One of two Virginia officers who pointed guns at a Black Army officer during a December traffic stop has been fired, officials announced Sunday night.
U.S. Army second lieutenant Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino Army medic has filed a lawsuit against the officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, and claims the defendants violated his constitutional rights through the use of excessive force and unlawful search and seizure. He is seeking $1 million in damages.
In a statement on Sunday, April 11, Windsor officials said the Virginia State Police Department’s use of force policy was not followed during the encounter. Gutierrez, who also pepper-sprayed the officer, was fired from the department.
Footage of the traffic stop was recently released by Nazario’s attorneys.
Congressman Bobby Scott, who represents Virginia’s third district where the incident took place, released a statement addressing the footage, calling for a federal investigation.
“I was horrified when I viewed the recently released video footage of the police treatment of Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. This should have been a routine traffic stop and the video speaks for itself. The release of this video also comes while the Hampton Roads community is still mourning the loss of Donovan Lynch who was killed by officers while their body worn cameras were not activated. Both of these instances should be investigated by federal authorities.”
According to Nazario’s attorneys, the lieutenant was reluctant to pull over when he first noticed the flashing lights behind him on the night of Dec. 5 because the stretch of road in front of him was dark and there didn’t seem to be anywhere to stop safely.
Nazario drove slowly, and eventually pulled over about a mile down the road at a BP gas station.
In a report, Gutierrez said he and Crocker treated the situation as a “high-risk traffic stop” because Nazario took a long time to stop and had dark window tint. The officer also said he didn’t think the driver had any tags displayed on the vehicle, although Nazario’s attorney said there were temporary tags displayed on the passenger side window of the newly-bought Chevrolet Tahoe.
Footage captured by officers’ body cameras alongside a uniformed Nazario’s own video recording of the encounter shows officers with their guns drawn, instructing him to turn off his vehicle and put his hands outside the window.
“What’s going on?” Nazario asked. “Why are your weapons drawn?”
Officers then instructed Nazario to step out of the vehilce.
“I’m not getting out of the vehicle; what’s going on?” he asked again.
As Nazario continued to ask what was happening, Gutierrez told him, “What’s going on is you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning son.”
The phrase “ride the lightning” is slang used to refer to being executed via electric chair.
Gutierrez then approached the vehicle and pepper sprayed Nazario’s face multiple times while his arms were visible outside the window.
“That’s f—ed,” up,” Nazario said, with his eyes closed. “I’m trying to breathe,” he responded, as the officers instructed him to get out of the car.
Gutierrez opened the driver’s side door, and Nazario turned so that his feet and arms were outside the car, as his eyes remained closed.
“This is really messed up, please,” he said.
“What are you, a specialist, corporal, what are you?” Gutierrez asked.
“I’m a lieutenant,” Nazario responded.
Gutierrez told Nazario he’d “get sprayed again,” as he and Crocker forced the lieutenant to the ground.
When Gutierrez questioned Nazario, now in handcuffs, about why he didn’t pull over right away, he explained that he pulled over in a well-lit area “for my safety and yours.”
As medics wiped pepper spray from Nazario’s face, Gutierrez told him he understands that Nazario was “nervous” about stopping and added that officers are “nervous about their jobs too” because of the “BLM movement.”
In a statement about the incident, Windsor officials said, “We are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light. Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future.”
Nazario’s lawsuit alleges that the officers’ conduct was “consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous, and sometimes deadly abuses of authority.”
Gov. Ralph Northam and the town of Windsor have called for an independent investigation to be conducted into the incident.
He wrote on Twitter, “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.”