]Stacy Ettel has been working as a deputy in Florida for four years. He keeps a low profile like most officers, serving his community unselfishly. He and his wife, Martha, are empty nesters. They cycle together on bike tours to keep their relationship fresh. Their lives are dotted by humanitarian trips to places like Haiti. They also volunteer with the Florida Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, lending their time to help those who’ve gone through tragedy.
Take a snapshot of life now and you’d ascertain that Stacy Ettel leads a peaceful, altruistic way of life. But just six years ago, Stacy was in the eye of the storm—the center of an investigation into the shooting of Kofi Abu-Brempong, an African student at University of Florida. The incident launched three months of protests, accusations of being a white racist cop, public demonization, and ultimately the loss of his job.
Others in recent days have been through a similar nightmare in places like Ferguson, Baltimore, and others. Is there something we can learn from Stacy Ettel?
Ettel began his young adult life in the Navy as a navigator on a Navy Frigate. Motivated by the DUI death of his own parents, Ettel went on to college to become a police officer. In 1993, at the age of 23, he began what would be a remarkable career at the University of Florida Police Department. He was named Officer of the Year in 1994, made sergeant in just three years, and began training and teaching early on. He did undercover work, mountain bike training, was heavily involved with MADD, and then took over the security for the school athletes. Soon he gained the trust of the football program leaders, and notably Coach Urban Meyer. At 37 years of age, Ettel was promoted to lieutenant. It was a very satisfying career.
In 2007, Senator John Kerry came to speak at the university. That day an agitated student was refusing to leave after his allotted time, and after several warnings, police were forced to subdue him with a Taser. This was the incident that birthed the phrase, “Don’t tase me, Bro!” in response to a quote by the student. Ettel oversaw event security, but was not present. After the incident received national coverage, Ettel made the observation that campus police were expected to enforce rules, not just laws. Ettel put together a curriculum that addressed this and began speaking to other departments.
On March 2, 2010, Ettel was the watch commander on duty. He was at the UF basketball game, watching the athletes when he heard a call about a disturbance in an apartment. There was a BOLO for a student that was having some mental health issues. The residents in the apartment above were reporting screaming and threats. The occupant of the apartment threatened to shoot the initial responding officers.
Ettel then responded. On the way, his captain called him to mention that he wanted to be kept apprised of the situation, as he was aware of this student’s mental health issues. Ettel learned later that Abu-Brempong had been monitored as the top mental health concern on campus.
Ettel and his team tried to make contact through the door and by phone. When there was no response, University Police evacuated the building and secured the gas. About that time, the Dean of Brempong’s school, Peter Waylen, appeared at the scene to assist. He told Ettel that Abu-Brempong had some significant struggles they were monitoring.
Ettel and Waylen, also Brempong’s friend and mentor, tried to talk with Kofi for 90 minutes through the window. The response was yelling and screaming. Ettel never saw if the man was white or black, just heard a thick accent. Abu-Brempong then shut off all communication.
The agency’s protocol for suspicion of suicidal tendencies was to enter the premises before the situation escalated. Experience had shown that this was the right call, as they had prevented several suicide attempts in prior years.
Ettel’s team broke a window out, and then got a key from housing. They found that Abu-Brempong had wired the front door shut. They made the decision to enter by force. They had five in a stack, armed with Tasers, a beanbag shotgun, and an AR-15. After they broke the door in, they entered and saw Abu-Brempong lying behind a couch. He sat up, and in the dark Ettel only saw teeth. He was laughing in a seated position. Ettel’s team observed him in possession of a butcher knife, so they engaged him with a Taser, which missed its mark. He stood up, and they observed a butcher knife in his left hand and a pipe in the right. They deployed the Taser a second time with no success. They then fired four beanbag rounds, which all impacted Abu-Brempong, but got no response. Abu-Brempong started to swing the pipe, moving toward them. In response, one of the officers double-tapped him with two AR-15 rounds in the mouth and hand. It dropped him. Ettel jumped off the bed and grabbed him. He was bleeding severely.
Ettel advised the sergeant to remove the shooter, and called for fire and rescue, who had refused to stand by. Abu-Brempong regained consciousness and immediately became combative. Ettel and another officer controlled him and they got him cuffed up. Afterward, Ettel went outside, put his arm around Waylen, and told him he was sorry that this happened. Waylen said that he was sorry the police had to deal with it. He said they were compassionate and he appreciated them.
The investigation began, and the protesters showed up. The media got involved, and dug up some questionable incidents by two of the involved officers. Suddenly the team was five racist cops that showed up to shoot a black guy, and Ettel was the one in charge. The department wanted to go after the young shooter, but Ettel stood up for him.
The media frenzy began. “The administration thinks they can play games with the lives of students,” wrote Justin Wooten, with Students for a Democratic Society. “We’re going to show them that people will no longer tolerate police brutality in Gainesville, or anywhere for that matter. Our protests are our way of bringing power back into the hands of the community, where it belongs.”
“Students at the University of Florida and members of the Gainesville community are making great strides in their fight against police brutality, but more actions are required if full justice is to be won against dirty cops,” wrote Jared Hamil and Fernando Figueroa in Fight Back News. “The people of Gainesville will continue to escalate their struggle against racism and oppression until violent cops no longer terrorize the community.”
Ettel learned after the incident that Abu-Brempong was the number one concern to the team who oversaw the mental health of the students. They had pumped him full of medication, and apartment evidence showed he had been drinking heavily that night. That’s why he didn’t respond to the less-lethal force.
The university didn’t want anyone to know that Abu-Brempong was full of meds and alcohol that night. He didn’t die, so HIPPA became a way to block medical records.
