U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario had gone through a number of pressure-packed moments in his life. Yet his most frightening moment came Dec. 5 when he found himself staring at the muzzles of two cops’ guns after they attempted to pull him over on a dark road in the small town of Windsor, Virginia.
Nazario was in full uniform traveling home from military training when police officers Joe Gutierrez and David Crocker drew their guns on him, pepper-sprayed him, snatched him out of his SUV, forced him to the ground, kicked and threatened to kill him, according to a federal lawsuit Nazario filed against the two officers earlier this month.
Nazario, 27, says he thought he was going to die.
Gutierrez was fired earlier this month, a casualty that came after bodycam video of his brush with Nazario went viral early this month.
But there were no indications that Crocker lost his job. Nazario’s attorney, Jonathan Arthur, questions why the rookie officer got to retain his badge when he didn’t do enough to intervene and stop his partner’s alleged abuse. During a recent interview with Atlanta Black Star, the Richmond attorney said both officers made false claims and omitted key facts from the incident in their official police narratives.
“I find it particularly problematic that that Crocker is still around. If you want to train the police force on what not to do, terminate this man as well,” Arthur said. “And as far as Joe Gutierrez goes, yeah, he was fired from Windsor. But the problem is — from what I know — he’s still got his law enforcement certification. So he can just go from Isle of Wight down to Windsor, and now he can hop over to Waverly. Just get hired at the Waverly Police Department keep on doing the same thing to young men and women of color right down the road on (Highway) 460.”
Rodney D. Riddle, police chief of the Windsor Police Department, said both Gutierrez and Crocker were disciplined in January following an internal investigation into the Dec. 5 traffic stop. Yet both held onto their respective jobs.
It wasn’t until after the avalanche of public criticism from the bodycam footage that Gutierrez, a former deputy for the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office, was fired from the police department. Windsor city officials announced his termination April 11 but did not clarify exactly when he was let go.
“The media, I think, has done a really, really good job in portraying what has occurred and helping the American public understand exactly what occurred during this traffic stop,” Arthur said. “My client and I are very thankful for that type of coverage.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called the encounter “disturbing” and ordered the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation into the incident.
Yet during an April 14 news conference near the scene of the confrontation, Windsor’s police chief called the incident a “teachable moment” and said he didn’t believe Nazario was owed an apology. Riddle said he wishes the Army medic “would have complied a whole lot earlier,” YahooNews reported.
That aligns with statements Gutierrez made during the stop when he’s seen yelling at an already blinded and pepper-sprayed Nazario, “You’ve made this way more difficult than it had to be if you’d just complied.”
Arthur called Riddle’s comments a slap in the face and described them as victim blaming.
“This is why we can’t have nice things,” the attorney said. “It’s fairly evident that if this is a teaching moment, it’s not going to be the chief that delivers the lesson.”
Nazario had seen the scenario play out before last year’s encounter with Crocker and Gutierrez. Six years prior, he saw video of officers swarming Eric Garner on a street corner in Staten Island, New York. He heard the 46-year-old man he considered an uncle beg for his life, saying “I can’t breathe” as one of the overzealous officers tackled Garner to the ground and ensnared him in a banned chokehold.
Kneeling on the pavement in the parking lot of a BP gas station with the two policemen forcing him to lie facedown on the pavement, Nazario feared he would suffer the same fate. “You know this is f–ked up,” he repeated to the officers, tears and pepper spray blurring his vision, as they wrestled him down.
“Like everyone else, he watched Mr. Garner be murdered. And he was still willing to give law enforcement the benefit of the doubt, notwithstanding his experiences,” Arthur said. “But when you come across a situation like he went through on Dec. 5, it is foundationally shattering.”
Nazario’s lawsuit was filed April 2 in federal court. In it, Arthur claimed Crocker and Gutierrez violated the Army officer’s constitutional rights, used excessive force against him, unlawfully searched his vehicle and later lied about details of the traffic stop in their police reports. He also alleges that there was no probable cause for the encounter in the first place.
Nazario, who is listed as Black and Latino in the suit, is seeking $1 million in damages.
Soon after the complaint was filed, news of Nazario’s ordeal circulated rapidly. That was in large part due to the bodycam footage that his attorneys released along with the lawsuit.
Nazario wasn’t available for an interview with Atlanta Black Star. According to his attorney, he’s had to adjust to the newfound spotlight.
“He went to bed on Friday [April 9], and we had done maybe one interview and talked to Miss Harper,” Arthur recalled. “We woke up Saturday morning to the scariest moment of this man’s life being viewed 20 million times. That’s a strange, strange reality to get your head wrapped around. So he’s still dealing with that.”
The bodycam video shows Gutierrez spray Nazario in his face as the military man held his hands out the window of his SUV and calmly asked the officers why he was being stopped.
“What’s going on is you’re fixin’ to ride the lightning,” Gutierrez told Nazario at one point. According to his lawsuit, it was a reference to the electric chair. Gutierrez claimed it was a threat to zap Nazario with his Taser.
When Nazario told the officers “I’m honestly afraid to get out” of his SUV, Gutierrez replied, “Yeah, you should be.”
Gutierrez later acknowledged Nazario’s apprehension dealing with law enforcement as a Black man.
“The climate that we’re in right now, I get it,” he said, noting that he understood why the lieutenant waited for about another mile to pull over in a well-lit gas station. “With the media spewing race relations between minorities and law enforcement and minorities, I get it.”
But he related that officers are “nervous about their jobs too” because of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Family members and fellow comrades described Nazario as an ever-poised and levelheaded symbol of stoicism in a Washington Post feature story that detailed his path to becoming a lieutenant in the Army Medical Corps.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston commended Nazario for the composure he displayed during the traffic stop.
“He represented himself and our Army well through his calm, professional response to the situation – I’m very proud of him,” Grinston tweeted April 12.
Nazario’s story went viral just two days before Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by former police officer Kim Potter while evading a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Potter is charged with second-degree manslaughter in connection with Wright’s slaying.
As he and his legal team prepare for their civil case, the Army officer must grapple with the lasting toll of the situation. He’s received threatening messages and has had to ready himself for the possibility that an ardent supporter of law enforcement may attempt to retaliate against him.
“It just incredible that one family can suffer two tragedies,” Arthur said. “Thankfully, my client wasn’t murdered, like Mr. Garner. But it also blows my mind that no sooner do we release footage of a man almost getting murdered for a traffic stop that we see another man get murdered for traffic stop.”