Thursday, May 03, 2007

Doin' 63 in a 35

The following story was all over the news, for several days. Once you have read the story and have taken a moment to determine your opinions regarding the behavior of the people involved, I would like you to join me in looking at the story theologically. I believe there is an important lesson to be learned.

By The Associated Press
Originally posted on May 03, 2007

TAMPA — A sheriff’s deputy was suspended for manhandling a sobbing woman who was speeding to a hospital to see her ailing father and didn't want to wait for him to write a ticket.

After Deputy Kevin Stabins stopped Melissa Langston a second time in the hospital parking lot, video from his cruiser’s dashboard shows him yanking her from her car and slamming her against it.

“Please let me see my dad, “ she cries as he handcuffs her. “If it was your dad ...”

Stabins cuts her off, saying, “Now you’re not going to see him, ’cause you’re going to jail.”

Stabins, 29, was suspended for five days without pay for using excessive force. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee signed off on the suspension Tuesday, and Stabins will begin serving it on May 22.

Charges against Langston, 37, were dropped.

“I think (Stabins) understands that he was wrong and could have handled it better,” Gee told The Tampa Tribune for Thursday’s editions. “On both sides, really, it could have been done better.”

Stabins first stopped Langston after clocking her driving 63 mph in a 35-mph zone near University Community Hospital in November.

The video shows her telling the deputy that her father had suffered a heart attack and had driven himself to the emergency room.

Stabins returned to his car to write a ticket, but after several minutes, she drove into the hospital parking lot. After a short pursuit, she brakes, and he strides up to her, saying, “That was not smart.”

“I need to get there. I’m sorry but — oh, [blasphemy]!” she says.

As he tries to pull her out of the car, her foot slips off the brake and the car begins to roll forward.

“Put it in park. Put it in park. Get out of the car. Hands behind your back. Now you’re going to jail,” Stabins says.

He gets Langston out of the car, put her in an arm lock that left bruises, spun her around, and slammed her against her car’s hood hard enough her feet leave the ground.

Her father, William Johnston, stayed in the hospital six days, his wife, Mary Johnston, told the St. Petersburg Times for Thursday’s editions. He went home with two stents in his arteries.


Before I reveal my purpose for writing this article, it may be helpful if I try to answer some obvious questions, particularly those questions that might be asked by those who are not part of the law enforcement family. I think it will be helpful to address some peripheral concerns in order to clear the air, so to speak, which will allow us to focus our attention on the theological implications of the incident chronicled in the above news report.

Some of you, having read the above article and/or seen the video footage of this incident, may have been disturbed by what you read and/or saw. Some of you might be thinking that the deputy overreacted and used too much force against a lady who was simply trying to get to the hospital. One thing I have learned over the last twenty years in law enforcement is I that should never judge an officer's actions based solely on what I see on a video tape.

A video tape does not have a heart, mind, or soul. While video tape can capture images, it cannot perceive danger, it cannot feel stress or fear, and it cannot discern the motives of any person's actions in the scene. Depending on the angle of the camera or the quality of the recording, a video camera may not see the subtle movement of a person's hands or a sudden shift in the direction of a person's eyes.

All a video tape can do is capture images. It cannot talk to or speak for the people involved in the recorded scene. Videos can also be edited in order to convey the opinion of the editor, which may or may not be consistent with the truth. Just as a Bible student should never take a verse or passage of Scripture out of context, neither should one look at a portion of a video tape in a vacuum. It must be viewed in its entirety and in its proper context.

Some of you may read this and ask, "Tony, what would you have done?" The most honest answer, one that may not appease some, is this. I don't know. I wasn't there. I was not Deputy Stabins who stopped a distraught Mrs. Langston. Would I have allowed Mrs. Langston to continue to the hospital, without writing her a ticket? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Would I have detained Mrs. Langston by using the same level of force as was applied by Deputy Stabins? Again, the most honest answer I can give, for the reasons already mentioned, is maybe, and maybe not.

This may come as a shock (I say that tongue-in-cheek.), but people lie to the police. There is an old saying in the law enforcement community that goes something like this. "I know a person is lying because their lips are moving." Sadly, people lie so often to the police that an officer's first assumption is that the person in front of him or her is lying. It is very difficult for an officer to take a person's word, without some evidence to support the person's claims.

