Virginia’s governor, attorney general, a congressman and the NAACP expressed outrage at the actions of Windsor police officers who pointed weapons, pepper-sprayed and threatened a Black and Latino military officer in December during a traffic stop caught on video.
Army Lt. Caron Nazario filed suit against police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker last month, and video from the officers’ body cameras and Nazario’s cellphone has gone viral in recent days.
Nazario seeks $1 million plus punitive damages from the officers, saying they violated his constitutional rights.
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, said the videos raise the question of whether the officers overreacted and used more force than necessary.
The videos “make it seem that Lt. Nazario has a persuasive case,” Tobias told USA TODAY.
The officers said in the police report that they stopped Nazario’s Chevrolet Tahoe because it didn’t have a rear license plate, although the report acknowledges the officers later noticed a temporary plate displayed in the back 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. Nazario was released at the scene and not charged.
“Though Nazario was shocked at the ferociousness of these defendants and the very real possibility that the defendants may murder him because he could not comply with their inconsistent demands, Lt. Nazario remained calm, kept his hands outside the window, and continued to calmly ask the defendants why they pulled him over, and to explain what was going on,” the lawsuit says.
Gutierrez told Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning, son” – a reference to the electric chair.
Officer pepper-sprayed:Virginia cops pepper-sprayed Black and Latino Army officer who had hands raised during traffic stop, video shows
The suit says the officers threatened to destroy the lieutenant’s military career with “baseless” criminal charges if he reported them for misconduct.
Video from the scene “captured footage of behavior 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,” the suit says.
Attorney General Mark Herring said he saw nothing in the videos that justifies how the officers treated Nazario.
“Incidents like this are unacceptable,” Herring said in a statement. “As our office continues to monitor the situation, the Windsor Police Department needs to be fully transparent about what happened during the stop and what was done in response to it.”
Windsor has a population of about 2,600 people and, according to its website, a six-member police force. The police were unavailable for comment Sunday, and the mayor and members of the Town Council did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Gov. Ralph Northam said on Twitter that the encounter was “disturbing,” calling for state police to conduct an independent investigation.
“Our Commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police,” he said in a statement, which also invited Nazario to meet for a “larger dialogue about reform in our country.”
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., whose district includes Windsor, said he was “horrified” by the video. Scott noted that the area is still mourning the death of Donovan Lynch, who was killed by officers in nearby Virginia Beach last month while their body cameras were not activated.
The local NAACP said it is launching an investigation into the Windsor Police Department.
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The video is evidence “of what the NAACP has been saying all along,” the Isle of Wight branch said in a statement. “It appears from the video that our justice is still being abused by police officers and we are very concerned.”
The group said it has the support of the state NAACP and other officials.
“Please know this will not go unaddressed,” the group said. “We are done dying. We will not stand silently while another African American’s civil rights are violated.”