DWI cop’s mission: To help others avoid her pain
In 1995, Officer Stacie Brown's sister was killed while driving drunk
By Naomi Martin
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — Happy hour isn’t even over yet, and she’s already landed one.
“Starting off with a bang,” Officer Stacie Brown says as she walks behind the Arlington police station. It’s dusk on a cold Wednesday, and the sky is streaked with pink.
Brown is a cop who arrests drunken drivers, and the holiday season is her busiest time of year. This time, Brown didn’t have to scour the highways looking for an intoxicated driver. One came to her.
Well, other cops brought him to her. They said he’d led them on a high-speed chase through a neighborhood before he crashed and fought the officers. His three kids were in the car; one had a huge knot on his head.
“Hi,” Brown says as she approaches the slumped, handcuffed man in the backseat of the squad car. He’s young and tattooed all over his arms and neck. He answers her questions in quiet gasps, heaving and shaking.
What were you doing when you got pulled over?
Going to buy meth.
Why did you run?
“I appreciate you being honest,” Brown says.
She talks to the man with respect, no condescension. It’s not just a tactic to gain cooperation — though it does work. Brown genuinely does not judge the people she arrests.
She knows many of them are good people who just made a bad decision. She knows this all too well.
Brown is 45. Twenty years ago, she was teaching special education and coaching track at Sam Houston High School in Arlington. It was another life, another time.
Around 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 14, 1995, Brown was watching “ER” when she got a phone call that her 28-year-old sister, Shelli Lacy, had been in a car accident. She was dying.
The driver at fault was intoxicated.
The driver at fault was her sister.
“She’s the bad guy we all talk about, right?” Brown said. “That, I had a hard time with.”
After her sister’s death, Brown went into a deep depression. She’d lost not just her big sis, but her best friend. It was the most painful thing in her life. Still is.
She realized she needed to do something to prevent other families from having to go through the same thing. She joined the Arlington police force in 2005, and was picked for the driving while intoxicated unit two years later. She’d found her purpose.
Since then, she’s arrested hundreds of people. Most of them get mad, call her names. She has to remind herself that’s just the alcohol or drugs talking.
“This is not the worst thing that could happen to you — be glad you weren’t killed,” she often tells them. It doesn’t always go over well.
But some people do thank her.
Nationwide, drunken driving deaths have fallen by more than half since 1982. But it remains a stubborn problem in Texas, where the rate of drunken driving fatalities per capita is nearly double the national average, according to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility.
In Texas last year, 960 people died in DWI-related crashes, state records show. Thirty-seven of those deaths were in Tarrant County, and 83 were in Dallas County.
Brown wants to make a bigger dent in those numbers. She knows her arrests help, but she tries to focus on prevention, too.
She speaks often at high schools, driver’s ed courses and court-ordered classes for DWI offenders, sharing her experience as a victim’s sister and as a cop. She shows the audience pictures of smashed cars and explains: Not one of these drivers expected to die that night. This could be you.
“They pay attention to her because she comes from both sides,” said Terri Peaks, of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “Her goal is to save lives. She’s doing that in a number of ways, and we all benefit from it.”
The department now lets Brown spend most of her shifts at speaking engagements. She has given 140 presentations this year.
“That wasn’t in our job description, and she made it part of her job description,” said Brown’s partner, Officer Brendan Banks. “As officers, our experiences are what help us be really good or not — and that’s what makes her great at what she does.”
Brown and her husband, Allen, a dog trainer, raised her sister’s daughters, who were 9 and 1 when their mom died. They never had kids of their own, but they go on adventures together around the world, even scuba diving with sharks. They adopted and rehabbed Saint, a malnourished dog they saw on TV, who had been tied to a tree and shot with a pellet gun.
Brown has also led the “Santa Cop” program, which gives donated gifts to hundreds of poor kids at Christmastime.
“If I could sum Stacie up in one word,” Banks said, “she’s selfless.”
Outside the police station, Brown glides a black pen from one side of the tattooed man’s face to the other, telling him to watch it without moving his head. As she pauses on each side, the man’s pupils bounce slightly back toward the middle.
That involuntary jerking is indicative of being on alcohol or drugs, Brown later says.
The man denies doing any drugs today — though he admits to doing meth yesterday. Brown thinks he’s lying.
Still, she remains respectful.
“They said you were combative out there, but you’re being really nice to me,” she tells him, taking his handcuffs off.
He needs his arms free to balance for the next sobriety tests. Walking foot to foot down a straight line. Balancing on one foot while counting. He fails both.
Brown tells him she thinks he’s intoxicated and she needs a sample of his blood. He can either allow a nurse to take his blood, or she can secure a judge’s warrant and force him.
“Are you willing to give a specimen of blood?” she asks.
“Yes,” he mumbles.
“I appreciate that,” Brown says.
They head to the hospital.
“I get cooperation because I treat them like a human being,” Brown says as she drives. “I arrest a lot of really nice people. He’s got an addiction. It’s sad because it’s affecting the kids.”
At work, Brown tries not to dwell on her sister. She keeps a photo of her in her back pocket at all times, but on her cubicle wall, it’s her nieces and husband who smile down as she types reports.
There are times, though, when she can’t help but be reminded of Shelli. Last November, Brown and Banks had just left a MADD event when they were dispatched to investigate a bad wreck. A 25-year-old mother had driven into a telephone pole, injuring four of her kids.
They headed for the hospital to test the woman’s sobriety. They determined that Valencia Freeman was drunk. (She would later plead guilty.) A doctor told the cops that the woman’s 5-year-old daughter had died in a nearby room.
The officers looked at each other and knew what they had to do. It was unorthodox and definitely not department policy, but they decided to allow their suspect to say goodbye to her daughter.
“She’s already getting cold,” Freeman had sobbed as she hugged her daughter.
The scene stuck with Brown. Brown had that same thought when she’d raced to her sister’s side in the hospital. That’s when she realized that “when the spirit’s gone, the body changes.”
Brown felt sympathy for the mother, despite being angry about what she had done. Banks cried too, thinking about his five children at home.
Then they took the woman to jail.
At Medical Center Arlington, a nurse pierces the suspect’s arm and fills a syringe with his blood. If it tests positive for drugs, the evidence will later be used against him in court.
Swallowing back tears, the suspect — Christopher Tafolla, 26 — asks Brown what charges he’ll face.
She ticks them off: Evading arrest. DWI with a child in the car. Endangering a child. Possession of cocaine.
“How bad is DWI with a child?” he asks.
“It’s a state jail felony,” she says.
He knows he’s likely to be locked up for a long time for violating parole. His life as a free man, for now, is over.
But the way Brown sees it, his arrest actually gave him a chance to live. In fact, she wishes the cops had stopped her sister that night, before her crash.
At least she’d still be alive.
©2016 The Dallas Morning News