Furthermore--and this may come as a shock as well (another tongue-in-cheek statement)--some people, even those who may otherwise live quiet, non-aggressive lives, in times of heightened stress, fear, or anger, try to hurt police officers. Those who are caught after fleeing the police have a tendency to fight or draw weapons with the intent of harming the officer. So, again, I cannot say with absolute certainty if I would have used the same, more, or less force than Deputy Stabins used against Mrs. Langston. The video tape gives me far too little information to draw such important conclusions.

Let me make a few more points and reiterate a few others before I continue. I am sorry that Mrs. Langston's father had a heart attack. I am glad he survived. I understand her desire to get to her father as quickly as possible. If I were in her position, I likely would have committed a few vehicle code violations to get to my ill loved one. However, my rationalization for breaking the law would never put me above the law or exempt me from the just penalty I deserve for breaking the law.

At the same time, I will not sit in judgment of Deputy Stabins, having too little information about the incident and having never talked to him in person, about what happened. Having been the recipient of armchair quarter-backing more than once in my career, I'm not about to do the same to Deputy Stabins. Whether or not Deputy Stabins could have handled the situation differently or better, I will extend to him the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt, as a brother behind the badge.

Hopefully, having answered some inevitable questions about the incident, let's now look at the situation theologically.

Question: Did Mrs. Langston deserve to be let go by Deputy Stabins, without receiving a ticket, because of the circumstances? If we answer the question while looking at the situation through the lens of our humanness, our answer might be yes. Enforcing what would amount to an infraction, a simple traffic ticket, would seem to be far less important than allowing a woman to violate a speed law in order to get to the hospital to be with her seriously ill father. We may even go as far as to say that Mrs. Langston's well-intentioned effort to be with her ailing father outweighed her violation of what most people would consider a minor law.

Continuing with this point of view, we might look at Deputy Stabins with a level of incredulous disapproval. Our expectation of Deputy Stabins might be that he set aside the requirements of the law and put Mrs. Langston's felt needs above the enforcement of the law. We might see Deputy Stabin's enforcement of the law as insensitive, petty, and lacking compassion. We might find it offensive that Deputy Stabins used any force against Mrs. Langston, seeing how all she did was break the speeding law and then flee from Deputy Stabins in order to get to her father who, in her mind, might be dying.

Looking at the situation through the lens of humanness, we might go as far as to say that Deputy Stabins is not a good deputy.

Many people, and maybe some reading this, would agree with the above assertions and conclusions about the situation, Deputy Stabins, and Mrs. Langston. Many will look at this situation and see the law enforcer as guilty, and the law breaker as innocent. And this brings me to the point of this article.

If one chooses to see the law enforcer as guilty and the law breaker as innocent in this situation, is it any wonder mankind looks at God and His Law in a similar fashion?

Instead of looking at the above situation through the lens of humanism, let's look at the situation through the lens of the law.

Mrs. Langston clearly violated the law. Her speed was almost twice the posted limit. When she was stopped, she was not contrite or repentant. In her mind, her violation of the law was justified because of her perceived needs at the moment. "Every man's way is right in his own eyes; but the Lord weighs the heart" (Prov. 21:2).

When confronted about her violation of the law, she responded by exercising more self-righteousness when she argued with Deputy Stabins about the reasonableness of him stopping her. When Deputy Stabins exerted his legal authority by writing Mrs. Langston a ticket, she refused to accept the penalty by fleeing the scene. Her second violation was worse than the first. She was unable to escape the law, and her effort to do so exposed her to even greater wrath from Deputy Stabins.

How could Mrs. Langston have avoided the predicament in which she found herself? The answer is not that Deputy Stabins should have let her go. The answer is that Mrs. Langston should have obeyed the law. Mrs. Langston, at no point, deserved to be allowed to leave without a ticket.

Sadly, many (if not most) people view God the way Mrs. Langston (and maybe some who are reading this article) viewed Deputy Stabins. She did not know Deputy Stabins before their fateful encounter, yet her expectation was that Deputy Stabins would ignore the requirements of the law for no other reason than she believed her circumstances warranted such preferential treatment.

Sadder still is the awful awakening in store for those who find themselves standing before the Holy, Righteous Judge of the Universe, God Almighty--expecting leniency, but instead receiving righteous judgment. Like Mrs. Langston, any attempt to flee God's wrath, by one's own strength or ingenuity, will be both foolish and futile.

