Virginia AG launches civil rights probe after Black Army medic pepper-sprayed by police


Virginia’s attorney general has launched a civil rights investigation into whether there was an “unlawful pattern or practice of conduct” at the Windsor Police Department after officers detained a Black uniformed U.S. Army lieutenant at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed him while conducting a traffic stop in December.

Attorney General Mark Herring’s office on Monday asked the small police department operating about 70 miles southeast of Richmond to release the records of the two officers, and any records to the department over the past 10 years that involve traffic stops, use of force and “treatment on the basis of race, color, and/or national origin.”

U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, recently filed a federal lawsuit against Windsor Police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker. After recently released bodycam videos of the December traffic stop have drawn national attention, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also requested an investigation by Virginia State Police. Windsor town officials announced Sunday that Gutierrez has since been fired over the incident, but Crocker still remains employed by the police department.

LAWSUIT: VIRGINIA POLICE OFFICERS THREATENED MAN DURING STOP 

Nazario was not charged with any crime after the traffic stop, his lawsuit states.

Herring is “deeply concerned about the traffic stop” and believes the officers’ conduct “was dangerous, unnecessary, unacceptable and avoidable,” his office said in a statement Monday.

“My Office of Civil Rights will be looking into whether there’s been a pattern of misconduct with these officers or broadly with the department as a whole,” Herring also tweeted Tuesday. “We certainly have more work to do to put a stop to misconduct and make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The traffic stop was captured on video by Nazario’s cellphone and also by the body cameras worn by Crocker and Gutierrez, according to Nazario’s lawsuit. The incident began when Crocker radioed that he was attempting to stop a vehicle with no rear license plate and tinted windows.

WARNING: GRAPHIC VIDEO 

He said the driver was “eluding police” and he considered it a “high-risk traffic stop,” according to the report he submitted afterward, which was included in the court filing. Nazario drove his SUV to a well-lit gas station where, according to the lawsuit, where the two officers got out of their cars and immediately drew their guns and pointed them at Nazario.

Body camera footage shows Nazario dressed in his Army uniform with his hands held in the air outside the driver’s-side window as he told the police officers, “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”

VIRGINIA OFFICER ACCUSED OF FORCE IN STOP OF BLACK ARMY OFFICER FIRED 

“Yeah, you should be!” one of the officers responded.

The officers attempted to pull Nazario out of the vehicle while he continued to keep his hands in the air. Gutierrez then stepped back and pepper-sprayed Nazario multiple times as officers yelled for him to get out of the car. Nazario got out of the vehicle and again asked for a supervisor. Gutierrez responded with “knee-strikes” to his legs, knocking him to the ground, the lawsuit says. The two officers struck him multiple times, then handcuffed and interrogated him.

In this image from police video, Caron Nazario is helped by an EMT after he was sprayed with an agent by Windsor Police after a traffic stop on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Virginia. Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated. (Windsor Police via AP)

In this image from police video, Caron Nazario is helped by an EMT after he was sprayed with an agent by Windsor Police after a traffic stop on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Virginia. Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated. (Windsor Police via AP)

The town of Windsor said in another statement Monday that officials “are taking actions to rebuild the public’s trust” and the police chief continues to implement training in line with state standards.

“Our goal is to always ensure transparency of our practices and procedures; we will provide information as possible, and as allowed, during the investigation,” the statement said.

The Isle of Wight chapter of the NAACP and other local and state leaders held a news conference Monday evening across the street from the gas station where Nazario was approached by officers. Chapter President Valerie Butler said the video raised a number of concerns for the community.

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“There are so many things that went wrong with this traffic stop, but it is indicative of what’s happening around the country, and how officers walk away from cases with no disciplinary action, to include termination and or firing,” Butler said, calling for Crocker to be fired.

“It was shameful. It was embarrassing. It was disgusting,” Virginia Delegate Don Scott said of the traffic stop.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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