Attorneys for a Black Army officer whom police can be heard threatening during a traffic stop in Virginia have criticized what they called “cutting-corner policing.”
Windsor police on Tuesday fired Officer Joe Gutierrez, who was initially disciplined after an internal review of the incident in December concluded in January.
Police Chief Rodney Riddle addressed the incident publicly for the first time Wednesday, saying Gutierrez was fired 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 the Army officer, 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, characterized Riddle’s comments and the department’s policies as “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 said in a statement Wednesday.
Windsor’s town manager said in a statement that an internal investigation found that the officers who pulled Nazario over — Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker — did not follow policy.
In a federal civil lawsuit filed 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.
Nazario, who is Black and Latino, conceded in his complaint that he did not immediately pull over. He instead put on his emergency lights and continued for 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 video.
Nazario insisted that he followed police commands to keep his hands outside the window but that officers 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.
Nazario’s attorney Jonathan Arthur wrote in the lawsuit, “This is a colloquial expression for an execution, originating from glib reference to execution by the electric chair.”
Nazario told police that he was “honestly afraid to get out” of his SUV, video showed. Gutierrez replied, “Yeah, you should be!”
Video also showed Nazario being pepper-sprayed multiple times, “causing him substantial and immediate pain,” the lawsuit said.
Riddle, the police chief, said at a news conference Wednesday that he was glad nobody was hurt and that the situation ended 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 de-escalate 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 said he chose not to fire the second officer, Crocker, a newcomer to the department who was still in training at the time, because he wanted instead to use the 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.
The lawsuit alleges that during the traffic stop, the officers warned Nazario not to complain about their treatment of him and threatened to criminally charge him. If Nazario would “chill and let this go,” then no charges would be filed, they said, the suit alleges.
Nazario was not charged or cited for any traffic violation, his attorney said. A new vehicle tag was clearly visible in the SUV’s rear window, he said.
The Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation said in a statement that it is conducting a “thorough and objective criminal investigation into the Dec. 5, 2020 traffic stop.” Riddle said the police department is cooperating.
Asked whether Nazario deserved an apology, Riddle 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.