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Windsor Chief: Social media, media coverage led to officer's firing following viral traffic stop

Posted at 4:47 PM, Apr 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-15 07:16:39-04

WINDSOR, Va. -- Windsor Police Chief Rodney “Dan” Riddle explained why he fired Officer Joe Gutierrez on Sunday, April 11 -- more than four months after the traffic stop involving U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario.

"I lost faith in [Gutierrez's] ability to continue to serve the community to the standards that we expect it to be," Riddle said at a news conference Wednesday. The first news conference since the video of the December 2020 traffic stop went viral over the weekend.

In the video, you see Gutierrez pepper-spraying and pointing his gun at Nazario who was questioning why he was being pulled over. Nazario was never charged with a crime and is alleging in a lawsuit that his constitutional rights were violated.

"We're a small community, we're 2600 people. We know just about everybody here. That's why we have good relationships within our community," Chief Riddle said. "And that was destroyed by the social media posting, the media coverage of it, there was no way in my mind that [Gutierrez] could ever engage in this community in an effective manner beyond that day."

Over the course of the 20-minute press conference, the chief answered questions including what he felt when he first watched the videos.

"There were some things in that video, where we missed some serious opportunities. There were things that led up to that traffic stop, there were certain actions that Mr. Nazario took that raised a red flag for those officers based on their training, that they may be dealing with something beyond an ordinary run-of-the-mill traffic stop," Chief Riddle said. "Those officers initially reacted relatively well, in my opinion."

Riddle said he wished Nazario had complied with the demands earlier, but insisted his department does not owe the Army officer an apology.

"I'm going to own what we did wrong," Riddle said. "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."

Riddle pointed out while his officers initially drew their guns, Gutierrez then transferred to his Taser, and eventually pepper spray.

"That's coming down the use of force continuum," the chief said. "What they missed, though, was the opportunities to verbally de-escalate that situation, to engage Mr. Nazario in a positive manner, and use language to gain compliance from him."

Videos of the December traffic stop in the small town have elicited outrage among many and prompted calls for transparency and further investigation from Virginia's governor and attorney general.

Windsor officials said Sunday that department policy wasn’t followed during the traffic stop and Gutierrez had been fired. But the news release did not say when he was terminated. A lawyer for Nazario said Monday that Officer Daniel Crocker needed to be fired, too.

That is a stance Chief Riddle did not support.

"Officer Crocker and Officer Gutierrez [are] both are new to the department in the last year. Officer Gutierrez is an experienced officer. He was serving in the role of field training officer. Officer Crocker had just graduated from the police academy back in October and was still in his field training phase and what we call the shadow phase," the chief explained. "If you've watched the video, you'll see there several times in the video where Officer Crocker makes an effort to de-escalate that situation verbally with his mouth. He changes his pitch, his tone, his demeanor. That is somebody right there who has the makings of being a policeman that sees, that understands that importance. 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 is no doubt in my mind that with some additional training and a few more years under his belt, he will continue to serve this community well."

The incident began when Crocker radioed that he was attempting to stop a vehicle with no rear license plate and tinted windows. 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, the two officers got out of their cars and immediately drew their guns and pointed them at Nazario.

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 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.