NAACP pushes for transparency, qualified immunity repeal after traffic stop involving Army lieutenant

National

WINDSOR, Va. (WAVY) — Activists are calling for transparency and for legislators to again consider abolishing qualified immunity for police officers in the wake of a December traffic stop that resulted in Windsor police officers drawing their weapons and later pepper-spraying a U.S. Army lieutenant.

The December 2020 incident that came to light in a recently filed federal lawsuit has led to national outrage, calls for independent investigations, and the firing of one of the two officers involved.

Even Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston weighed in saying he was “concerned.”

The federal lawsuit filed was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot.

The Isle of Wight Chapter of the NAACP held a press conference on Monday in Windsor alongside state and local leaders to discuss the “horrendous” traffic stop and make a call to action.

The NAACP is asking police to provide additional details about the incident including:

  • When the internal investigation into the traffic stop began and concluded
  • When one of the officers was fired
  • What actions were taken against the other officer involved in the stop
  • What the second officer is doing now if he’s still employed with police
  • What new training has been implemented

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has also agreed to open an investigation into the Windsor Police Department through the Office of Civil Rights, something also requested by activists.

2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, a graduate of Virginia State University currently stationed at Fort Lee, is suing the two Windsor police officers over the traffic stop on Dec. 5, 2020, in which police pointed their guns at him, used pepper spray and said “you’re fixing to ride the lightning,” a reference to the electric chair, the lawsuit says.

In body camera video, Officer Daniel Crocker said he couldn’t see a visible rear license plate on Nazario’s SUV when he initiated the traffic stop. However, there was a temporary tag displayed in a tinted rear window.

The lawsuit said after Crocker turned on his cruiser’s blue lights, Nazario, who is Black and Latino, traveled less than a mile and slowed down until he pulled into a BP gas station. Nazario later told the officers he wanted to stop in a well-lit area.

A second officer, Joe Gutierrez, also arrived in his cruiser behind Crocker, and they classified the traffic stop as “high risk,” because they said Nazario was “eluding police” and his SUV’s window tint prevented officers from seeing inside.

Both officers could be seen on body camera with their weapons pointed at Nazario, who was in his service uniform, and yelling for him to get out of the SUV.

“I’m honestly afraid to get out,” he said. One of the officers told Nazario, “Yeah, you should be!”

A sign quotes a statement Caron made during a traffic stop involving two Windsor police officers (WAVY photo/Drew Robinson)

Gutierrez eventually deployed pepper spray multiple times, and Nazario eventually got out of the vehicle.

Nazario is asking for at least $1 million in damages and for the court to rule that the two officers violated his rights, including rights under the Fourth Amendment.

His attorney, Jonathan Arthur, said Nazario’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated when officers exercised an “unreasonable use of force” and temporarily seized Nazario’s gun that had been in the SUV. He also said they violated the First Amendment by threatening Nazario’s career if he complained.

In a tweet thread Monday, Grinston, the sergeant major of the U.S. Army, said “I’m very proud of him.”

“Like many of you, I was concerned by the video of LT Nazario’s traffic stop in December,” Grinston said. “He represented himself and our Army well through his calm, professional response to the situation … I cannot comment on ongoing litigation, but I’ve been assured he is receiving the support from his leadership he needs during this time.”

Investigations

On Sunday night, hours after Gov. Ralph Northam called for an independent investigation into the matter, the Town of Windsor announced that Gutierrez had been fired after an investigation. Crocker remains with the force.

10 On Your Side was able to confirm independently that Gutierrez was fired Sunday, days after the video of the incident went viral.

Virginia State Police are investigating the incident independently of Windsor. The Town of Windsor said Monday night that the state police investigation had already begun.

A local activist and Windsor native Brandon Randleman spoke during the press conference and said he believes African Americans are cited for traffic violations in the Route 460 corridor — where the traffic stop involving Nazario took place — at a disproportionate rate.

Nazario himself was cited for speeding in the town less than a month before the traffic stop surrounding the lawsuit, according to court records.

On April 15, Windsor police uploaded the body camera footage from that November 7 traffic stop to the Town of Windsor YouTube Channel. The officer is heard on the video, which is more than 16 minutes in length, telling Nazario he was pulled over for driving 54 mph in a 35 mph zone. But soon after the video was posted, it was taken down. 10 On Your Side has reached out to Windsor officials to find out why.

Activists and politicians on Monday called on Virginia Attorney General Herring to conduct an independent investigation into the Windsor Police Department’s practices and patterns.

