An Arkansas State Police trooper who stopped a fleeing motorist driving the wrong way on Interstate 40 in December has been named the 2021 Trooper of the Year by the American Association of State Troopers, according to a state police news release Monday.
Trooper James O. Ray, 24, of Franklin County has been with the state Highway Patrol Division for three years and is assigned to Troop H, based in Fort Smith.
"Whenever I got the phone call, I was speechless, I really was. It's really an honor to receive this award," Ray said.
On the morning of Dec. 4, state highway police officer Matt Young stopped to check on a driver parked along I-40 near Ozark. Young could not tell if anyone else was in the Chevrolet Impala because the windows were spray-painted black; however, he did find that the driver had a suspended license, according to the incident report.
Young called Ray to assist, and Ray knocked on the passenger window, the report said. The Impala sped away on the interstate with Ray falling back on the ground in an attempt to get away from the car, according to the report.
Ray pursued the vehicle, which moved erratically at more than 100 mph and passed several vehicles on the shoulder, the report said.
Ray decided to perform the "Precision Immobilization Technique" maneuver, which forced the Impala into a clockwise rotation into the westbound lanes. However, the driver was able to regain control of the car and began heading east in the westbound lanes of the interstate. The driver posed an extreme danger to other motorists who were meeting the fleeing vehicle head-on, the news release said.
The driver then crossed the median and began traveling west in the eastbound lanes, authorities said, and Ray drove west in the westbound lanes to get ahead of the vehicle. Once ahead, he crossed into the eastbound lanes, facing the direction he knew the vehicle was traveling. There, he waited.
"As the car was coming, I knew my options were very well limited," Ray said. "I knew I had traffic stopped behind me, and I couldn't afford to let the fleeing suspect hit another vehicle. At that point, by any means necessary, you have to intervene."
As the car was passing in front of him, Ray quickly accelerated and hit the front left corner of the Impala with his police vehicle. Both vehicles were disabled, but both he and the suspect, Bryan Starnes of Gold Hill, had only minor injuries.
"I'm going to give high praise to the state police training academy for helping me be able to maintain a sense of levelheadedness and to be able to think clearly in situations that are obviously very high stress," Ray said.
Starnes was arrested and charged with two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer, reckless driving, driving on a suspended license, felony fleeing in a vehicle, illegal window tint and refusal to submit to arrest.
The only other time an Arkansas trooper was awarded Trooper of the Year by the national association was more than 20 years ago, police spokesman Bill Sadler said.
"It just shows the devotion of what troopers are willing to exercise," Sadler said, "to use everything at their disposal to stop an imminent threat."
Ray will be formally recognized in a national award ceremony later this year, according to the news release.