The revelation that Army Lt. Caron Nazario was pepper sprayed last December by Windsor, Virginia police got me thinking of a scary encounter my family had with a small town cop many years ago.
Windsor is as small as it gets with a population of 1,902. Its police force had only five cops at the time of the traffic stop. The number is down one because Officer Pepper Spray was fired. The only reason that happened is that Lt. Nazario sued over what may well be business as usual for that police force.
When I was a kid, my father thought nothing of hopping into the family car to spend weekends with relatives in Salinas or Los Angeles. He grew up in the mountain West where distances are great, and people drive really fast. In fact, my Aunt Mary had a radar detector in her car when she was in her 80’s. That side of the family were fast drivers. Perhaps that explains my affinity for actor/race car drivers such as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and James Garner.
There was a notorious speed trap on Highway 101 in those days, Gilroy. It’s now part of the San Jose/Silicon Valley urban sprawl but back in the day, it was a very small town in the middle of nowhere or so it seemed to me as a kid.
We were pulled over by the Gilroy police at least five times over the years. Every time we approached that benighted little town, my mom would warn Lou to slow down. He waved her off every time convinced he could talk his way out of anything.
We were lucky. We only received two tickets. Lou’s charm offensive usually worked. On one occasion, it did not. Lou was nearly arrested and cuffed on the spot. We were stopped by a cop who was impervious to his charm and didn’t care that he was related to Los Angeles County Sheriff, Pete Pitchess. This was Gilroy whose only claim to fame was its garlic festival and status as a speed trap.
The officer was infuriated by Lou’s name dropping and ordered him to get out of the car. He complied but didn’t stop talking. Bad idea as all it did was make the cop angrier. He started to pull out his handcuffs, which was when my mother intervened.
She apologized to the officer and offered to accompany him to the station where we would gladly pay the fine on the spot. She added, “We’re just trying to get home so our son can go to school tomorrow.”
It worked. The wannabe brutal cop turned out to be corrupt and asked for a $100 bill to let us go. He insisted that mom drive saying, “You’re a nice lady, but your husband has a big mouth. He should learn to keep it shut.”
We hit the road home. Lou tried to get mom to pull over so he could drive. It was one of the few times I recall her yelling at him: “Shut up, Lou, just shut up.”
She was magnificent.
This is not a story either of my parents ever told as far as I know, a rare thing in my father’s case. I wasn’t sworn to silence but never wanted to embarrass them over something that could have easily gone terribly wrong.
Imagine if we’d been a black family. The story wouldn’t have concluded with a bribe and our departure. I hesitate to think how it would have ended but that was one angry small town cop who was ready to kick my father’s ass or worse. A nice black lady’s intervention wouldn’t have been treated so indulgently.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s never any reason for the police to draw their weapons during a traffic stop. In Lt. Nazario’s case, it was allegedly over a temporary license tag. He wisely delayed pulling over until he was in a well-lit area. It could have been much, much worse.
Driving While Black should not be dangerous. If this can happen to a soldier in uniform, it can happen to anyone. I’m glad that Lt. Nazario had the presence of mind to record the incident on his phone camera. The small town cops expected him to be grateful that they didn’t arrest him. So much for supporting our troops.
I told my story about a traffic stop that nearly went sideways, not to equate Driving While Greek with Driving While Black. It’s an example of how police training does not work. A citizen should be able to speak freely with the police, not fear for their safety when pulled over. Not every encounter with the public is life threatening but police are trained to fear those they supposedly protect and serve, especially if they’re people of color. It has to stop.
Repeat after me: Retrain The Police.