They had to find some way to separate themselves from liability. At the end of the day, the administration made a decision that was best for them. Ettel’s team was cleared by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement , the State Attorney, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Education. Everyone said they did a great job. But the University leadership took over the internal investigation from the police department and they ultimately decided not to renew Ettel’s yearly contract. This non-renewal was released to the media as a termination, which ultimately destroyed Ettel’s employment reputation.
Peter Waylen wrote a letter to the police administration. “I have already replayed the events of the two days many, many, times in my mind, and am convinced that the correct course was followed and that in my mind, the personnel of UPD come out of this the very best of the entities involved.” The university immediately sent him on a sabbatical to England.
Urban Meyer’s wife, Shelly, also came to Ettel’s defense. She took the opportunity to write a letter to the Gainesville Sun. “I am deeply saddened by the firing of Lt. Stacy Ettel,” she explained. “He has not only provided security for us, but has become a very close friend. He never stops working or doing for others. He ALWAYS has the safety and security of others as his very top priority.”
I understand that organizations are going to do this, I think,” says Ettel.
“But since social media came into play, once your name is bad, it’s done forever. You can’t fix the Internet. Every job interview afterward, they Google your name, and then you become that guy. If they don’t know you personally, your whole career is done.”
Ettel didn’t go back to police work for almost two years. Urban Meyer hired him at Ohio State to be his coordinator of player development. He’d been working for The Ohio State Buckeyes for a few months when the school got a call from the media questioning the hiring of Ettel. He wasn’t allowed to stay.
Meyer was devastated, but everybody has a boss. Meyer’s boss had the final say. Ettel was too risky for Ohio State.
In the months and years following, Ettel has filled out 97 job applications in sports and security jobs. He was rejected 96 times. Nobody would touch him.
Then a friend got him a job with the a Florida Agency. He still lost his home through the ordeal, but at least they had income.
Things had changed within law enforcement since Ettel’s early years as an officer.
“We are just the next call from being unemployed or indicted. They don’t punish you with discipline anymore. They fire you and indict you. Even if you beat it in the criminal case, you’re at risk. Death and injury don’t scare us anymore. Termination, unemployment, and indictment are what stress us out now. When you start thinking that way, it changes the way we do police work.”
Like the Kerry incident, Ettel has taken inventory of what he’s learned. His mind for training is constantly working to improve policing. “If every officer in the country put in one dollar, we could have a fund to defend guys like me and others who find themselves in this predicament. When there is a shooting, the shooter can’t talk. Employees can’t talk about it. The agency doesn’t say much and city managers are political. So who can stand up for us? We need an independent advocate that comes into situations like these and says, ‘Hold on here—there are two stories to consider.’ That way, we have someone who comes in to protect the officers before it gets out of hand like in Ferguson and Baltimore. That’s what we need to do.”
These days Ettel lives on the more humble side of life. He works the road. No more training. No more promotions or awards. But he’s thankful. And he’s able to use his off-duty time to further serve others.
The Ettels recently traveled to Haiti with an organization called I’m ME, working with orphans in that area. Ettel was also recently seen in a video, alongside Tim Tebow, as he served in Tebow’s program, Night to Shine—prom nights held for children with Special Needs. Kids are given crowns, have their hair done, dress up in glitz and walk the red carpet. It is a celebration designed to show these kids they are valuable, even referring to them as kings and queens. The prom events were held the same night all over the world.
The Ettels volunteered for the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, in the 2015 flooding rebuild in Detroit. Stacy continues to do logistics planning and organization, and together they lead mass cooking and feeding of those who’ve been displaced. Martha also trains new volunteers.
Stacy and Martha have been married 25 years and are still going strong. They actively bicycle in events all over the U.S., and have recently become certified as divers. Even though these last six years have been a challenge, Martha has remained supportive of Stacy since the troubles began. “He wasn’t just an exemplary employee, he was—is an exemplary person,” she says. They have survived, and even thrived despite the blows that life has dealt. Martha points to their faith in God as the sustaining factor in the lowest moments and has even brought a purpose to the pain. Through that pain they have attained a richness of character. Humility. Patience. Appreciation for others. It’s only deepened their commitment to service.
And just like they’ve done since the beginning, they are consistently learning the lessons life gives them. They are hopeful that someday Stacy can use his teaching gifts once more. Perhaps what they’ve been through will help others.
“This has been an amazing process to go through,” says Ettel.
“It’s been a miserable process as far as a career, but it’s been an amazing process to see the way systems work. I kind of grew and knew there was some kind of plan in place. I’m past the anger stage of being frustrated at understanding how bad I got hung out there.”
Protestors painted Ettel as a racist cop, yet for many years he has humbly served people of all colors, countries, and socio-economic status both on duty and off. The university shifted blame to shirk their responsibility, letting Ettel take the fall; yet he still places his life on the line every day. The media tried to smear his reputation, but Ettel has not been deterred in his attitude and service of others. He won’t allow what they’ve done to cloud the way he respectfully treats people. Truth was always on Stacy Ettel’s side, and his character in the midst of the storm is the proof.
Note: On September 1, 2016, Stacy Ettel announced the formation of the Law Enforcement Advocacy Network (L.E.A.N.) which is a non profit organization that seeks to bring the stories of each law enforcement officer that has been mistreated for simply doing their job to the public eye. This bold initiative will call for real leadership within a profession that has let political correctness ruin the lives of many. Stacy is a lead instructor for the Courageous Leadership Seminar. You can find out more here.
Victoria Newman is an author, speaker, and founder of How2LoveYourCop, an organization that provides positive resources for law enforcement families. She is author of A CHiP on my Shoulder and A Marriage in Progress, speaks all over the United States and Canada, mentors several spouses, and is a blogger and ghostwriter. Her website is: www.how2loveyourcop.com.