So where will you be on that day? "It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment" (Hebrews 9:27). The Judge will render His verdict quickly. There will not be any opportunity to plead "guilty with an explanation," like so many do in traffic court. There will not be an opportunity to put forth an affirmative defense. Justice will be swift and the verdict will be "guilty."

If you do not think you will be found guilty on that day, then honestly answer the following questions.

Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever taken something that didn't belong to you, no matter how insignificant it may be? Have you ever hated anyone? The Bible says, "Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer" (1 John 3:15). Have you ever look at another person with lust? Jesus said, "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). If you answered honestly, then according to God's holy Moral Law, and by your own admission, you are a lying, thieving, murdering, adulterer at heart. And these are only four of the Ten Commandments.

God will judge you against the holy and perfect standard of His Law. He will not judge you according to your perceptions of the reasonableness or unreasonableness of His Law. Because God is a good Judge, He must judge rightly. And having found you guilty of breaking His Law, He will sentence you to eternity in hell, as the just punishment for your sins against Him.

The good news is that God doesn't want to send you to hell. He is so very good and kind that He sent His sinless Son, Jesus Christ—God in the flesh—to pay the penalty for your sins. He did this by taking your place of punishment when He shed His innocent blood and died on the cross. "For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly . . . But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6, 8). Three days later, Jesus defeated death when He rose from the grave. "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

So, what must you do to be saved? You must recognize that you cannot save yourself and escape God's judgment. If you are thinking of trying to flee from justice, as Mrs. Langston tried to do, your only hope is to flee into the arms of a merciful Savior. You will never be able to outrun the justice of the Lord.

You must confess your sins against God, repent (turn away from your sins), and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation. Trying to flee from the Law of God will not save you. Asserting your innocence or claiming some kind of privileged exemption from the Law of God will not save you. Your only hope is to repent and receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.

Oh, one more thing. It would not have been extraordinary if Deputy Stabins had shown Mrs. Langston leniency. Officers around the country show leniency every day. What would have been extaordinary is if Deputy Stabins issued Mrs. Langston a citation and, once she had signed the ticket, Deputy Stabins said to her, "Don't worry, ma'am. I am going to pay your fine."

This is exactly what Jesus did for those who repent of their sin and, by faith, trust Him and Him alone, as Lord and Savior. "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18).

Obey the words of Jesus, while you still have time. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15).


You can also listen to a thought-provoking conversation between me and Todd Friel, during the second hour of the May 8 edition of Way of the Master Radio.


Bedlam said...

I heard part of the radio broadcast today. You had a great comment about how this could have been avoided if she had followed the speed limit and gotten there a few minutes later. I found it interesting that no one on the program was even willing to admit you had a good point(maybe they did later I was at my destination). Why is it ok for her to do twice the posted speed potentially causing an accident with injuries/death to get to the hospital a few minutes earlier?

Anonymous said...

This story irritated me the first time I saw the video on the news. Two things about it irritated me:
1) The news perspective that the deputy was in the wrong AND NEEDED TO BE PUNISHED
2) The news perspective that the lady was NOT IN THE WRONG AND DID NOT DESERVE TO BE PUNISHED

Let's assume for a minute that the lady was not the daughter, but a physician. She was rushing to the hospital to respond to a life threatening situation with a patient that no one else at the hospital was either capable of addressing or available to address. Here we would see a clear justification for breaking the speed limit laws. We would assume and hope, however, that this lady physician would be calm and rational. That she was breaking the speed limit after considering the situation and was not simply responding to the adrenaline in her system and not speeding in excess of her ability to maintain safety.

But that is all assumption. The following is what we know or can reasonably infer actually happened. The lady was the daughter of the patient. The patient was receiving care regardless of when she got there or even IF she got there. Her speeding to the hospital had no bearing at all on her father. Once she got there, if it was a SERIOUS heart attack, she most likely would not even be able to get into to see her father while they worked on him. It is clear the lady was hysterical or at least highly agitated. Her speeding was a result of this condition and not due to a rational evaluation of the situation. Therefore she is clearly a risk to herself and others. There is no justification for her breaking the speed laws and every reason to enforce public safety. Her irrationality was further revealed when she ran (only about 100 yards into the parking lot as she was stopped just short of the entrance to the parking lot according to my memory of the video).

