The Virginia State Police (VSP) are investigating the December traffic stop of Army officer Lieutenant Caron Nazario, who was pepper sprayed by officers from the Town of Windsor, according to press releases from Town Manager William Saunders. In a Sunday evening press release, Saunders announced that Officer Joe Gutierrez, one of the officers from the stop, had been fired. The incident has become a subject of statements by candidates for Virginia public office. It has also drawn the attention of Governor Ralph Northam, who said he was ordering a VSP investigation, and Attorney General Mark Herring.
At the end of last week, news media picked up Nazario’s story, based on a lawsuit by Nazario against officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker. The lawsuit states that Crocker initiated a traffic stop because Nazario didn’t have a license plate on his new car and describes a brief pursuit while Nazario drove slowly with his turn signal on, seeking a well-lit place to stop. The lawsuit alleges that by the time the officers approached the car, they knew there was a temporary plate at the back of the car.
The officers treated the December 5 traffic stop as a high-risk felony stop, approaching with guns drawn, eventually pepper spraying and threatening Nazario, according to the complaint.
A now-viral bodycam video posted to Twitter by Qasim Rashid shows officers ordering Nazario to get out of the car and get on the ground. Nazario slowly complied while keeping his hands in the air as officers demanded that he get on the ground.
He said, “Why am I being treated like this?”
“Because you’re not cooperating,” an officer responds.
On Saturday, Delegate Jay Jones (D-Norfolk), who is running for the Democratic attorney general nomination, called for his opponent Attorney General Mark Herring to investigate the case. “I urge the Attorney General to stop dragging his feet, stop playing political games, and move immediately to find the facts on the ground and ensure that those responsible for this incident are held accountable,” he wrote.
On Sunday afternoon, Governor Ralph Northam announced he would direct the VSP to investigate the traffic stop. That evening, Saunders sent the first press release.
“The pursuit and ultimate stop resulted in the use of pepper spray against Lieutenant Nazario by Officer Gutierrez,” the Town of Windsor’s Sunday press release states.
The use of force triggered an internal department investigation, and later, the firing of Gutierrez at an unspecified date.
“At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed. This resulted in disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January and continue up to the present. Since that time, Officer Gutierrez was also terminated from his employment,” the press release states.
On Monday, Herring’s office published a letter sent to the town questioning the circumstances. The letter asks for documentation on the December 5 incident, related Windsor Police Department policies, training materials, and records of complaints against the department.
Later Monday afternoon, Saunders sent a follow-up press release to reporters, noting that a VSP investigation had already begun and that the town was cooperating. He said that the town is working with a limited staff to respond to inquiries, but new information, documents and bodycam footage would be posted to the town’s website.
The Sunday press release states, “The Town of Windsor prides itself in its small-town charm and the community-wide respect of its Police Department. Due to this, we are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light.”
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