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A Black Military lieutenant is suing Virginia police after being held at gunpoint

A violent, threatening obstruction to traffic by a Black and Latinx Army officer, 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, has drawn renewed attention to the extent of police misconduct as the world watches the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-cop who killed George Floyd.

The incident, which occurred in Windsor, Virginia in December 2020, was re-investigated following the release of body camera footage after Nazario filed a lawsuit in early April against the officials who paused the halt. On Saturday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced an investigation into what he called “disturbing” the incident.

Nazario said he was driving through East Virginia when he saw police lights blinking behind him. Instead of stopping immediately, he switched on the hazard lights and walked slowly to a well-lit gas station. His decision – as well as the tinted windows and the temporary license plate of his new SUV – apparently led the officials to the decision to carry out a “traffic stop with high risk”.

Faced with this perceived risk, policeman Daniel Crocker got out of his police vehicle and immediately pointed his gun at Nazario’s car. He called to the lieutenant to “get out of the car now”.

“What’s happening?” Asked Nazario. “To be honest, I’m scared of coming out.”

“Yes, it should be you, get out now!” Another officer, Joe Gutierrez, can be heard immediately afterwards.

Despite Nazario’s questions, officials didn’t tell Nazario why he was run over: it was because they couldn’t see a license plate on his vehicle. The car was new; A temporary cardboard license plate had been taped to Nazario’s rear window.

Instead, they tried to force open Nazario’s door, despite Nazario claiming he was not required to leave his vehicle because of a traffic violation. Gutierrez then sprayed Nazario four times with pepper and yelled at him to get out of the car when Nazario asked for help to loosen his seat belt. As soon as he could unbuckle his seat belt, the lieutenant was forcibly pushed to the ground.

“Can you talk to me about what’s going on, please?” Asked Nazario. “Why am I being treated like that, why?”

Because you don’t cooperate! Get on the ground! Lie down or you will be tased, ”one of the officers can be heard saying; At one point Gutierrez can be heard saying, “You are determined to ride the lightning, my son.”

Ultimately, Nazario was not arrested; When paramedics were on site to treat Nazario for the pepper spray, Gutierrez said he spoke to the police chief and the department planned to release the lieutenant without charge.

“There is no need to put this on your file,” Gutierrez says in the Bodycam footage. “I don’t want that on your file. However, it is entirely up to you. If you want to fight it and argue … if that’s what you want, we will incriminate you, ”Gutierrez said.

The offer, Nazario’s lawsuit alleges, was an attempt at something in return. The lieutenant claims he was told that if he didn’t “chill and let go,” officers would ensure that his military records would be damaged. Nazario responded by telling officers that he would let his superiors know what happened.

Gutierrez said in the footage that it would be understandable given the “climate we are in and the media dealing with racial relations against minorities,” but that any legal act by Nazario “does not affect my life in one way or the other changed another way. ”

Ultimately, the incident changed his life; He was released after an investigation by the Windsor Police Department into the incident. His release, however, raised the question of whether there are some “bad apples” in policing, or whether the behavior he and Crocker exhibited in December is part of a larger problem in policing.

Police misconduct is a systemic problem

Gutierrez was fired because his department discovered that Windsor Police Department guidelines were not being followed during the traffic obstruction.

“The city of Windsor prides itself on its small-town charm and the community-wide respect of its law enforcement agency,” the department said in a press release on Sunday. “For this reason, we are sad that such events cast our community in a negative light. Instead of distracting criticism, we discussed these issues with our employees administratively. We reach out to community stakeholders to enter into dialogue and commit to further discussions in the future. ”

The statement was very similar to a statement made by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo about the behavior of his former officer Derek Chauvin on the day George Floyd died. Arradondo and other police officers who testified against Chauvin during the murder and manslaughter trial were particularly passionate about distancing his law enforcement agency from Chauvin’s actions.

“It’s in no way, shape or form something that depends on politics,” he said at the booth. “It’s not part of our training. It is certainly not part of our ethics or our values. “

As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas writes, such statements are part of the police’s efforts to avoid scrutiny of their practices:

While officials’ testimony can be interpreted as a changing tide in an opaque culture, it is more likely that the high profile of the process forces them to view chauvin as the bad apple – the one official who does not represent the broader department and a police system that they must throw away – to avoid further investigation of the police.

But when excessive police violence is observed everywhere, not just in Minneapolis or St. Louis, Louisville or Rochester – but also Windsor, Virginia, a city about 50 miles west of Virginia Beach that is home to nearly 3,000 people just add to the narrative that racist police violence is systemic. The steps taken by the Windsor Police Department are similar to what Minneapolis officials say. An immediate distancing from Gutierrez, an admonition. Things like that don’t happen here.

The breadth of high-profile incidents of bad policing makes it clear that something is wrong in the U.S., and research has shown that there is also a national problem with traffic stops. The Stanford Open Policing Project, after analyzing nearly 100 million traffic stops in the United States, found that black drivers were 20 percent more likely to be stopped by the police for traffic violations. And when this happens, black drivers are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched than white drivers, even though white drivers are statistically more likely to have drugs, weapons, or other contraband in their cars, according to the decade-long study. conducted by researchers at Stanford and New York University.

And there are a number of bad results for black drivers at traffic stops that illustrate exactly why Nazario told officials he was “genuinely afraid of getting out,” from the arrest of Sandra Bland to the death of Philando Castile to one recent example.

On Sunday, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man, was killed in a traffic obstruction near Minneapolis by a police officer who mistook her taser for a gun after getting back into his vehicle after a brief fight.

Nazario was not killed, but incidents like this show why he may have had reason to fear he might be.

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