In her unstable mental state, the lady determined that she was justified not only to speed but to evade arrest ... all so that she could wait in a hospital waiting room.

Did the officer show any compassion in light of the woman's situation? I did not see where she gave him an opportunity. She immediately presented herself as hysterical and (in my opinion, perhaps shared by the officer) not in a fit condition to be driving. Anyone who believes she was fit will have a hard time explaining that position if we add but one pedestrian on the street. The measure of ones safety in driving is not how many accidents they are not in, but rather how many they would be in/causing if the reasonable conditions were in place. It is reasonable to expect pedestrians on that street even at sun down (I recall it being dark in the video). But even if it is late at night, hospitals don't sleep. Staff and patients are coming and going at all times.

Could the officer have made attempts to calm her down? Here, if anywhere, is perhaps the opportunity to learn for the officer. They are suppose to be trained to diffuse emotionally tense situations. However, given the hysterics of the woman such attempts might reasonably be expected to take more time and cause her to escalate her hysterics. As such, I can see a judgement call on the part of the officer. Does he 1) take the time to try to calm here down when time is all she cares about, 2) simply address the infraction in the hope that she will come to understand the stupidity of her own actions, or 3) let an irrational and hysterical person continue to drive?

Did the officer use excessive force? How much force should be used to arrest a hysterical person? What I saw in the video was him reach in, pull her out, and shove her against the back of the car - which did not require much force because she was off balance from having been pulled out. I saw nothing that would lead to anything other than discomfort. Are police not allowed to enforce the law?

The officer was stern even if not particularly concerned about the lady's father when he initially stopped her. But does he need to be? This is only my humble opinion, but the lady needed a time-out to calm down and the ticket could have done that for her if she had any control over herself. But clearly she did not have this control. She shouted at the officer. Yelled at him. Apparently believed her father's only hope of survival was for her to be at the hospital. I would hope we would consider any officer remise in his/her duties if they allowed such a driver to continue to use the roads unchallenged.

The lady was not fit to drive. She was not fit to charge into a hospital and start doing to the nurses, doctors, and staff what she was doing to the officer. We don't know but the officer might have allowed her off with a warning if she weren't so belligerent ... probably not, 60+ in a 35 is no small matter. But this does not even matter. Ultimately, we should all be asking ourselves what we value more: 1) enforcement of public safety and respect for law enforcement or 2) the freedom for persons without self control to exercise their lack of self control when they become hysterical.

There is room for compassion in law enforcement. But if there is no law enforcement, there is no need for compassion in law enforcement. Nor can we always definitively say what action is more compassionate than others. The officer might have been trying to get the ticket over with quickly out of compassion for her situation. Does anyone say she doesn't deserve the ticket? Does anyone really want to argue that irrational urgency is legitimate excuse to be excused from driving wrecklessly? Let anyone who does so continue to argue that when they find themselves the victim of such a driver. Then I would expect these same misguided people to cry, "Where were the police? Why didn't they do something to stop this?"

---Joe from Fort Worth

Tony Miano said...


Thank you for the additional perspective. I believe it will be helpful to those who struggle with the human side of this story, especially as it pertains to Deputy Stabins.

You articulated your thoughts well.

Thanks, again, for participating in the conversation.

Chisso said...

Tony, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I think, one of the problem with the Gospel presentation right now in many contemporary churches is tied in this situation. When the name of God is invoked, the contemporary churches always ties it into expectation of mercy. In this case, mercy without repentance. The attributes of God's righteousness is being thrown away.

As a society, the prevalent view has become "I deserve mercy no matter how bad I am".

Anonymous said...

Tony, I first heard your statement on Way of the Master and oh it was so well put!!! I am so disappointed in Todd's response! What a clear message of thinking you are above the law! Just last week I was listening to one of the street fishing witness encounters and like always they answered every question, yes, I've lied, yes I've stolen, and so on. Of course when it was asked, when you stand before God on judgment day will he find you innocent or guilty and like so much of the time the answer was oh innocent definitely. I just thought how can people have this attitude, what makes them think they are so righteous that they just deserve to get into heaven... this is just one more example of how everyone thinks they are above the law!
I was so troubled when I first heard this story, I couldn't believe the officer was suspended and I certainly hope it was for the right reason.

Thank you to all the officers out there who uphold the law for the protection of the citizens!