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Arrogance and entitlement of American policing

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts

"Humbled"? That's not what comes to mind when you watch the viral video of two tiny-town Virginia police officers harass, humiliate, power-play and pepper spray Army officer Caron Nazario after they pulled him over on a dark stretch of road for no obvious reason.

Yet it's the word that Police Chief Rodney Riddle uses every year to describe those officers and the rest of his small-town department to the Windsor Town Council.

"[Windsor Police Department] Officers remain humbled and honoured by the opportunity to continue to serve the citizens of Windsor," is how Riddle concludes each of the reports he submits to justify why a quiet, Tidewater town of 2,600 should spend a whopping 33 per cent of its budget on policing.

It's the missing word at the root of America's police brutality problem.

Racism is a certainty in many instances of police abuse of power. That's the point that the Black Lives Matter movement has been making.

But the comorbidity in this ongoing and disturbing American pattern is a culture of arrogance, entitlement and impunity that taints too many police departments and eclipses the good and brave officers who do put their lives on the line every day. Regardless of race.

This week, the Windsor Police Department became America's Exhibit A.

The department runs toy drives and officer-friendly school programmes. Officers do cultural diversity training and help Cub Scouts earn merit badges for finger printing. They present themselves as the good guys.

But in a petrol station, alone with a biracial, Black and Latino man in a new car, these same officers enrobed themselves in an authoritarian superiority that made them demand total obedience, submission and blind compliance from an innocent man — a military officer in uniform — as if they were wartime checkpoint guards.

"You received an order! Obey it!" an increasingly hysterical Officer Joe Gutierrez barked when Nazario asked him what was going on that night.

"What's going on is you're fixing to ride the lightning, son," Gutierrez yelled at him, a foreboding reference to capital punishment and the electric chair.

The only things the police officers were guarding? Their own egos.

The nation became familiar with the town of Windsor and their allegedly humbled officers after Nazario filed a $1 million lawsuit on April 2 over the shameful way officers Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker treated the 27-year-old lieutenant the night of December. 5.

Videos — both from police body cameras and Nazario's personal mobile phone — show a respectful, calm driver in his military fatigues, raising his hands so the officers can see them as he repeatedly asks a question that every American has the right to ask: "What's going on?"

The officers had their guns pointed at Nazario. And they escalated, threatened and bullied rather than simply answering his question.

The incident began when Crocker spotted Nazario's new Chevy Tahoe, but didn't see a licence plate. He switched on his emergency lights to pull the vehicle over.

Nazario slowed down and flipped his blinker on, indicating he would pull over. He drove less than a mile until he found a petrol station — a safe place to get out of traffic and into some light.

By then, Crocker had escalated the traffic stop to a police chase by telling his fellow officers that he was on the tail of someone trying to elude him. Gutierrez — the hothead in the video, who has since been terminated — joined in.

When the slow-motion "chase" reached the petrol station, both police officers were agitated and excited, yelling at Nazario, refusing to answer his questions.

Nazario told police he was "honestly afraid to get out" of the car after he slowed down, signalled and pulled over.

"Yeah, you should be!" one of the officers responded.

This should chill every American.

All the more so because it happened in a quiet town in a nation where violent crime is radically, sharply down, falling 71 per cent in the years between 1993 and 2018, according to the Pew Research Centre. Yet even as the country becomes safer, bored officers looking for action in small towns are getting more funding, equipment, latitude and entitlement.

That's what the Defund Police movement is about. Not taking away all the money and letting anarchy reign. Rather, critics of American policing suggest prohibiting the purchase of surplus military equipment, and moving some funding to social programmes that can take the burden off police departments.

So instead of small towns buying military assault vehicles to confront the local hermit when he freaks out, social workers will be able to offer the hermit mental-health counselling and solutions before he holes up with 100 guns and calls in a bomb threat.

The Windsor Police Department seems small, averaging seven full-time officers including the police chief and some part-time help. It's about the right size when you look at the FBI's average numbers for police departments in towns with fewer than 10,000 residents — 3.4 officers for every 1,000 citizens (Windsor has about 2,600 people.)

But the Windsor police budget is enormous compared with other Virginia cities.

The department routinely gets 33 per cent to 34 per cent of the town's money, according to city budget documents. Departments in other Virginia's cities rarely make it to 20 per cent. Alexandria's department is 13 per cent of the budget, Hampton's cops get only 5 per cent of city funds, Newport News police take up 10 per cent, and the police in the capital city of Richmond operate with 18 per cent of the budget, according to the Action Centre on Race and The Economy's city budget calculation tool.

Even in the similarly small town of Wise, the police budget is just 10 per cent of municipal expenses. Same with Hillsville, about 10 per cent. Nearly identical populations and similar demographics, but differently funded cops.

So, is it because Windsor is a hotbed of crime?

Hardly. Even the police chief described it as a "quiet" town in one of his reports. A drug bust they bragged about in their annual report looked more like a raid on a high school senior trip — involving about a pound of weed and "over half an ounce" of cocaine.

Nope. This is about entitlement and arrogance, perfectly embodied by Windsor's disgraced former police chief, Arlis "Vic" Reynolds.

"I became complacent and arrogant in my duties," Reynolds said in court in 2015, when pleading guilty to petit larceny. "I made bad choices."

Reynolds was fired in 2013 after he was charged with embezzlement. Virginia prosecutors said he racked up hours in false overtime and traded one of the police department's $400 optic sights for an AR15 rifle in exchange for rent one month.

After the guilty plea, he was defiant outside the courtroom, insisting it was all a misunderstanding, according to the Capital Gazette.

That's entitlement, that's arrogance. That's what you call a cultural problem woven into an institution.

It leads to the kind of exchange that unfolded in the bright lights of a petrol station in Windsor last year. And it's what needs to be eradicated.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before joining to the Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts

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Published April 14, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 13, 2021 at 5:15 pm)

Arrogance and entitlement of American policing

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