A Virginia police officer accused of pepper-spraying a Black and Latino military officer and forcing him to the ground during a traffic stop in December has been fired, a Town of Windsor official said.
Army Lt. Caron Nazario has filed suit seeking more than $1 million against police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, and video from the officers’ body cameras and Nazario’s cellphone went viral last week.
Windsor, with a population of 2,600, has a police force of about a half dozen officers, according to the town’s website. Following an internal investigation, Gutierrez was fired and additional officer training was implemented, Windsor Town Manager William Saunders said in a statement Sunday.
“The Town has also requested an investigation of this event by the Virginia State Police, and joins with elected officials who have called for a full and complete review of the actions of these officers,” Saunders said, adding that “we are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light.”
Virginia’s governor, attorney general, a congressman and the NAACP were among those expressing outrage at the actions of Windsor police officers in recent days.
Valerie Butler, President of the Isle of Wright NAACP branch, also called for an end to qualified immunity in Virginia during a news conference Monday.
The NAACP has previously also asked for a special session of the Virginia General Assembly to pass a bill that would make it easier for people to sue police officers and their agencies for civil rights violations.
“There are so many things that went wrong with this traffic stop. But it is indicative of what is happening around the country and how officers walk away from cases with no disciplinary action,” she said.
Virginia’s bill, proposed by Virginia Rep. Jeff Bourne, has died several times in the Virginia Legislature.
“I’m not here to suggest that that is the end-all-be-all to righting the wrongs in our criminal justice system,” Bourne said at the news conference. “We have to fully examine our use of force standards across the state. And it might be time for a statewide standard.
A police report from the stop indicates the officers stopped Nazario because he did not have a rear license plate on his new SUV, although the report adds that after stopping the vehicle they saw a temporary plate taped to a window.
Video shows the officers ordering Nazario, who was in uniform, to exit his vehicle outside a gas station as he held his hands up through the driver’s side window. Nazario said he was afraid to get out of the SUV and was blasted with pepper spray and forced to the ground.
Police officer accused of pepper-spraying Black and Latino military officer fired
Later in the tape, the officers say they will let Nazario go if he remained quiet about the incident, but that he would face additional charges if he complained. Nazario was later released at the scene and not charged.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statement Sunday saying the incident “is disturbing and angered me.” He ordered the State Police to investigate.
Jonathan Arthur, who filed a federal lawsuit last week in Norfolk on behalf of Nazario, called the firing of one of those officers “appropriate” but called for more disciplinary action against the second officer involved because he failed to stop the “unjust encounter.”
Arthur said his client welcomed Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s decision to order the Virginia State Police to conduct its own investigation into the Dec. 5, 2020 incident in the town of Windsor that was captured on the officers’ body cameras as well as Nazario’s own mobile phone. Also, Arthur said Nazario “is gratified” by the public support he has received over the video, which has gone viral.
“He is encouraged that his story resonates with so many who are willing to speak out,” Arthur said.
The state NAACP highlighted an exchange during which Nazario says he is “honestly afraid to get out” of his vehicle. The officer then responds: “Yeah, you should be.”
“We watched with horror the so-called traffic stop in Windsor,” Virginia NAACP President Robert N. Barnette Jr. said. “The fact that an officer who is supposed to ‘protect and serve’ felt emboldened enough to state this is the root of the problem. This isn’t the first officer we have seen without fear of consequences for their actions.”
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Contributing: Bill Atkinson, The Progress-Index, Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY