The truth about what happened to Bears running back Cedric Benson aboard his motorboat Saturday night on Lake Travis—whether he was drunk and disorderly, as the police who arrested him allege, or whether he was harassed and abused by the authorities, as Benson asserts—eventually may emerge inside a courtroom.
But what's already clear is Benson, by choosing to park his boat inside the lake's most popular cove for drinking and partying, placed himself at the center of an ongoing police crackdown on drunken boaters along the 64-mile-long lake, which was formed by a dam along the Colorado River and ranks among the most pristine bodies of water in all of Texas.
Alarmed by a spate of 22 boating fatalities in the last three years—more than half of which involved alcohol—enforcement officers of the Lower Colorado River Authority and four other area police agencies have stepped up their weekend lake patrols and the random safety inspections that give them a pretext to check the sobriety of boat operators.
Devil's Cove, also known to Lake Travis regulars as "the party cove," long has been a particular focus of the authorities because of the hundreds of boaters who pack into the 300-yard-long niche each weekend to lash their vessels together into giant floating party rafts.
That's where Benson's new 311/2-foot, $147,000 motorboat—an average-sized vessel on a lake teeming with huge houseboats and yachts—was parked Saturday night when an LCRA officer approached and asked to perform a random safety inspection.
What happened next is the subject of sharp dispute. LCRA officials say Benson, 25, failed a field sobriety test, resisted complying with the officer's requests and had to be pepper-sprayed to be restrained. He was transported to a nearby marina and charged with resisting arrest and boating while intoxicated.
But Benson, a former University of Texas football star who owns a home in the hills overlooking Austin assessed at $1.4 million, insists he was not drunk and did not resist the officer. Instead, he has accused the authorities of pepper-spraying him without provocation, dragging him from the patrol boat and nearly drowning him with a water hose before dumping him into a waiting police car. He says family members and friends who were aboard his boat can vouch for his version of events.
One passenger on the boat, Elizabeth Cartwright, told the Tribune on Tuesday night that she didn't believe Benson was drunk and that she and her fiance, also a passenger, were surprised when an officer made Benson take a sobriety test. She also disputed Benson was resisting arrest.
At the Emerald Point Marina, a dock across the lake from Devil's Cove where LCRA police brought Benson for transport, an employee of a boat rental company said he witnessed part of the incident Saturday night but declined to offer any details.
At the spot where the employee said Benson was removed from the police boat, there is no water hose, although a small garden hose is visible next to a boat slip about 30 yards away.
LCRA officials say they will not release any details about the Benson incident, beyond an arrest affidavit that was made public earlier this week, because Benson's first court hearing is pending for May 19.
But they deny police abused Benson or that he was singled out for special scrutiny.
"It's routine to stop people on the water for safety checks," said Krista Umscheid, an LCRA spokeswoman.
"It's not based on anything in particular that people are doing. The officers are not required to have probable cause to do an inspection."
Each weekend, the LCRA deploys three or four patrol boats in the most heavily used sections of Lake Travis to make safety checks, respond to medical emergencies, rescue stricken boats and watch for drunken operators, Umscheid said.
In 2007, LCRA officers—who are armed and fully licensed police—conducted 839 random safety inspections, issued 149 citations and made three arrests for boating while intoxicated, official figures show. So far in 2008, the officers have performed 184 safety inspections, issued 47 citations and arrested two people for boating while intoxicated, one of whom was Benson.
Several boaters randomly interviewed Tuesday evening on Lake Travis said the LCRA officers generally are respected as responsible law enforcement officials who prefer to issue warnings rather than citations when they see violations to avoid spoiling recreational experiences for people.
Although the City of Austin Police Department has been the subject of scrutiny over racial-profiling complaints in recent years, no such complaints have been made about the LCRA police, according to the Texas ACLU and other civil rights watchdog groups.
LCRA statistics indicate that of 457 total arrests made by LCRA police between 2004 and 2008, 94 percent of those arrested were white, 2.2 percent black, 2 percent Asian and the rest were unclassified.