As the nation waits on tenterhooks for justice in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for his horrifying in-plain-sight killing of George Floyd, another, nonlethal, case of police brutality illustrates one of the big problems with American policing.
Today, take a minute to put yourself in the place of Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino second lieutenant in the Virginia National Guard, who was stopped by police in Windsor, Va., in December. (You can watch the video here.)
Police said they pulled Nazario over because his vehicle didn’t have a rear license plate. In fact, the newly purchased Chevy Tahoe had a temporary plate taped inside its tinted rear window. It is visible in the video.
From the get-go, the officers, guns drawn, start yelling at Nazario, who is in US Army fatigues, telling him to “get out of the car now” and to keep his hands in sight. Nazario, respectful throughout, asks what anyone would: Why has he been stopped? What’s going on?
One officer answers, “What’s going on is that you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son” — a reference to execution in the electric chair. When Nazario says he’s afraid to leave his vehicle, he’s told: “You should be.” When he declines to get out, one of the officers pepper-sprays him several times. Temporarily blinded, Nazario slowly does as instructed, whereupon he’s manhandled and handcuffed.
Nazario filed a lawsuit. The more aggressive officer has now been fired; the town says the way he treated Nazario did not accord with police department policy.
Let’s hope not. Yet it does help illustrate the inherent excesses of the so-called warrior style of policing. The underlying thinking there is that any situation is potentially life-threatening, and so, to keep themselves safe, officers must gain and maintain control through a domineering manner and intimidating tactics.
“The problem with that model is that an actual risky situation, where an officer might actually be injured, represents 1 to 2 percent of the interactions an officer is ever going to have to do,” said Jack McDevitt, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University.
A question for white readers: Have you ever been treated the way Nazario was? In decades of driving, I’ve gotten my share of tickets, but only once did anything get within even a light year of any of that. Stopped for speeding by a small-town cop in the Adirondacks, I couldn’t immediately locate my wallet to get my license. Realizing I had left it in my ski pants, I told the officer that and opened the door to retrieve it. My mistake. Stepping backward, he reached to his holster.
“I’m a middle-age man driving with my wife in a Prius and you’re going to pull your gun on me?” I said, completely incredulous. I got my license. He wrote a ticket. We went our separate ways, me so angry I considered filing a complaint. But watching the many appalling videos of police violence against Black drivers, I’ve come to see my expectation of respectful, professional police treatment as a fundamental aspect of white privilege.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s a different mode of policing, known as the Guardian model, in which police treat those stopped for speeding or an expired registration or a faulty taillight as non-menacing everyday citizens who have simply made a minor mistake. Police training is moving in that direction, McDevitt said, but not fast enough. Further, like many people, some police officers have conscious or unconscious biases that people of color are more threatening to them. So while they will treat white drivers respectfully, they switch into warrior mode when stopping a Black or Latino driver.
One tenet of enlightened policing is that officers should inform someone of why he or she has been stopped, give them a chance to speak, and inform them of what will happen next.
Consider what would have happened if the Windsor officers had treated Lieutenant Nazario that way. He would no doubt have pointed out the temporary plate in the back window. They could have checked it out, realized he was right, and gone on their way.
In so doing, they would have accorded Nazario the basic level of respect due not just to a person serving our country but to anyone stopped by police for a routine, nonviolent reason.
Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.