Windsor officials say they already took action, but welcome the investigation.
WINDSOR- In December, two Windsor police officers pulled guns on U.S. Army 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario during a traffic stop. They pepper sprayed, kicked and pulled him out of his vehicle, before saying he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning.”
Now, four months after that Dec. 5 traffic stop, one officer has been fired and both face a lawsuit, as well as a criminal investigation.
The original video came to light over the weekend, thanks to the work of the Virginian Pilot’s Jane Harper. She detailed Nazario’s lawsuit and the situation leading up to it. Soon after, the body cam video from the officers went viral, causing Democrats and Republicans alike across Virginia to call for an investigation. On Sunday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam agreed, saying it was time to bring in the Virginia State Police.
“The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me,” Northam wrote in a statement. “I am directing the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation. Our Commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable.”
Virginia State Police officials confirmed later Sunday night that they’re starting the process. VSP Superintendent Col. Gary Settle spoke with both Gov. Northam and Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle, officials said. They gave no timeline as to when that investigation might wrap up.
What Happened on Dec. 5?
Windsor is a town of 2,626 people, located 29 miles west of Norfolk. On Dec. 5 around 6:34 p.m., Nazario passed through while returning home from Fort Lee, dressed in uniform and driving his recently purchased 2020 Chevy Tahoe. Nazario’s lawsuit states that the vehicle was so new the DMV hadn’t given him permanent plates yet.
Instead, Nazario had his “temporary plates taped to the inside of the rear window of the vehicle at the top and on the passenger side, visible from behind,” the lawsuit says.
As Nazario drove through town, Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker got behind him. Minutes later, the officer turned on his emergency lights for a traffic stop. He stated later in his report that it was due to the fact Nazario didn’t have a license plate on the vehicle. Unable to find a clearly lighted place to stop, the lawsuit says Nazario drove for 1 minute and 40 seconds before pulling into a BP gas station. Crocker put out a call saying this was a “felony traffic stop,” based on audio taken from his body cam. He added it was also a “high risk traffic stop.” There’s nothing in the video indicating why, as Crocker acknowledges that Nazario was slowing down and then turning into the BP about a minute later.
Crocker’s fellow Windsor officer, Joe Gutierrez, also responded to the call. When Nazario pulled into the BP and turned off his vehicle, the officers got out of their vehicles with guns drawn. They ordered Nazario to put his hands up and out of the window, which he did. But they also told him to get out of the vehicle, which would mean reaching inside, unlocking his seat belt and opening the door.
‘I’m Scared To Get Out’
In other situations, officials have misinterpreted reaching for the door as going for a gun. Because of this, Nazario said he was scared to get out, to which Gutierrez replied, “yeah, you should be”. Gutierrez then told the man he was “being arrested – no, being detained for obstruction of justice” since Nazario “was not cooperating.”
Gutierrez then tried to open the locked driver’s side door. When that failed, he tried to drag Nazario out with an armbar, again despite the locked door. Then he pulled out pepper spray and sprayed Nazario with it multiple times. The body cam video shows all of this.
Nazario makes it clear he’s concerned about what will happen if his hands go out of plain sight to unbuckle the seat belt. Instead, he asks officers for help taking it off.
“I don’t even want to reach for my seatbelt, can you please? My hands are out, can you please, look, this is really messed up,” the body cam video shows Nazario saying.
They refused. Eventually he unbuckled the seat belt and Gutierrez removed him from the SUV, using knee strikes to put Nazario on the ground. After they handcuffed Nazario and placed him on a trash can, the officers called EMTs to the scene. They asked if he had any firearms in the vehicle and Nazario said yes. Crocker then went through the SUV to find the gun. Then he called dispatch with the serial number, to see if it was stolen. When it came back clean, Crocker placed it back in the vehicle.
The lawsuit also claims Gutierrez and Crocker eventually told Nazario they would let him go. However, if he reported what happened that night, they would file multiple charges against him.
Windsor Takes Action
Windsor officials issued their own statement Sunday night, detailing what happened afterward. Anytime officers use pepper spray, the department’s policy requires an internal investigation, to make sure it was necessary.
“At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed,” Windsor officials said in the unsigned statement. “This resulted in disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January and continue up to the present.”
Town officials added they fired Gutierrez “since that time” when the investigation happened in December. They didn’t, however, give a date for when that happened.
The officials added that they’ve been transparent about the event since it happened, adding that they’ve “openly provided documents and related video to attorneys for Lt. Nazario.” They said the Virginia State Police investigation is welcome, calling for a “full and complete review of the actions of these officers.”
Nazario’s lawsuit names Gutierrez and Crocker as defendants, seeking $1 million in damages. It also asks for the court to acknowledge that the officers violated his rights.