Officer must explain why he referred to Elandon Roberts as 'big black man' and lied about his behavior during traffic stop

Alex Reimer
July 15, 2019 - 11:34 am

The much-publicized traffic stop interaction between Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts and a Texas deputy wasn’t as hostile as USA Today portrayed it to be. The national paper published a story Thursday with the headline, “Elandon Roberts says he was harassed at home by police.” The piece contains an edited 90-second video that shows Roberts getting pulled over in his driveway and then scolded to get back into his car once he steps outside. The footage, which is lifted from police dash-cam video, also shows the officer threatening Roberts’ wife with arrest if she doesn’t return to the house. 

Most damningly, the deputy is recorded referring to Roberts as a “big black man” when speaking to his colleagues on the radio. “There’s a big black male, he got out of the car, I told him to get back in, he wouldn’t comply, I had to yell at him pretty hard,” Deputy Adam Watkins said. 

In a statement, Roberts tells USA Today he felt harassed on his own property. The traffic stop occurred March 10 in a suburb of Houston. 

“Unfortunately, these types of things are happening all too often to African Americans,” Roberts said. 

On Friday, Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls blasted USA Today for its summarization of the episode, saying the edited video presented a “false narrative.” He is right to an extent. For starters, Roberts’ speeding infraction -– he reportedly was going 59 mph in a 35 mph zone –– isn’t even mentioned until the 19th paragraph of the article. Also, the full dash-cam video runs 15 minutes and features a cordial conversation between Roberts and the deputy once everything is sorted out. In the end, the speeding infraction against Roberts was lowered to a warning.

With those facts in mind, Sheriff Nehls is correct to condemn USA Today for presenting a slanted version of the events to make his officer look bad. Roberts was rightfully stopped for going more than 20 miles per hour above the speed limit and both sides wound up being respectful towards each other. This does not rise to the level of the viral racially charged spats we often see between people of color and law enforcement officials. 

But the deputy’s decision to refer to Roberts as a “big black man” undercuts Nehls’ defense of his officer. The word choice infers race played a role, even subconsciously, in the way the stop was conducted. Roberts was forced to wait in his car –– again, in his own driveway –– for roughly eight minutes before he was even told what the issue was. Deputy Watkins also lied about Roberts’ conduct, saying the linebacker was insubordinate. Video shows Roberts was anything but: he went back to his car immediately after Watkins had told him to sit back in the driver’s seat. The deputy did not have to “yell pretty hard,” as he told his colleague.

The description of the “big black man” not complying with orders implies the situation was far more combative than it actually was. Deputy Watkins was unfairly painting Roberts in an aggressive light, and given the tumultuous history between black people and police officers in this country, that’s the more damaging character assassination than anything USA Today published.

In his press conference, Officer Nehls did admonish his officer for yelling at Roberts’ wife, who was just trying to see what was transpiring in front of her own house. “It wasn’t as professional as it should have been,” Nehls said. “I didn’t like the tone.”

While that’s a refreshing moment of introspection from the Sheriff, it would’ve been nice if he addressed the deputy’s unnecessarily racial description of Roberts, or the deputy’s equally unnecessary call for backup and lies about Roberts’ behavior. If we were pulled over for speeding in our driveways, it’s unlikely we would be forced to wait for eight minutes or have the officer mention our race in any conversation with colleagues. 

Once again, a person of color was treated more skeptically and harshly by law enforcement –– at least at the beginning of the stop –– than he should’ve been. That’s the story here, regardless of the media’s deceptive framing or its end result. 

Related: Elandon Roberts says he was harassed by police in incident because of race