The nation is reacting with outrage to a video of a routine traffic stop in New Mexico that shows police using excessive force to stop a Black woman who had been pulled over for speeding in a van filled with her five children. The officers fired multiple shots at the van and bashed the passenger side window to get to the woman’s 14-year-old son.
While the actions of the woman, Oriana Ferrell, 39, can be questioned as she pulled away from a police officer who told her to wait until he checked her license, it is the actions of the officers in the video from their dashboard camera that appear to be especially outrageous and needlessly excessive.
At a time when African-Americans are being gunned down for seeking help from homeowners (Renisha McBride in Michigan) and police officers (Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina), or just walking down the street with a bag of Skittles (Trayvon Martin in Florida), we must question whether we are still living in a society that devalues Black life and Black bodies.
How else can you explain police officers shooting at a vehicle containing five children? Do you imagine they would have the same response if the car was full of white children?
The video, which has gone viral after it was aired on the “Today” show and other national news programs, captures the entire incident that occurred on Oct. 28 near the city of Taos, New Mexico. Ferrell was on her way to the Rio Grande on an educational trip with her children from their home in Tennessee.
The police officer pulled Ferrell over for going 71 in a 55 mph zone. After her approached the car and asked her to wait, she inexplicably drove away. He gave chase and pulled her over a second time. Visibly angry, the officer ran to the car, yelling: “Get out of the vehicle! Get out of the vehicle right now!”
The officer tries to pull Ferrell out of the vehicle and her 14-year-old son gets out and valiantly runs over to defend his mom—but the teen returns to the minivan after the officer aims a weapon at him. It is a Taser, but it’s possible the boy thought it was a gun.
“Sir, I pulled back over, I didn’t run away,” Ferrell pleads at one point. “You see my children. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m just trying to take them to the Rio Grande.”
The mother and the son struggle with the officer before getting back in the minivan. The officer then takes his baton and violently smashes the passenger side window where the 14-year-old boy is sitting.
As the family attempts to flee, a second officer fires at least three shots at the vehicle. Ferrell weaves in an out of traffic and eventually comes to a stop in front of a motel. She was arrested and charged with child abuse, fleeing an officer and possession of drug paraphernalia—the police found what they claimed were two marijuana pipes in the car. The 14-year-old boy was charged with battery.
The other children, ages 6 to 18, were taken into the custody of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department and were later placed in the care of a family member known to Ferrell, according to court documents obtained by The Taos News.
Eighth Judicial District Judge Jeff McElroy reviewed the dashcam footage at a hearing and said that the “court is concerned about the nature of these charges.”
Ferrell’s attorney, Alan Maestas, explained to the judge that Ferrell was fleeing from the officer because she feared for the safety of her children.
“She was flat-out scared that something was going to happen to her children,” he said. “We ought to talk about the stupidity and recklessness of shooting at a car that has five children in it.”
“If someone ought to be charged with child abuse, it ought to be the New Mexico State Police,” Maestas said.
In court documents, officers claimed the shots were fired “in an attempt to keep the vehicle from leaving.”
But New Mexico State Police chief, Pete Kassetas, called the incident “an intense, 43-minute-long, dangerous situation that placed the public at risk.”
“I have, of course, reviewed the video and do have concerns relating to the conduct of the officer who discharged his firearm,” the chief said in a statement.
But Greg Meyer, a retired police captain and expert on the use of force, told NBC News that there were many questions he had about the conduct of the officers.
“I would be asking a lot of questions about the window smash — what’s he trying to accomplish there? And the gunfire — what’s he trying to accomplish there?” Meyer said. “Until we know why, it’s difficult to judge thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the reasonableness of what happened here.”