Joe Ben Gonzales, with the butt of his weapon as police swarmed in to arrest him. Porter said Gentry’s movements were perceived wrongly by the public and that he never struck the suspect.
“What is most disturbing for both of these officers is these knee-jerk reactions and decisions were made without anyone listening to what they had to say,” said Porter, an attorney with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “It was based upon the reaction of social media, which dictated what this police department did. That is a damn scary state to live in.”
Fort Worth police spokeswoman Cpl. Tracey Knight said in a statement that the pursuit is being “thoroughly investigated and appropriate action will be taken to address any identified misconduct or policy violations.”
“Fort Worth police officers have the best of intentions and utmost consideration for the public’s safety while involved in a fluid situation such as a vehicle pursuit,” the statement read. “Equally important are the policies and procedures that govern the actions of departmental personnel. These regulations have been put in place to equally protect the officers, general public, and those suspected of criminal activity.”
Knight would not comment on why Alise was transferred, but a police department source told the Star-Telegram that it was because the officer allegedly disobeyed a direct order not to hit the Nissan by a sergeant seated next to him.
Rick Van Houten, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, expressed support for the two officers.
“The officers on scene did a tremendous job in keeping the public safe given the tools that they had to work with in this situation. Now they’re being overly-criticized for the actions,” Van Houten said. “In the end, their actions are the only thing that stopped that guy that day.”
Van Houten said he has been in contact with the police chief and the officers’ chain of command.
“I’m trying to work through this incident and bring the decision-makers back to center where they can start making decisions based on fact and not perception,” he said.
According to a federal complaint, narcotics officers had received information that Gonzales would be arriving at a Fort Worth location on May 27 with a large amount of methamphetamine.
After observing Gonzales go to the location, Fort Worth police conducted a traffic stop of his Nissan about 2 p.m. at Belknap Street and Sylvania Avenue.
The female driver got out of the car and was complying with officers’ order when police say Gonzales, the car’s passenger, suddenly jumped into the driver’s seat and drove off.
During the chase, Gonzales frequently dropped down to as slow as 2 to 5 mph, even stopping a few times before moving again.
Police officials have said a tire-deflation device was deployed at one point during the pursuit to try to deflate the suspect’s tires and end the pursuit but that the suspect came “dangerously close” to the officer deploying the strip of spikes and that further attempts were deemed too dangerous.
Gonzales traveled east on Interstate 30 into Arlington, where he left the highway, traveling up and down busy streets, meandering through residential neighborhoods and cutting through parking lots and over grass.
He eventually made his way back onto eastbound I-30, where the Fort Worth SWAT unit’s Bearcat armored vehicle soon joined the chase.
Pit maneuver in question
As cameras rolled in television news helicopters hovering above, the Bearcat struck the driver’s side of the Nissan in what is known as a “pit maneuver,” sending the car into a concrete barrier that divides the highway.
Van Houten acknowledged that Fort Worth police officers are not trained in, nor are they authorized to use the pit maneuver to end a pursuit.
“SWAT does a lot of things tactically that the average officer, per policy, is not allowed to do,” Van Houten said. “…What SWAT does do is they develop a plan … sometimes thinking outside the box, to bring each individually unique situation to a peaceful conclusion.”
Porter said the Bearcat was having mechanical difficulties and that Alise knew he had only a small window of time to get the car stopped. Adding to the urgency, she said, was the driver’s aggressive behavior and that another motorist had just pulled in front of the suspect’s car and slowed down, as if trying to get involved in stopping the driver.
“It’s a situation that you have to look at and at some point go, ‘This pursuit has gone on far too long,’” Porter said. “… I think given the extremely stressful environment of what these officers were faced with and what was going on, I think he made the decision that needed to be made, which was end the pursuit.”
Take-down of suspect
Once the wrecked Nissan had come to a stop, several SWAT officers emerged from the Bearcat.
Porter said the officers were screaming at the driver to put his hands up and get out of the car. She said Gonzales was not complying, but rather digging in the Nissan’s backseat for what officers feared was a gun.
From the Nissan’s passenger side, Gentry fired one foam projectile from a non-lethal launcher, striking Gonzales in the back, Porter said. The projectile is meant to deliver a stunning blow — not penetrate the skin — in order to gain a suspect’s compliance.
“The suspect bowed up, turned around, looked at him and went right back to doing what he was doing,” Porter said. “It had absolutely no effect on him.”
Porter said the suspect had begun to climb out of the driver’s side window when the Gentry and the other SWAT officers quickly rushed to the Nissan’s driver side to take him into custody.
She said movements caught on camera of Gentry jerking his weapon up and down during the take-down were not of the officer striking Gonzalez with the butt of his weapon as some perceived.
In reality, she said, Gentry told her he was trying to regain control of his weapon after the suspect got caught up in the weapon’s strap and pulled it down, either intentionally or accidentally.
“His training dictated he had to take it back immediately,” Porter said. “… You do it with sharp, aggressive movements to bring it back into your control and that’s what he did.”
Asked about Gentry’s claim, Knight said the investigation into the officer’s actions is still ongoing.
“These facts have yet to be determined,” Knight said.
Gonzales, 42, was charged federally with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance after police found 795 grams of methamphetamine in plastic bags on the floorboard of his car. He was being held in federal custody Tuesday, court records indicate.
Pursuit policy criticized
Both Porter and Van Houten say changes need to be made to the department’s pursuit policy to give officers more tools, tactics and discretion in ending pursuits.
“This incident highlights the fact that our pursuit policy is lacking when it come to being able to end a pursuit before it becomes a public hazard,” Van Houten said.
Van Houten said other than the deployment of spikes, known as “Stop Sticks,” there are no tactics, procedures or policies in place that allow officers to end a pursuit when it is in the best interest of public safety.
Porter said she’s upset that the department is treating Alise and Gentry differently that other officers involved in high-profile incidents.
“You have officers that are involved in justifiable shootings that routinely are given three to five days off and then go back into their positions and they resume their duties while the investigations are still on-going,” Porter said.
Knight said that “each potential violation is judged on its own merit and action taken in regard to the individuals involved is done in the best interests of the department, city, and public.”
“An officer is placed on restricted duty status during an investigation for their protection as well as the protection of the public until the facts of the case can be determined,” Knight said. “There is no specific policy as to how or where officers are placed during an internal investigation.”
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655