It's difficult to believe that viewing the epic cinematic debacle Troy could be the high point of an evening, but such was the case for two Utah couples on the evening of May 23, 2004.
Harold Curtis and his wife Leslie settled into their seats at a Provo movie theater after paying the extortionate admission price and absorbing a second hit at the concession counter. When the lights went down, they were unsettled to hear a persistent stream of chatter, much of it in Spanish, coming from the row behind them.
This is, of course, the creature that haunts every movie-goer's imagination: The Thing That Won't Shut Up. Most movie patrons have had at least one outing ruined by the incessant, deafening wind blowing out of some nit-wit's gaping skull-cave. As the previews continued, Harold politely but insistently asked the couple sitting behind them – Vanessa Arnold and her boyfriend, Lorenzo Castillo – to quiet down.
Arnold later said that she was translating the previews into Spanish for Castillo, and that the two of them were quiet during the feature presentation. This much was confirmed by an eyewitness. Arnold also claims that Curtis glared at them several times, used a racial slur, and called her a “bitch.”
Following the movie, Curtis reportedly stood up and glared at the couple, and then followed them into the lobby, demanding that they reimburse him and his wife the price of a ticket.
This was a reasonable request made to the wrong party and at the wrong time. If Arnold and Castillo's conduct had robbed Curtis and his wife of their movie experience, Curtis should have complained to the theater management while the film was in progress. The management most likely would have refunded the ticket price or offered the couple a pass to another showing. And they would probably have evicted Arnold and Castillo from the theater, calling the police to do so if necessary.
(And, come to think of it, this was a perfect opportunity to score tickets to a better film -- and just about anything would have been an improvement over Troy.)
Ah, but therein lies the rub: Harold Curtis is a Utah County Deputy Sheriff, and to him this unfortunate episode represented a chance to assert his authoritah.
After Castillo refused to cough up the price of two movie tickets, Curtis flashed his badge and placed him under arrest. Curtis later claimed that this was necessary because Castillo had approached him with clenched fists. According to Arnold's account of the incident, it was Curtis who provoked the confrontation by approaching Castillo and sneering, “Do you want to play?” Betty Jo Searle, a witness who was 15 at the time of the incident, has also testified that Curtis acted as the aggressor.
Curtis insists that he arrested Castillo in order to “defuse” the situation – as if simply stepping off and taking his complaint to the theater management wasn't an option. After Searle and her date asked Curtis what was going on, he showed them his badge and “said we needed to walk away,” the young lady recalled.
Actually, this was a case in which butting in was eminently justifiable and desperately needed.
As Curtis moved to place Castillo under arrest, Arnold lost her composure, reportedly yelling “Don't do this! No, no no – stop it” and throwing herself on him. Arnold is 5'3 and 110 pounds. Curtis is approximately the size of one of the lesser Kuiper Belt Objects, although nowhere near as cool. (Like most members of the not-so-Thin Blue Line, Curtis is obviously not a slave to his conditioning program.) Yet both Curtis and his wife later professed to have been greatly alarmed by this “assault.”
Arnold, predictably, got the worst of it: She was shrugged off and ended up at the bottom of some stairs. She says Curtis threw her there; Searle says Curtis “just dropped her” down the stairs. Leslie Curtis later testified in court that Arnold jumped on her husband's back, wrapping her legs around his waist and putting her hands around his throat.
On cross-examination, it was pointed out that Mrs. Curtis's testimony different significantly from her account in the original police report, which stated only that Arnold had grabbed her husband at the waist. Apparently she had exercised a congressional privilege by “revising and extending” her testimony to make the supposed assault on her husband more dramatic, albeit thoroughly implausible. (For one thing, Curtis has no visible neck, which would make it difficult for a woman Arnold's size to strangle him.)
Leslie Curtis's version of events was largely supported by the testimony of Cheri Wolley, who told the court she had seen “a man and two Hispanics” arguing in the lobby, and that she had seen the Hispanic male “take a swing at the white man.” She didn't volunteer that she had served on the police force for several years, a fact she acknowledged only when it was pried out of her by Arnold's attorney. That fact, of course, doesn't impeach her testimony. The fact that she walked out of court holding hands with Mrs. Curtis, however, does – or at least it appeared to in the eyes of the jurors who noticed that detail.
It's curious as well that Curtis didn't remember Castillo taking a swing at him. The fact that Curtis released Castillo shortly after the arrest, rather than booking him on assault charges, also tends to undermine Wolley's version of events. Castillo later sued Curtis for false arrest, and settled out of court.
Arnold also sued Curtis for using excessive force and sundry violations of her constitutionally protected rights. She claimed significant and lasting injury as a result of her tumble down the stairs. That claim dissolved when the federal jury hearing the case was shown video, taken by a private investigator, of Arnold functioning quite normally despite supposedly debilitating injuries to her head and back.
Stymied by contending narratives that contradicted each other on several key points, the jury took about an hour to determine that the alleged injuries inflicted on Arnold by Curtis didn't “shock the conscience,” and found in favor of the deputy. This appears to be an appropriate end to an entirely contrived lawsuit. But that doesn't mean Curtis is entirely blameless.
Peter Stirba, Curtis's attorney, notes that “Your reputation and the way you serve is a big part of being a police officer.” Curtis went into the case with a troubled reputation, having been sued – unsuccessfully – for alleged abuses committed as a guard at the county jail. However boorish and inexcusable the behavior of Arnold and Castillo, Curtis is, by his own admission, the one who precipitated the altercation, doing so needlessly under the color of his supposed authority.
