This past June a car crash in Wichita Falls proved how deadly the road can be when drivers – even trusted authority figures like police officers – are reckless behind the wheel. Who could suspect a veteran police officer of secretly taking prescription drugs, moving around in his car looking for “something” without a seatbelt on while gunning it down the road at 80 miles per hour? Officer Teddie Whitefield was doing just that when he broadsided a car with two teenagers in it. Both young women, 18-year-old Yeni Lopez (who was 8 months pregnant at the time) and her cousin Gloria Montoya, were killed at the site of the crash.
The police officer was suspended indefinitely in August after an investigation. At this point, the community might expect the guilt-ridden police officer to issue a heart-felt apology to the family (the two women were cousins), or maybe to simply fade from public life. Instead, Whitefield has taken the issue of his employment into arbitration with city legal officials.
Whitefield’s lawyer is claiming that the loss of his job was “clearly excessive considering all the mitigating circumstances.” Whitefield is seeking lost pay and benefits. The mitigating circumstances are based around one deceased young woman’s potentially distracting cell phone and Whitefield’s irresponsible mixing of anti-anxiety medication and diet pills. Whitefield neglected to mention both of his medications to his supervisor in yet another breach of police policy. Whitefield was even in another car accident that same night just four hours before the fatal crash.
The Police Review Board issued a harsh, emphatic statement in response to Whitefield: “Your conduct in blatantly disregarding the law reflects negatively on yourself, the police department and the city and impairs the ability of the police department to effectively carry out its primary mission of law enforcement.”
Legal issues in these tragic situations can become very complex. In this case there was: the possibility of the District Attorney filing criminal charges against Whitehead, Whitehead’s potential claim for wrongful termination, and early on the process when the teenager driver was discovered to be unlicensed, there was the possibility that the city would actually sue the women’s family for the damage done to city property. Meanwhile there was also discussion among legal experts in the news of the family’s potential suit against the city, the police department or Whitehead himself.
How could anyone wade through the intricate and painful circumstances of a situation like this? Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families of Yeni Lopez and Gloria Montoya.