Del. Jeff Bourne (D-Richmond) was also at the Isle of Wight NAACP press conference and called for Herring to investigate the Windsor Police Department’s patterns. He said the incident highlights the need to examine use of force standards across the state and “double down” on de-escalation training for police.

“That even though we are in the minority in the Town of Windsor we will continue to fight for justice until changes are made. We will not stop fighting until we eradicate all acts of racism once and for all,” said Valerie Butler, president of the Isle of Wight Chapter of the NAACP.

Herring announced he would proceed with the investigation Monday around the same time as the NAACP press conference.

In a letter to Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle Monday, Herring said his office had seen the footage and reports about the traffic stop involving Nazario. He said the Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights has the authority to investigate incidents that “may constitute an unlawful pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by laws of the United States and the Commonwealth.”

In that letter, Herring asked for a list of information “on a rolling basis” to be sent to the Office of Civil Rights. That list includes Windsor police records on the Dec. 5 traffic stop involving Nazario, policies on use of force, complaints about use of force, complaints about treatment on the basis of race, color or national origin, etc.

Qualified immunity

Butler and Virginia NAACP Executive Director Da-Quan Marcell Love also called on Northam to call a special General Assembly session to consider abolishing qualified immunity for police officers.

Supporters argue the legal standard makes it too difficult to successfully sue police for violating a person’s civil rights. Opponents say the protection is essential in a job that requires split-second decisions and eliminating it will lead to frivolous lawsuits that will make it impossible to retain good officers.

The Virginia NAACP has started a petition demanding Northam order a special session.

An effort to repeal qualified immunity during this year’s Virginia General Assembly session fell short earlier this year after a Senate committee rejected the measure, which would have made it easier to sue over misconduct claims against police officers and collect damages in state court.

However, in a statement on Monday, Northam’s office didn’t directly respond when asked if he supports the push to end qualified immunity and if he would consider calling a special session focused on the issue, as the Virginia NAACP is demanding.

“Governor Northam is committed to comprehensive police reform. The Commonwealth has made tremendous progress over the last two years—banning no knock warrants, curbing pretextual stops, mandating crisis intervention training for police, limiting the use of choke holds, establishing civilian review boards—but there is more to do to ensure all Virginians are treated safely, and with basic respect, in interactions with police.”

Alena Yarmosky, Gov. Ralph Northam’s spokesperson

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring (D-Alexandria), who serves as the chair of the Virginia Crime Commission, said that work has yet to begin and it may be a while before the policy is meaningfully considered.

Herring, who supported previous efforts to eliminate qualified immunity, said the commission’s executive committee has already prioritized several topics for 2021. That means, unless members agree to delay that work, the earliest qualified immunity could be thoroughly studied is 2022, according to Herring.

With that timeline in mind, Herring said Congress may be able to act more quickly and comprehensively to achieve reform in this area.

“In my mind, that’s the best way to deal with police reform so that we don’t have different standards in different states,” Herring said.

Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act” for the second time. Among its many provisions is language to eliminate qualified immunity for all local, state, and federal law enforcement officers.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) expressed support for the bill during a virtual press conference on Monday after he was asked about the traffic stop in Windsor.

“I was outraged,” Warner said. “I think it’s time that we pass the Justice in Policing Act, which will not only provide additional training for law enforcement officers, it will prohibit some of the most egregious tactics like choke holds like no knock warrants.”

Bourne said departments need to better vet the candidates for officer positions “because they don’t learn this stuff on the job when they’re hired.”

Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) said culture is a problem among some police officers, and that some don’t have the temperament or professionalism to wear the uniform.

“Culture eats training for lunch,” Scott said.

Town, police department response

On Monday night, the Town of Windsor Manager William Saunders said it has released all body camera footage of Crocker and Gutierrez on the town’s website.

In the same statement, Saunders affirmed the town’s commitment to transparency and “taking actions to rebuild the public’s trust in the Windsor Police Department.”

The town also said the police chief was continuing to put more training in place in “accordance with Department of Criminal Justice standards for the Windsor Police Department, some of which will take place during the Virginia State Police investigation.”

While Gutierrez has been fired, Butler said she felt Crocker also needed to be fired, not simply retrained.

Butler said they plan to focus their local efforts on working with police to ensure officers are engaged in the community and “so people … will be comfortable with them when they see them out in the community.”

BELOW: Watch the full press conference Monday in Windsor.

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