By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Here's a quick lesson for all police officers: Pulling over the president of the Dallas NAACP branch could be hazardous to your career. Just ask Dallas County sheriff's Deputy Mike Baker, who was ordered to be transferred out of patrol last month even though two separate investigations exonerated him of any wrongdoing.
On May 30, Baker and rookie officer Patrick Arnold stopped a white minivan in Northwest Dallas with expired tags. Arnold, who was in training, talked to the motorist, filled out the ticket and returned to the patrol car. So far, so good. But Baker noticed that the motorist wrote "refused" on the signature line of the ticket. As everyone who has ever been pulled over knows, signing the ticket is not an admission of guilt, just an assurance that you will pay the fine or appear in court. Without the signature, however, officers have no way to know that you'll do either of those things and are typically instructed to arrest the offending motorist. For obvious reasons, this doesn't happen too often.
So, needing a signature, Baker, a 15-year veteran of the department, left his patrol car to talk to the motorist.
"I went up to him and said very politely, 'There seems to be some sort of misunderstanding about signing the ticket,'" Baker recalls. "He said,'There's no confusion. I'm not signing it.'"
At that point, Baker told the motorist he'd have to arrest him. The man wanted to call his wife first, but Baker told him to hang up the phone and repeated that he was under arrest. But the motorist insisted on calling his wife.
"I then reached in with my right hand and took his sleeve between my thumb and forefinger and started to pull so he would know I wasn't kidding," Baker would later tell investigators from the department. "And he needed to get out. He said real loud, 'Don't you touch me!' I let go and said, 'If you don't get out of the van, I will put you to the ground.'"
The motorist decided to sign the ticket after all.
If you think Baker acted a little harsh toward the motorist, he explains that officers have to assert control in that type of situation.
"He was trying to take charge of our traffic stop," says Baker, who is built like a nose tackle. "He was trying to run the show, and we're trained that we have to be in charge. You can't let the violator take charge of your traffic stop."
After the motorist signed the ticket, Baker returned to the patrol car to give him his copy. Somehow, Baker dropped the ticket on a clipboard the motorist was holding and a breeze blew it to the ground. That seemed to be the tipping point.
"He starts screaming that he's the president of the NAACP," Baker says.
Soon after, Bob Lydia, whose wife is also active with the NAACP, met with Sheriff Lupe Valdez and her chief deputy, Jesse Flores, and filed criminal charges against Baker, claiming that he abused his authority. The department launched both a criminal and internal affairs investigation of Baker. A few weeks later, both inquiries exonerated him.
It was probably an easy call. For one, Lydia admitted to investigators that he initially refused to sign the ticket and only afterward did Baker grab him. Baker himself admitted as much, saying that he touched the motorist only after Lydia continued to talk on his cell phone even though he had been informed he was under arrest. Finally and perhaps most important, Baker's partner corroborated his story.
Patrick Arnold says that Baker never used excessive force, and Lydia was the one making a scene. "He wanted everyone's name and badge number," Arnold recalls. "He pulled out his business card, and it said 'president of the NAACP.'"
Baker says that Lydia also wrote down their license plate number.
"It appeared to me that he was being rather hardheaded," Arnold says. "I thought the whole situation was kind of silly."
So that should have been the end of it, right? Well, here's where things get murky. Last month, Flores transferred Baker from the traffic division to court services, claiming he did so only because Baker requested a new assignment. But Baker says that he never asked to leave and claims that Lydia is using his political influence to get him off the street. Lydia did not return several phone calls, but the Dallas County Peace Officer's Association, which represents black officers, backs up Baker's claim and says that they talked about Baker in a meeting with Flores.
"The president of the NAACP requested that Baker be removed from the street," says Charles Bailey, the first vice president of the association. "We did bring it up [in a meeting with Flores], and he advised us that he would remove Baker from the street."
Bailey insists that the association was merely relaying a message from Lydia and not acting in anyway as an advocate. In any case, Raul Reyna, a spokesman for the department, says that Flores did not respond to any political pressure to transfer Baker.