Virginia’s attorney general sued the town where a police officer appeared to threaten the execution of a Black Army lieutenant during a traffic stop, alleging Thursday that the city's police department engages in a broader pattern of discriminatory policing.
In a written statement, top state prosecutor Mark Herring recalled the “egregious treatment” of U.S. Army officer Lt. Caron Nazario and said a monthslong investigation prompted by the case uncovered “huge” disparities in enforcement against Black drivers and a “troubling lack of policies and procedures” to prevent discrimination.
“We even discovered evidence that officers were actually being trained to go ‘fishing’ and engage in pretextual stops,” Herring said.
Nazario's traffic stop occurred Dec. 5, 2020, in the town of Windsor, about 30 miles west of downtown Norfolk, when officers pulled him over for not having a license plate.
A lawsuit filed earlier this year by Nazario against Windsor officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker alleges excessive force and other constitutional violations, and claims the officers struck Nazario with their knees after he was “compliant and blinded” by pepper spray.
In the suit, Nazario, who is Black and Latino, said he had a new vehicle tag clearly visible in his rear window and didn't immediately pull over because he was looking for a safe place to stop.
When he finally did, Gutierrez told him he was "fixin' to ride the lightning," according to the lawsuit and body camera video of the incident. The lawsuit states the expression is a reference to execution by electric chair.
The video showed Nazario saying he was afraid to get out of his car and officers pepper spraying him.
Gutierrez was later fired by the department and Crocker was disciplined.
Their lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday, but in court filings Gutierrez and Crocker denied the allegations in Nazario's suit, saying they used "reasonable" force and did not violate his rights. Gutierrez also denied that he was planning to execute Nazario, the filing says.
In the suit filed Thursday, Virginia state prosecutors claimed that Windsor police officers disproportionately stop Black drivers.
Between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, Black drivers accounted for 42 percent of the department's traffic stops, a rate 200 to 500 percent greater than what it should be based on the size of the area's Black population, the suit claims.
The suit also alleges that officers disproportionately search Black motorists and that the department provided different traffic stop and citation data to local and state authorities.
The suit, filed in circuit court in Isle of Wight County, seeks to reform the department through court-ordered policy changes.
Windsor town officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but in a statement to a local newspaper, the Suffolk News-Herald, the town described Herring's suit as "clearly political."
Before and after Nazario's traffic stop, the police department practiced non-discriminatory policing, the statement said. Still, officials took measures to increase police training and accountability, the statement said — measures that state prosecutors "were fully aware of" for "several months."
The statement also said that data cited by the attorney general's office was "questionable," though it did not provide additional details.
In an interview Thursday, a lawyer for Nazario, Tom Roberts, said he was "happy to see the attorney general of the state of Virginia has taken the Dec. 5 incident as seriously as we do."
He added that Nazario is in treatment for symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and views what happened last year as a "horrible betrayal."
"It's shaken him to his core," he said.
CORRECTION (Dec. 31, 2021, 1:22 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story misstated where the lawsuit was filed. It was Isle of Wight County Circuit Court, not Isle of Wright County Circuit Court.