CRIME

Town Fires Officer Who Pepper-Sprayed Black Army Lieutenant During Traffic Stop

Army Lt. Caron Nazario filed a lawsuit against two officers who threatened and pepper-sprayed him during a December traffic stop, as shown on footage.

A police officer in Virginia was fired after pepper spraying a Black Army lieutenant during a traffic stop last December, officials said Sunday.

The town of Windsor said Officer Joe Gutierrez had been terminated after an investigation determined department policy “was not followed” during the incident, which drew heavy criticism after body camera footage was released. It’s unclear when Gutierrez was fired.

“The Town of Windsor has remained transparent about this event since the initial stop, and has openly provided documents and related video to attorneys for Lt. Nazario,” officials said in a statement. “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.”

The town added that it would reach out to community stakeholders to “engage in dialogue and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future.”

Earlier Sunday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called for an investigation into the incident in which two local police officers pulled over Caron Nazario, an Afro-Latinx man who serves as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, threatening and pepper-spraying the medic. He has since filed a lawsuit against them.

Northam released a statement on Sunday that he has directed the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation, saying the Dec. 5 traffic stop recorded via police body cameras and the man’s phone was “disturbing” and “angered me.” 

Nazario was driving his new SUV home from his duty station in full uniform when Gutierrez and Officer Daniel Crocker pulled him over, pointed their guns and demanded he get out of the car.

“I’m serving this country, and this is how I’m treated?” the 27-year-old told the officers, according to video on his phone that he used to record the encounter. Footage of the incident went viral over the weekend, with Nazario’s name trending on Twitter.

The officers alleged they pulled over Nazario because they believed he did not have a license plate on the rear of his car. But when Nazario pulled into a well-lit gas station, the officers still escalated the encounter despite now seeing there was a license plate on the back of his new vehicle.

Nazario repeatedly asked to know what was going on, holding his hands in the air outside the driver’s window while telling the officers, “I’m honestly afraid to get out.” 

“Yeah, you should be!” yelled one of the officers, before pepper-spraying, knocking down and handcuffing the lieutenant. Gutierrez also told Nazario that he’s “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a slang term that refers to both being shocked with a stun gun and being executed via electric chair.  Gutierrez can be heard threatening to use a Taser on Nazario in bodycam footage later.

Gutierrez could also be heard saying to Nazario on his bodycam, “I get it, the media spewing race relations between law enforcement and minorities, I get it.”

Gutierrez said in an incident report that he “made the decision to release him without charges” because he “did not want to see his career ruined over one erroneous decision.” But according to Nazario, the officers told him they’d charge him with crimes that would destroy his military career if he spoke out about the incident.

Nazario filed a federal lawsuit against the officers on April 2, alleging excessive force that the lieutenant says resulted from racial profiling. He is seeking at least $1 million in damages and for the court to rule that Gutierrez and Crocker violated his constitutional rights, specifically the First and Fourth Amendments.

“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 stated.

Neither the Windsor Police Department nor Mayor Glynn Willis responded to HuffPost’s request for comment via phone and email on Northam’s statement (Windsor police’s voice mailbox was full).

“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 said in his statement.

Virginia state lawmakers passed a slew of police-related criminal justice reform laws, which took effect last month. The laws include limiting Virginia police’s use of deadly force by banning certain dangerous policing tactics that have been at the center of discussion during the ongoing trial of former officer Derek Chauvin in George Floyd’s death.

“I am inviting Army medic Lieutenant Caron Nazario to meet soon,” Northam said. “We must all continue the larger dialogue about reform in our country.”

Attorney Jonathan Arthur told The Washington Post on Saturday that since the assault, Nazario has had recurring nightmares and gets “freaked out” whenever he sees law enforcement.

“It blows my mind that two officers thought they could get away with it,” Arthur told the publication. “He did everything right.”

This story has been updated with the officer’s firing and clarified to note that the phrase “fixing to ride the lightning” can also be interpreted to mean being shocked with a stun gun.