Virginia police chief calls controversial traffic stop of US Army officer ‘a teaching moment’

Virginia police chief calls controversial traffic stop of US Army officer ‘a teaching moment’

The police chief of Windsor, Virginia, said Wednesday that a traffic stop in which two officers pointed guns at a US Army officer, pepper-sprayed him and pushed him to the ground was “a teaching moment” and that he wished the soldier had followed commands.

Second Lt. Caron Nazario feared for his life during the December 5 traffic stop by two Windsor police officers, according to his attorney.

Windsor Police Chief R.D. Riddle told reporters Wednesday that an internal investigation into the police encounter was launched three days after the traffic stop. Without elaborating, Riddle said disciplinary action was taken after the investigation was completed in late January.

Riddle called the handling of the traffic stop “a teaching moment” for his seven officer department. Though the two officers de-escalated their use of force by switching from their weapons to Tasers and eventually pepper spray, Riddle said they missed opportunities to verbally defuse the situation.

Asked about Nazario’s actions, the chief said: “Lt. Nazario took certain actions that created where we got to.”

“At the end of the day I’m glad that nobody got hurt. That situation ended in the best way it could have. I wish he would have complied a whole lot earlier,” Riddle said of the Army officer.

Nazario has filed a lawsuit seeking $1 million in compensatory damages, claiming the two officers violated his rights guaranteed under the First and Fourth Amendments. The suit, filed in US District Court and first reported last week by the Virginian-Pilot, claims the officers used excessive force during the stop.

“He was terrified that if he was going to move his hands below where Officer Gutierrez could have seen them to undo that seatbelt, they would have murdered him,” said Jonathan Arthur, attorney for Nazario, who is Black and Latino.

One of the officers has been fired

On Sunday, Town Manager William Saunders confirmed that one of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, had been fired following a use-of-force investigation. The other officer, Daniel Crocker, is still on the job.

Riddle said Gutierrez’s use of the phrase “ride the lightning” in reference to the Taser during the incident was “inappropriate and created unnecessary fear.”

“I lost faith in his ability to continue to serve the community to the standards that we expected him to,” the chief said of Gutierrez. “I personally felt that there was no way he could effectively serve our community anymore.”

CNN has tried unsuccessfully to reach Gutierrez and Crocker for comment. It’s unclear if they have legal representation.

Riddle said both Gutierrez and Crocker had come to the Windsor Police Department within the last year. Gutierrez was “an experienced officer” and was serving as a field training officer to Crocker, who had recently graduated from the police academy, according to the chief.

Riddle said he believes, from watching video of the encounter, that Crocker made “an effort to de-escalate that situation verbally.” He said he has known Crocker since the officer was 14.

“He’s a lifelong resident of the town of Windsor,” he said of Crocker. “He wants to serve his community and there is little to no doubt in my mind that with some additional training and a few more years under his belt, he will continue to serve his community well.”

Saunders said the town council expressed “full support” for Riddle after a closed-door meeting on Tuesday night. “As do I,” Saunders said.

Virginia AG launches investigation

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said Monday his office is looking into whether there was a “pattern of misconduct” at the Windsor Police Department.

Herring formally requested information from the police department, saying he was “deeply concerned” about a traffic stop in which the officers conducted themselves in a manner the attorney general called “dangerous, unnecessary, unacceptable and avoidable.”

Herring told CNN Monday night the officers’ actions were “appalling.”

“And people of color continue to experience brutality and being pepper-sprayed, even killed at the hands of law enforcement, and it’s got to stop,” he said.

“One of the things I am looking into is whether there might have been a pattern of misconduct — of police misconduct, either by these officers specifically or more broadly within the department.”

Herring’s civil rights office has requested any records or other documentation the Windsor Police Department has created regarding the encounter with the officers on December 5, 2020; personnel records for the two involved WPD officers; WPD policies related to use of force, traffic stops, de-escalation and engaging with members of the public; and complaints received by the WPD related to use of force for the last 10 years.

“Under no reasonable use of force policies that I could say any of this conduct be permissible,” Herring said.

News of the police encounter comes as demonstrators call for justice in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota by a police officer during a traffic stop and amid the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd

Arthur said that Nazario had good reason to fear for his life. Guns were drawn when police approached his car, and officers gave him conflicting demands, he said. In body camera footage, Gutierrez is heard telling Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning, son,” which the lawsuit describes as a “colloquial expression for an execution,” particularly in reference to the electric chair.

The officers pepper sprayed and pushed Nazario to the ground during the traffic stop — initiated because the police officers believed the Army officer was missing a license plate on his new SUV, according to the lawsuit.

“You do everything right, you slow down, you submit to the authority of law enforcement, you do the right thing, you wait until a well-lit place to pull over you’re on a dark road — you don’t want anybody to get hurt — and then the officers turn around and repay your courtesy with this,” Arthur said.

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