‘Put your hands up!’
How would you feel if a cop aimed his gun at your head?
Our cover story this week, “The cop beat,” by News Editor Tom Gascoyne, is a close-up look at two veteran Chico police officers as they work their patrol shifts. Gascoyne spent several hours riding along with each of them and came away impressed by their professionalism and skill.
Tom Steele had an altogether different experience with a local police officer, one that left him traumatized and ultimately elicited an apology from the chief of police.
Steele is a longtime Chico resident, a marriage and family therapist for nearly 30 years. As he tells it, he was traveling south on Mangrove Avenue early in the afternoon of Sept. 12, 2011, having stopped at S&S Produce for groceries and a cheeseburger to go, when he saw police lights flashing behind him.
He continued through the busy Vallombrosa intersection, turned left on 4th Street and pulled over, the patrol car right behind him. He was three blocks from home.
Steele rolled down his window, turned off the ignition, placed his hands on the steering wheel and waited for the officer to approach, just as he’d learned to do in traffic school.
Suddenly the officer yelled, “Put your hands up!” Steele looked in his outside mirrors and saw that the officer—later identified as Stephen Dyke—had assumed a shooting stance about seven feet behind him, his Glock aimed at Steele’s head. As Steele later wrote, Dyke “was looking down his barrel at the back of my head. I realized that he had lined up a kill shot on this AARP member in good standing, execution style, right here on the streets of Chico, three blocks from lunch.”
Steele was “terrified, traumatized, and sent into a state of shock,” he wrote.
Then Officer Dyke got a call on his radio, holstered his weapon and approached Steele’s window. It was an error, he said; dispatch had mistaken his car for a stolen vehicle. There have been a lot of car thefts lately, he said. He didn’t apologize.
Steele, feeling shattered, drove home and canceled his afternoon appointments. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, put on meds and spent four months in therapy.
No matter how he looked at the incident, he could not understand why a police officer threatened him with death when he was “just a guy going home for lunch” and being completely cooperative.
On Sept. 28, 2011, he filed a complaint with the Chico Police Department. Four months later, on Feb. 28, 2012, he received a letter from then-Police Chief Mike Maloney. The chief acknowledged that, “as a result of human error, you [Steele] were exposed to a show of deadly force when Officer Dyke conducted a high risk traffic stop procedure under the belief the vehicle you were driving was stolen, when in fact, it was not. We apologize for this unfortunate experience.”
Dyke, the chief continued, had “followed department policy and procedure” and so had been exonerated. “This matter will hereafter be considered closed.”
Not by Tom Steele, it won’t.
Robert Speer is editor of the CN&R.