Attorneys for a Black Army officer who police can be heard threatening during a traffic stop in Virginia have criticized “cutting-corner policing” in a Wednesday statement on the incident.
The statement comes after Windsor, Va. police fired Officer Joe Gutierrez, who was initially disciplined after an internal review of the December incident concluded in January.
Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle addressed the incident publicly for the first time on Wednesday, saying the decision to fire Gutierrez was made after the video of the traffic stop went viral this week.
“We got to a point Sunday where I lost faith in his ability to continue to serve the community to the standards that we expect it to be,” Riddle said.
Attorneys for Army Lt. Caron Nazario called the chief’s comments and department policies “cutting-corner policing” and “victim blaming.”
“The statements from the Police Chief of Windsor today demonstrate the systemic policing issues that generate civil rights violations across the country,” the attorneys’ statement said.
Windsor’s town manager said in a statement that an internal investigation found that the officers who pulled Nazario over — Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker — did not follow departmental policy.
In a federal civil lawsuit filed earlier this month, Nazario said he was driving in a newly purchased Chevrolet Tahoe when he encountered police on U.S. Highway 460 in Windsor. He was in uniform at the time of the stop.
Nazario, who is Black and Latino, conceded in his complaint that he didn’t immediately pull over. He instead put on his emergency lights and continued for another 100 seconds, driving under the speed limit, so he could safely park in a well-lit gas station parking lot less than a mile down the road.
That’s when Gutierrez and Crocker pulled guns on Nazario, who was accused of driving without license plates, according to the lawsuit and body camera footage.
Nazario insisted he followed police commands to keep his hands outside the window, but officers allegedly became agitated when he asked what justified the escalated pullover.
“What’s going on? You’re fixin’ to ride the lighting, son,” Gutierrez said, according to the lawsuit and body camera video.
“This is a colloquial expression for an execution, originating from glib reference to execution by the electric chair,” Nazario’s attorney Jonathan Arthur wrote in the lawsuit.
Nazario told police that he was “honestly afraid to get out” of his SUV, video of the incident showed, before Gutierrez replied, “Yeah, you should be!”
Footage also showed Nazario being pepper-sprayed multiple times, “causing him substantial and immediate pain,” the lawsuit said.
Riddle, the police chief, said at a Wednesday press conference that he’s glad nobody got hurt and that the situation ended in the best way it could have.
“I wish he would have complied a whole lot earlier,” Riddle said. “I’m going to own what we did wrong. I can’t speak for him, but I’m going to own what we did. My guys missed opportunities to verbally deescalate that thing and change that outcome.”
Attorneys for Nazario dispute that.
“The Chief says he is glad that no one got hurt,”Arthur said in a statement. “OC [pepper] spray hurts. Being threatened with “riding the lightning” hurts. Being told you should be afraid to follow police commands hurts.”
Riddle chose not to fire Crocker, the second officer in the video and a newcomer to the department who was still in training at the time, wanting instead to use this incident as a teachable moment.
“I’ve known Daniel since he was 14. He’s a lifelong resident of the town of Windsor. He wants to serve his community and there’s little to no doubt in my mind with some more training and experience, he’ll continue to serve this community well,” Riddle said.
During the traffic stop, the officers allegedly warned Nazario not to complain about their treatment of him, threatening to criminally charge him, the lawsuit said. If the lieutenant would “chill and let this go,” then no charges would be filed, according to Arthur.
Nazario was ultimately not criminally charged or cited for any traffic violation, his attorney said. A new vehicle tag was clearly visible in Nazario’s rear window, Arthur stated.
The Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation is initiating a ‘thorough and objective criminal investigation into the Dec. 5, 2020 traffic stop,’ according to a statement.
Riddle said the department is cooperating with the investigation. When asked if Nazario deserved an apology, he told reporters, “I don’t believe so.”
The officers could not be immediately reached for comment through publicly listed phone numbers. Windsor Police did not respond to request for comment.
David K. Li and Tim Stelloh contributed.