Correcting The Record
I just had a humbling conversation with SEPTA Transit Police Department Chief Thomas J. Nestel III about the deadly incident on October 27, 2015 between a SEPTA officer and Omar Lopez, 24, an Hispanic Male.
First, Chief Nestel gave me information that made me immediately recognize I’d made a substantial research error and mistaken statement about the death of Mr. Lopez in our book. Second, Chief Nestel was so gracious that it made me, if it’s possible, more ashamed of these mistakes.
In my research I had read a report that the SEPTA officer with whom Lopez had the encounter had been armed only with a TASER. The officer was responsible for closing stations along the Market-Frankford Line. Outside, Lopez got into “a heated verbal argument” with another man on the street. The officer observed that the other person was being threatened, so he intervened. At this point, surveillance video shows that Lopez suddenly turned on the officer, at one point biting him. The officer called for backup, but there was confusion about his location and it was delayed. The fight went to the ground as the pair struggled. The officer TASERED repeatedly and then drive-stunned Lopez, and finally gained control over him and handcuffed him.
During the transport to the hospital required by SEPTA policy after a TASER deployment, Lopez became unresponsive and later died. In January 2016, the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office stated that Lopez died of an overdose of PCP. Court records show Lopez was jailed in 2013 for drug possession and had another drug-dealing conviction that led to probation. The officer suffered bite marks and bruises during the fight. He was taken to the hospital and treated for non-life-threatening injuries. During his career the officer had never once had an excessive force complaint against him.
Among my mistakes was my belief that the officer ONLY had a TASER. The chief tells me that in fact, like all SEPTA officers, the officer was also armed with a .40 Sig Sauer handgun, and a baton.
We had already opined that the officer was justified in his use of force: Ed Flosi said, “This case seems like a clearly appropriate use of the TASER device against a person who was a credible threat to the officer.” Ben Singleton said, “It is surprising to me that this officer was able to gain control of Lopez, who had a significant size advantage and was under the influence of PCP. It is also a testament to the value of the TASER. Because Lopez overdosed on PCP, I believe the officer’s involvement is coincidental rather than causal.”
Where I messed up was in my analysis. I said, “I wish to take this opportunity to point out that the SEPTA Police department sending unarmed law enforcement officers out into their transportation system, unable to defend themselves against attacks greater than this, is a stunning failure of imagination and leadership.”
Not only was this factually incorrect, it was factually incorrect because I failed to follow through and check my facts with the public information officer at SEPTA. This was a gross mistake on my part. Rookie error. The result of my sloppy work was that I flagrantly insulted someone for doing a great job. I have personally apologized to Chief Nestel, and we are correcting future editions.
My analysis of the incident (other than the unwarranted criticism) was this: “From the beginning this seemed to be another case sounding very much both like an acute narcotic intoxication incident, and like one in which the officer clearly expressed non-deadly intent, but in which circumstances turned beyond the officer’s control and made the encounter deadly. The officer behaved reasonably.”
To that, I now must add that the officer was exceptionally restrained in his response. The cop was 5’6” tall and weighed 155 pounds, while the man was about 5’10” and 185 pounds - and even while being beaten and bitten, the cop didn’t shoot Lopez, or even beat him with the baton.
Chief Nestel, it turns out, is a true gentleman. He graciously accepted my apology. I’m not sure I would have been that gracious - I like to think I would be, but wow. I love this 2014 interview piece with the Chief in Philly Magazine.
Note that my co-authors Ben Singleton and Ed Flosi did NOT make the same mistake I did (our analysis was done independently).
We have made corrections to the manuscript and all editions printed and available on Kindle or Nook after June 20, 2016 will bear the corrected text:
“Like other SEPTA officers, in addition to the TASER, the officer was armed with a .40 Sig Sauer handgun, and a baton. That the officer, outsized and facing a man clearly riled and agitated, did not resort to his handgun is a remarkable display of restraint and professionalism.”
Hopefully, this is the first in a short series of corrections. However I would like to add that, whenever we discover a mistake, we endeavor to fix it as soon as possible, and be as transparent as possible in doing so.