In September 2018, William Vardeman landed at Houston’s Hobby Airport for a business trip in the city. His family arrived on a later flight, and Vardeman was there to meet them.
As most people do while waiting for family or friends at an airport, Vardeman made several loops around the pickup zone before parking his vehicle to await the arrival of his family members. The airport is notorious for this frustrating loop to nowhere while waiting for arrivals.
The routine is what tens of thousands of air travelers do each day at nationwide air terminals. Traffic officers monitor these pickup zones, with the sensible responsibility to keep the traffic moving and circulating. The police/citizen interactions at airports can sometimes be contentious—the officer’s responsibility is to keep motorists from monopolizing pickup zones while others locate and pick up family members.
Vardeman did the expected. He pulled in and parked his vehicle as he spoke to his wife on the phone to determine the location of her and his daughter. A traffic officer approached his vehicle and ordered him to move the vehicle forward. Vardeman complied with the order, moving forward approximately 30 yards.
At that point, Vardeman received a call from his wife informing him that she and their daughter were standing outside the luggage claims doors. Vardeman immediately exited his vehicle and opened the tailgate to expedite a speedy departure.
It was a normal, routine response, given the circumstances.
A second officer approached the vehicle and ordered him to move the vehicle.
Again, in a normal, routine response, Vardeman explained to the officer that his wife and daughter were on their way out of the terminal and would depart in a few moments. The officer nonetheless told him to move the vehicle.
Vardeman closed the tailgate, got back into the vehicle, and just as he was about to move forward, he saw his wife and daughter approaching the vehicle.
Once again, in a normal, routine response, Vardeman stopped the vehicle, got out, and reopened its tailgate.
That’s when the police/citizen interaction turned nasty.
Cops have little, if any, patience with people who exercise independent thought after they have been given a direct order.
As Vardeman was preparing to load the family luggage into the vehicle—a normal, routine response given the circumstances—the ticked-off traffic officer returned, telling Vardeman, “I told you to move your f..king car.”
Vardeman’s normal, routine response to the officer was that he would get out of the way as soon as he loaded the family luggage into the vehicle.
Logic does not impress a rude, out-of-control cop.
“I don’t give a f..k—and you are going to move that car,” the traffic officer said before calling for backup.
After Vardeman had loaded the family luggage into the vehicle and was preparing to leave the hostile airport environment, another traffic cop named Rickey DeWayne Simpson appeared on the scene.
Representing the City of Houston in supreme local law enforcement fashion, Simpson escalated an already contentious police/citizen interaction into another orbit by getting in Vardeman’s face, yelling, “[y]ou need to move the f..king car or I will whip your bitch ass.”
At that juncture, Vardeman’s adult daughter, who was holding her baby, attempted to diffuse the situation by placing her arm between the two men. Simpson responded by forcefully pushing her away, apparently without regard for the baby’s well-being.
Doing what any father or grandfather would do, Vardeman pushed Simpson away from his daughter and grandchild. The enraged cop responded by “aggressively and violently” punching Vardeman in the face with a closed fist knocking the businessman to the ground.
With Simpson menacingly standing over him, prepared to strike another blow, Vardeman managed to get up. The businessman then called 911 and reported that he had been “verbally and physically assaulted by an airport officer.”
Two officers with the Houston Police Department responded to the call, reviewed surveillance video, and questioned Simpson about why he had acted so aggressively without reasonable provocation.
Vardeman and his family got into the vehicle and left.
These core facts about this particular police/citizen interaction were set forth in a December 21, 2022 decision issued by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
That decision was in response to a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 federal civil rights lawsuit Vardeman brought against the City of Houston and its officer Rickey DeWayne Simpson.
On April 29, 2021, U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal dismissed the lawsuit. Judge Rosenthal ruled that the City of Houston was immune from civil liability under the Texas Tort Claims Act for hiring Simpson.
The federal judge also ultimately dismissed Vardeman’s claim of assault against Simpson, finding there was no constitutional violation stemming from the airport interaction between Simpson/Vardeman.
Vardeman appealed to the Fifth Circuit. While the appeals court upheld Judge Rosenthal’s ruling on the City of Houston’s lack of liability, it reversed the judge’s finding that Simpson faced no liability.
‘We conclude as follows. The allegations that Simpson punched Vardeman in the face so hard that he fell to the ground, and then Simpson hovered over him for a time in a menacing manner, would, if supported by evidence, allow jurors to find that for some period of time at least, a reasonable person would not believe he was free to leave. The Supreme Court has not required a finding that the officer intended to arrest the person, only that an objective person would perceive that at least briefly, there was no freedom to go.
“Though the earlier alleged profane insistence by the officer was for Vardeman to move his vehicle, we see a fact dispute as to whether the encounter had become something of longer duration and for a different purpose, such as at least for being issued a ticket. Respectfully, we conclude the district court erred in holding the complaint did not set out sufficient facts for a claim of excessive force in making a seizure.”
The City of Houston may eventually settle the Simpson lawsuit with William Vardeman. There was no excuse for the officer’s belligerent, aggressive, and violent conduct. He charged into a police/citizen interaction primed to fight. He was out of control.
The conduct of two of the three Houston police officers Vardeman encountered at the Hobby Airport set a terrible example for the entire city’s police department.
Whether officer Simpson was ever disciplined or even reprimanded is unknown. What is known to us is that he should not wear a police uniform for any law enforcement agency anywhere in the Country.