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Herring investigation of Windsor Police finds ‘big racial disparities & problems'

Police officer pepper-sprays on person with hands out of car
In this image made from Windsor Police video, a police officer uses a spray agent on Caron Nazario on Dec. 20, 2020. Nazario says his constitutional rights were violated by the traffic stop. (Windsor Police via AP)

Attorney General Mark Herring is suing the Hampton Roads-area town where police officers held an Army lieutenant at gunpoint during a traffic stop one year ago. The lawsuit accuses the town of Windsor of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing against African Americans. This is the first time the attorney general’s office has enforced a new law giving the office authority to investigate and sue local police departments for violating Virginian’s civil rights.

Herring’s office conducted an investigation shortly after a video of the traffic stop circulated on social media last Spring. Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario was in uniform when he was pulled over by Windsor police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker on Dec. 5, 2020. Body camera footage shows the officers pepper spraying and pointing their guns at Nazario.

“What the incident revealed was it was indicative of much larger and deeper problems within the department,” Herring said during an interview with VPM Thursday. “The officer’s conduct was done knowing that they were being videoed. Which means that they thought they could get away with this without any repercussions.”

Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle said during a press conference in April that now-fired officer Joe Gutierrez, who threatened and pepper-sprayed Nazario while he sat in his car, was experienced. The second officer, Daniel Crocker, had graduated from the academy in October and was shadowing Gutierrez. They say they stopped Nazario because they couldn’t see his license plate. But video footage shows a temporary tag in the window.

Nazario waited to pull over until he reached a well-lit gas station, where officers drew their guns. Chief Riddle says he wished Nazario had complied earlier.

“I’m going to own what we did wrong,” he said. “I can't speak for him, but I'm gonna own what we did. My guys missed opportunities to verbally deescalate that thing and change that outcome.”

Riddle says Crocker did, however, try to verbally deescalate, which is why he’s still employed.

Herring’s investigation found racial disparities in traffic stops and vehicle searches. Black drivers were 200-500% more likely to be stopped by police, which Herring says is higher than would be expected based on demographics. 

Herring says officers were instructed to go "fishing" and engage in pretextual stops - meaning, they had a practice of stopping vehicles for minor infractions, hoping to find more serious violations.

The department also had no defined use of force policy, according to the investigation. 

Herring’s office is asking the court to order the department to adopt policies that would prevent biased policing and pretextual stops. They’re also asking for an independent, third-party monitor to oversee the implementation of these policies. The town has the opportunity to respond, but Herring said he hopes the department will implement the reforms quickly so a trial won’t be necessary.

“And I really hope that this sends a strong message to Virginians across the state that they can feel safer - and that trust between them and their community and the law enforcement that serves them will be strengthened,” he said.

The case is brought in the name of the Commonwealth, so it will continue beyond Herring’s term, which ends Jan. 15.

A spokeswoman for incoming Attorney General Jason Miyares said in a statement that Miyares is reviewing all the cases being handled by the Attorney General.

“We look forward to reviewing the facts and applicable law for this suit once the Attorney General-elect takes office.”

The Windsor Police Department did not respond to requests for comment. 

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.