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Virginia police officer fired after traffic stop involving Army lieutenant

Army Officer Traffic Stop Lawsuit
Posted at 11:21 PM, Apr 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-12 00:35:14-04

WINDSOR, Va. -- The manager of the town of Windsor, Virginia, said late Sunday that a police officer was fired following an investigation into the December traffic stop involving U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario.

Town Manager William Saunders told CNN Officer Joe Gutierrez had been fired following an investigation launched because of use of force.

"At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed," a statement released by the town Sunday stated. "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."

Saunders confirmed to CNN that the other officer, Daniel Crocker, is still employed by the police department.

"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. Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future,” the statement from the town reads.

Nazario is suing two Windsor officers over the traffic stop during which the officers drew their guns, pointed them at him and used a slang term to suggest he was facing execution.

Body camera footage shows Nazario, who is Black and Latino, was dressed in uniform with his hands held in the air outside the driver's side window as he told the armed officers, "I'm honestly afraid to get out.”

“Yeah, you should be!” one of the officers responded during the stop at a gas station.

Video later shows Nazario being pepper-sprayed and knocked to the ground.

Earlier Sunday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam ordered Virginia State Police to conduct an "independent investigation" into the incident.

Northam said what he saw in the video was "disturbing and angered" him. The governor also invited Nazario to meet with him.

"Our Commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable," Northam wrote. "We must all continue the larger dialogue about reform in our country."

Lawsuit: Officers threatened Army lieutenant during traffic stop

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated during the traffic stop in the town of Windsor. The two sides in the case dispute what happened after a second police officer joined the first one in the stop. At the time, Nazario was coming from his duty station and going home, attorney Jonathan Arthur said.

Officer Crocker radioed 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 a report he submitted afterward and which was included in the court filing.

Arthur said Nazario explained at the time that he wasn't trying to elude the officer, but was trying to stop in a well-lit area “for officer safety and out of respect for the officers.”

Another officer, Gutierrez, was driving by when he heard Crocker’s call, saw him attempting to stop the SUV and decided to join the traffic stop. Gutierrez acknowledged that Nazario's decision to drive to a lighted area happens to him “a lot, and 80% of the time, it's a minority,” Arthur said, quoting the officer.

Army Officer Traffic Stop Lawsuit
In this image made from Windsor, (Va.) Police video, A police officer uses a spray agent on Caron Nazario on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Va. Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, is suing two Virginia police officers over a traffic stop during which he says the officers drew their guns and pointed them at him as he was dressed in uniform. Caron Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated by the traffic stop in the town of Windsor in December. (Windsor Police via AP)

The lawsuit says by the time the two officers reached Nazario's SUV, the license plate was visible in the rear.

Nazario drove his SUV to a well-lit gas station where, according to the lawsuit, the two officers got out and immediately drew their guns and pointed them at Nazario after they got out of their cars. The officers then 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.

“I don't even want to reach for my seatbelt, can you please? ... My hands are out, can you please - look, this is really messed up,” Nazario stammered upon being pepper-sprayed, his eyes clenched shut.

The officers shouted conflicting orders at Nazario, telling him to put his hands out the window while also telling him to open the door and get out, the lawsuit says. At one point, Gutierrez told Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a reference to the electric chair which was also a line from the movie “The Green Mile,” a film about a Black man facing execution.

Army Officer Traffic Stop Lawsuit
In this image made from Windsor, (Va.) Police video, Caron Nazario is helped by an EMT after he was sprayed with an agent by Windsor police after a traffic stop on Dec. 20, 2020, in Windsor, Va. Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, is suing two Virginia police officers over a traffic stop during which he says the officers drew their guns and pointed them at him as he was dressed in uniform. Caron Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated by the traffic stop in the town of Windsor in December. (Windsor Police via AP)

Nazario got out of the vehicle and again 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 traffic stop was captured on Nazario's cellphone video, and the body-worn cameras worn by Crocker and Gutierrez, according to the lawsuit.

“These cameras 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 lawsuit says.

Arthur said Nazario graduated from Virginia State University and was commissioned out of their ROTC program.

"He's an officer in the United States armed forces,” Arthur said. “These guys decide to do this to him.”

Windsor is a town in Isle of Wight County about 70 miles southeast of Richmond.