Opinion: Caron Nazario’s Police Stop Reveals A Low Bar

“Well, at least they didn’t kill him.”

This is what it’s come to when we hear or read news stories about interactions between Black folks and police officers in America. It came out of my mouth almost reflexively when I first read about the story of Caron Nazario, a U.S. Army Medical Corps 2nd Lieutenant who endured one of the most psychologically harrowing experiences a Black man in America can: a tense encounter with the police. He survived it. The bar is millimeters off the ground.

Last December, Nazario was driving in full uniform from a drill weekend at Fort Lee Army Base in Petersburg, Va. when Windsor, Va. police turned their lights on to pull him over. A Black and Latino man in America, Nazario was justifiably nervous to pull over on a dark road of a small town below the Mason-Dixon line. He kept driving until he hit a gas station, at which time he pulled over. Nazario set his phone on his dash to record the stop.

Presumably, his failure to pull over immediately incensed officers Daniel Crocker and Joe Gutierrez, who saw fit to draw their guns on Nazario as they approached his vehicle. As Nazario placed both hands out of his window and calmly pleaded with the officers to explain to him why he was being pulled over, Gutierrez, in particular, refused to submit to reason and kept screaming at him to exit the car in a dehumanizing manner unbecoming an employee of tax paying citizens.

Particularly galling is Gutierrez’s response when Nazario admits to being afraid of exiting his vehicle to two officers with guns trained on him: “Yeah, you should be.” Guiterrez then placed hands on Nazario and proceeded to unload what looked to be an entire container of pepper spray directly into Nazario’s face. Gutierrez kneed Nazario after pulling him out of the car and threatened to spray him again. The whole time, Nazario had not lost his calm or given the officers any indication that he’s a danger to them. (Watch the video if you can stomach it.)

Though the incident occurred in December, it went public in early April, presumably because Nazario filed a lawsuit against the officers. Of course, it took the video going viral to get Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam to condemn the incident and for Gutierrez to get fired. It makes one wonder how many other incidents like this are sitting on cameras, waiting to go viral.

Despite the fact that the Windsor police chief wrote in his January report that Nazario “obstructed justice,” no one bothered to charge him. Officers reasoned that the lack of charges were to spare his military career (which is likely now compromised anyway). To stop short of charging a man after accusing him of felony traffic stop and going so far as to cuff him, pepper spray him and draw weapons on him makes it seem that the police chief was more interested in sparing the careers of his officers.

Folks who would criticize Nazario for not pulling over immediately need only to look at the documented instances of Black folks who pulled off to the side of the road and were unjustly laid up in a hospital, tossed a jail cell or simply didn’t live to see the next day. The Nazario video immediately put me in mind of Philando Castile, the 32-year-old Black man who was pulled over in Minnesota in 2016, complied with a police officer on video, and was shot five times anyway. Castile is no longer with us; at least they didn’t kill Nazario.

Lest anyone criticize Nazario for taking too long to pull over, understand that he did it purely out of an act of self-preservation – not to “obstruct justice.” Military officers aren’t usually in the business of provoking the police for the hell of it. Setting his cell phone on the dash to record the incident was also self-preservation – it’s something I’ve done in the couple times I’ve been pulled over since the death of Mike Brown.

Most police officers would’ve found a way not to escalate the situation, but Gutierrez’s response to a calm Black man was to verbalize that he should be scared to get out of his vehicle. Police apologists argue that their job is dangerous and they have to stay on the defensive in order to survive, to which I call bulls**t on a foundational level: If those officers were so frightened by a calm-speaking military man with both his hands hanging out a window, they should check in their badges and guns and seek a “less scary” profession.

Perhaps the moist dismaying aspect of the whole incident is that it happened at the end of 2020, a year in which American police officers are arguably more scrutinized than ever following the murder of George Floyd by one of their own. Gutierrez didn’t take a half-second to consider that not only might Nazario be recording, but that his own body camera is definitely recording. None of it prevented him from escalating the situation. It just demonstrates that all the protests and national outrage only goes so far when it comes to curbing a police officer’s sense of impunity.

Police don’t rock with Black men. And they won’t let a few cameras – or countless protests – change their behavior. But hey, at least they didn’t kill him.

Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.

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