A ruling issued last August 1 by the US Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals notes that, according to Curtis's narrative, he told Castillo “he could not leave until the matter [of buying replacement tickets] was settled”; it was then, according to Curtis, that Castillo “clenched his fists, and Mr. Curtis understood him to threaten a fight.”
Well ... no, the last assumption doesn't necessarily follow from the first. Clenching one's fist is a reflexive expression of anger; cocking a fist constitutes a threat. More to the point: Curtis was trying to detain Castillo before identifying himself as a police officer.
Castillo's theater etiquette is badly in need of repair, but how was he supposed to react when a corpulent, officious guy who called his date a “bitch” and used a racial slur (a charge, notes the Tenth Circuit Court's ruling, Curtis effectively conceded) threatens to keep him in the theater to “settle” the dispute?
Clearly, on the basis of Curtis's own account, it was he who instigated whatever scuffle took place, as the eyewitness Betty Jo Searle confirmed. And it was after he had done so that Curtis whipped out the chintzy piece of costume jewelry that he apparently thinks elevates him above the rest of us.
That same poisonous assumption was the basis of the federal jury's ruling in Curtis's favor. As Austen Johnson, Arnold's attorney, points out, Curtis “enjoyed a higher legal burden of proof” because he was trying to arrest Castillo. A mere civilian wouldn't be entitled to such deference. And apparently this is the case despite the fact that Curtis was acting as a civilian when he provoked Castillo.
Of course, even if Curtis had identified himself as a police officer before threatening to detain Castillo in the lobby, the proper response would have been to say, “So what?” An officer who is a party to a dispute of this kind cannot in propriety be the officer who intervenes to settle that dispute.
This isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened in Utah. Back in August 2006, a Kosovar refugee in Salt Lake City was threatened with arrest after a pick-up basketball game at a Gold's Gym got a little rough. One of the players was an off-duty police officer who wanted to arrest the refugee, on the belief that his aggressive low-post game constituted “assault.”
Armed with a shotgun and supported by some of his buddies, the policeman chased the refugee to his car, prevented him from leaving the parking lot, and treated him to several choruses of profane verbal abuse as he dialed 9-11 and waited for other officers to arrive:
““You want to start something [Oedipal epithet deleted]? What you pulled in there is called an assault... You want to start sh*t right now?... Get out here [Oedipal epithet again deleted]. You're f*****g with the wrong people.... You know what I am?... I will put you under arrest! Get out of the car right now. If you don't get out of the car I will place you under arrest for resisting arrest. Get out of the car right now!”
The officer, Marcus Barrett, later pleaded no contest to a disorderly conduct charge, paid a $200 fine, and left the police force. Given that the entire incident began when he attacked the refugee with his fists, Barrett should have been prosecuted for assault and for false imprisonment. But the most serious charges were dropped, most likely because – once again – as an off-duty police officer Barrett was the beneficiary of “a higher legal burden of proof.”
Here's the real outrage:
Despite being described by one member of Utah's Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board as “an officer completely out of control” who should not be on the streets, Barrett was not permanently cashiered; instead, he and the Utah POST board agreed on a three-year-suspension last June. That means he should be eligible for reinstatement as early as 2010.
Here's where the outrage deepens:
Utah state senator Chris Buttars (who is – need I even specify as much? -- a Republican) has proposed a measure, SB260, that would “classify a record of formal charges or disciplinary actions against a peace officer as a private record, unless the peace officer consents, in writing, to make the record public.”
If that measure is enacted it would mean that next time an off-duty cop in Utah provokes a melee in a theater lobby, or beats up another player in a pick-up b-ball game and chases the guy into the parking lot with a shotgun, the victims wouldn't be able to learn if the incident was part of a larger pattern of abusive behavior.
Oh, should I even bother to mention that Utah County Sheriff James Tracy said that an internal investigation of Curtis's conduct found that his actions “did not violate office policy”?
It's Footloose gone fascist: Bucket-heads from Utah County SWAT teams attack party-goers at an August 2005 dance party.
That's the same Utah County Sheriff Tracey, of course, who dispatched SWAT teams to break up a peaceful dance party a couple of years ago. And this is the same Utah County, of course, where elderly women can be thrown to the ground and arrested for not watering their lawns.
The next time I hear a sheriff or police chief admit that the bullying, corrupt, needlessly provocative, or abusive behavior of an officer does violate department policy ... will be the first.
"Just what the hell is the matter with the police in this country?"
I'm asked that question constantly, and can't adequately answer it despite the fact that I've studied this issue for literally decades -- including for a stretch waaaaaaaay back in my teen years when I seriously considered a career in law enforcement. I can diagnose the issue in political, demographic, and ideological terms; I describe the insidious influence of federal subsidies, regulations, and blackmail (in the form of litigation, consent decrees, and the like); I can sermonize about the unhappy results when unchecked power is combined with the results of Original Sin....
And even then, I still find myself unable even to begin to explain spectacles like this, or to witness them on video without wanting, at the very least, to track down this power-intoxicated punk-a$$ bully and beat the snot out of him:
Officer Rivieri presents an impressive recital of pseudo-tough-guy mannerisms -- from the affected "Command Voice," to the comically theatrical flaring of non-existent lats, to the swagger-waddle (call it a "swaddle") of supposed authority, to the criminal assault on a skinny, terrified kid. I'm forced to agree with him in one respect, though: He's not a man, nor any part thereof.
Nor should we neglect episodes like this one, in which a group of deputy sheriffs dump a quadriplegic on the floor like so much soiled laundry. This incident, by the way, resulted in one of the very few instances in which a police official -- in this case the Chief Deputy, not the Sheriff himself -- initially refused to defend the actions of the officers:
The emerging homeland security state is the subject of my new book, Liberty in Eclipse, which is on sale now.
Dum spiro, pugno!