A Virginia police officer who pepper-sprayed and threatened a uniformed Black and Latinx Army officer during a routine traffic stop was fired Sunday after video footage of the incident was published, sparking nationwide outrage.
WAVY reports Windsor police officer Joe Gutierrez was terminated hours after Gov. Ralph Northam—who called the incident “disturbing”—ordered the Virginia State Police to launch an independent investigation of the event.
In a statement, the town of Windsor “acknowledges the unfortunate events” of the December 5, 2020 incident in which Gutierrez and another Windsor officer, Daniel Crocker, conducted a traffic stop of Caron Nazario, an active duty U.S. Army second lieutenant.
The town said it “immediately” began an investigation and “determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed” by the officers.
According to a lawsuit (pdf) filed by Nazario earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, the soldier was driving on a dark stretch of road in a newly purchased Chevrolet Tahoe with temporary tags taped inside when Crocker initiated a traffic stop.
Nazario almost immediately slowed down and activated his turn signal. Crocker was joined by Gutierrez in following Nazario as he drove into a well-lit BP gas station less than a mile away and stopped.
The lawsuit states that “without justification or excuse,” the officers reported the routine stop as a “felony traffic stop” and a “high-risk traffic stop.”
“Likewise, without justification or excuse, the defendants chose to immediately escalate the encounter by threatening deadly force and a homicide,” the suit states. “Particularly, they exited their vehicles and immediately trained their firearms on Lt. Nazario and subsequently threatened to murder him.”
Officer body camera video and footage recorded by Nazario from inside his vehicle shows the soldier complying with commands to show his hands while refusing to exit his SUV as ordered and repeatedly asking, “What’s going on?”
“I’m serving this country and this is how I’m being treated?” says Nazario, who is wearing his Army uniform.
After Gutierrez told Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning, son”—an execution reference—the soldier said that he was “honestly afraid to get out” of the SUV.
“Yeah, you should be,” Gutierrez replies shortly before grabbing Nazario’s arm and pepper-spraying him. About a minute later, as Nazario—whose eyes are closed and is visibly in pain—slowly steps out of his vehicle with his hands in the air, Gutierrez asks: “What are you, a specialist? Corporal? What are you?”
“I’m a lieutenant,” Nazario says as he exits the vehicle and is forced to the ground and handcuffed.
The lawsuit alleges that “Gutierrez and Crocker, realizing that they had acted illegally… threatened Lt. Nazario’s job and his commission in the United States Army if he spoke out,” but said that if he would “chill and let this go” they would not file charges against him.
Nazario was released. According to the lawsuit, the two officers “coordinated their efforts to hide their misdeeds” and “submitted false narratives of the events in their official records.”
Widespread outrage followed the release of video footage of Nazario’s traffic stop. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), who represents Windsor, called for a federal investigation of the incident.
“I was horrified when I viewed the recently released video footage of the police treatment of Caron Nazario,” Scott said in a statement. “This should have been a routine traffic stop and the video speaks for itself.”
“The release of this video also comes while the Hampton Roads community is still mourning the loss of Donovan Lynch who was killed by officers while their body worn cameras were not activated,” Scott added, referring to a fatal police shooting last month in Virginia Beach. “Both of these instances should be investigated by federal authorities.”
The Isle of Wight County NAACP responded to the video with a Facebook post saying: “We are done dying. We will not stand silently while another African American’s civil rights are violated.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring called the incident “unacceptable.”
“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,” he added.
The town of Windsor said it “will continue to provide information related to this event in its commitment to openness.”
“Windsor prides itself in its small-town charm and the community-wide respect of its police department,” the town said. “We are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light… We are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future.”