Caron Nazario, an Army lieutenant, says he was hesitant to pull over when a patrol car triggered its siren and emergency lights behind him in December. That stretch of road, just west of Norfolk, Virginia, was dark, and there didn’t appear to be any safe places to pull over.
According to a federal complaint filed earlier this month by Nazario, who is Black and Latino, he slowed down, put his blinker on, and pulled over about a mile down the road at a well-lit BP gas station. Two officers approached Nazario with guns drawn, shouting at him to exit the vehicle.
Nazario, who was dressed in uniform, inquired several times, “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” said Windsor Police Department officer Joe Gutierrez.
Gutierrez and his partner Daniel Crocker are now defendants in a lawsuit alleging that they violated Nazario’s civil rights by using unreasonable force and conducting an illegal search and seizure. Gutierrez’s employment with the department has since been terminated after an internal investigation.
The officers’ actions are “consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers who, believe they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially-biased, dangerous, and sometimes deadly abuses of authority,” according to the complaint.
Since Nazario’s car had no tag visible, he took a long time to stop, and he had an “extremely dark” window tint. Gutierrez says they were treating it as a “high-risk traffic stop” the night of the incident.
According to the complaint, the officers chose to “pull their weapons, illegally detain Lt. Nazario, threaten to murder him, illegally spray him with pepper spray, and illegally searched his vehicle.”
It also states that Gutierrez’s comment that Nazario was about to “ride the lightning,” a colloquial term for death by electric chair.
Gutierrez tried to use his Taser on Nazario, according to the police report. Even if Gutierrez meant to refer to using a Taser on Nazario when he spoke about riding the lightning, Nazario’s lawyer, Jonathan Arthur, told NPR that the video “leaves little doubt” that he also “meant and intended every word of the implicit meaning.”
The interaction was filmed from several angles, including Nazario’s cell phone and Crocker and Gutierrez’s body cameras. “I’m honestly afraid to get out,” Nazario said at one point. “Yeah, you should be,” Gutierrez said in response.
In the video, Gutierrez pepper-sprayed Nazario many times. After that, Nazario exited his vehicle and requested a supervisor. According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez retaliated by hitting him with “knee-strikes.” The officers then hit him, handcuffed him, and interrogated him. Soon after, paramedics arrived to treat Nazario’s eyes for the pepper spray.
Nazario was eventually released, but not before officers “threatened Lt. Nazario’s job and commission in the United States Army if he spoke out knowing the harm criminal charges would cause him.” The complaint also notes that the officers’ attempt to “extort” Nazario, which formed the complaints’ basis, claims that they had violated his First Amendment rights.
Virginia lawmakers have demanded that the officers be prosecuted right away. The officers must be “held accountable for their atrocious actions,” said the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus.
The event was deemed intolerable by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. Herring said, “The Windsor Police Department needs to be fully transparent about what happened during the stop and what was done in response to it.”
On Sunday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced that he has ordered Virginia State Police to launch an independent investigation into this “disturbing” incident.
According to a news release issued by the Town of Windsor on Sunday, Gutierrez was “terminated from his employment” as a result of last year’s incident. The decision was taken after an internal review by the Windsor Police Department, which resulted in “disciplinary action” and further training that took effect in January 2021.
The statement read that “The pursuit and ultimate stop resulted in the use of pepper spray against Lt. Nazario by Officer Gutierrez.” Adding that, “At the conclusion of this investigation, it was determined that Windsor Police Department policy was not followed.”