As more of the country’s 18,000 law-enforcement agencies begin using body-worn cameras, it is becoming easier to see how very differently Americans from different communities and walks of life encounter law enforcement. This week, it’s a bodycam video taken in Windsor, Virginia on December 5, 2020, that has the nation reeling. The footage shows Caron Nazario, a U.S. Army second lieutenant of Latino and African-American descent, being pulled over at night while driving his Chevrolet Tahoe to Petersburg, Virginia, after a drill weekend. Nazario was in full Army fatigues; his brand-new SUV still had its paper license tags. Upon seeing the police cruiser, Nazario drove approximately a mile to a lighted gas station and stopped, placing his cellphone on the dashboard with the video feature on.
Most Americans have a sense of what to expect after getting pulled over like this—an interaction that, while not pleasant, is orderly and polite: a shadowy figure would emerge from the driver’s side, knock on the window, ask for a driver’s license and registration, and indicate why the officer pulled us over. But nobody politely asked anything of Nazario. Instead, two Windsor police officers immediately drew their weapons, aimed them at Nazario’s head, and yelled at him in rapid succession to “get out of the car now!” Nazario hesitated, pleading for information as to why he had been stopped. The officers’ demands to “get out of the car now” escalated in tone, and culminated with multiple squirts of a blinding substance (pepper spray) to Nazario’s face. The episode ended with Nazario prone on the pavement, dissolving into sobs.
It’s hard not to view the Nazario videos (there are three—two from police cameras and one from his cell phone) in light of the events that led to George Floyd’s death at the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, whose murder trial is now in its third week.
First, both men were confronted by police over very minor infractions.
Floyd’s death began with an alleged use of a forged twenty-dollar bill. According to the police report, Nazario was pulled over for lacking official license plates and because he “willfully and wantonly disregarded” the cruiser’s signals (he apparently thought it would be safer for all involved to stop in a lighted area).
Second, both men tried to de-escalate the situation and persuade the officers to act within reason.
Floyd repeatedly told officers, “I can’t breathe”; “Please, please, please”; “You’re gonna kill me, man”; “Can’t believe this, man. Mom, love you. Love you. Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead”; and even thanked the officers at one point. Numerous bystanders urged restraint. For his part, Nazario repeatedly asked the officers, “What’s going on?”; “Get your hands off me”; “I didn’t do anything”; “Don’t do that”; “I’m trying to talk to you”; “Can you please relax”; “I’m actively serving this country and this is how you’re gonna treat me”; “Hold on, what’s going on”; and “That’s fucked up.”
Third, neither Floyd nor Nazario were armed, neither said anything threatening or spoke in aggressive tones, and both either had their hands up or were handcuffed and/or prone on the ground throughout most of the time they were being questioned and physically handled by police.
To be sure, there are a number of legal issues and questions of public policy looming here. Nazario has already filed a civil suit in federal court in Virginia against the individual officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, seeking money damages under the Fourth Amendment as well as an array of torts. Gutierrez has since been fired. Meanwhile, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement spurred by Floyd’s death, protests erupted in Minnesota this week over the shooting of a 20-year old black male by a female police officer during a traffic stop, reigniting calls for racial justice and prompting violent clashes with police officers in Minneapolis—just fourteen miles from where the Chauvin trial is being held.
You don’t have to be a lawyer or an expert in racial justice to see what else is going on here: The officers in the Nazario case, as in the Floyd case, were irrational and out of control. If you put yourself in the shoes of either Floyd or Nazario, it’s impossible to imagine what more could have been done to evade their wrath.
In both cases, the officers gave conflicting directives that were impossible to satisfy. For Floyd, the bodycams show one officer telling him to stop moving while another told him to stand up. Nazario is told to “Take your seatbelt off and get outta the car. Get outta the car now. You’re gonna do as you’re told.” But when Nazario says, “My hands are out. Please. Please,” and “I’m honestly afraid to get out . . . I have not committed any crime,” Gutierrez responds, “You should be [afraid].”
Then, when Crocker approaches the car (presumably to assist Nazario with his seatbelt), Gutierrez says, “Don’t put your hands in there.” Apparently blinded, Nazario finally manages to unbuckle himself and asks again, “Can you please talk to me about what’s going on.” Gutierrez responds, “Get on the ground or get sprayed again.” When Nazario asks again, “Why am I being treated like this,” Gutierrez responds, “Because you’re not cooperating.”
In addition to conflicting commands, the bodycams from both incidents reveal a chilling callousness and even rage on the part of law enforcement. Floyd pleads dozens of times, “I can’t breathe.” At one point, one of the officers says, “I think he is passing out.” At another point, an officer suggests that Floyd should he be turned onto his side, and that “He does not have one” (i.e., a pulse). When a bystander with expertise in martial arts asks that Chauvin stop the “blood choke,” he is pushed away. An off-duty firefighter who pleads to be allowed to give Floyd first aid is rudely rebuffed.
Perhaps the most chilling portion of the Nazario video occurs when, in response to the question, “What’s going on?” Gutierrez states: “What’s going on, you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son”—an apparent reference to the electric chair. Later, he says to Nazario, “You made this way more difficult than it had to be if you just complied.”
As we’ve seen throughout the Chauvin trial testimony, an increasingly recognized element of best police practices is “de-escalation,” which has been defined as “a reduction of the level or intensity” of a citizen encounter. De-escalation tactics include communicating slowly and clearly, backing off from taking immediate action if a situation is tense, exercising compassion, and even coming back later to enforce the law if needed. By contrast, the Floyd and Nazario bodycams show officers angry, yelling, demanding obedience, assaulting without provocation, and threatening adverse action if anyone—even bystanders—show any level of defiance. This is not normal, healthy, or safe human behavior. As the bodycam videos show, these officers were in no state of mind to use reasonable force, let alone be trusted with firearms.
Providing conflicting commands while feigning outrage is an effective way to justify abuse of police force. Combatting it requires mere common sense. No more rank irrationality or unmitigated rage, please.