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A Black Army lieutenant is suing Virginia police after being held at gunpoint

2nd Lt. Caron Nazario’s lawsuit shows policing’s systemic racial issues can’t just be boiled down to a few bad apples.

2nd Lt. Caron Nazario was pepper-sprayed and held at gunpoint by police officers in Windsor, Virginia after being pulled over for a purported traffic violation in December. He is now suing the police for violations of his rights.
Windsor Police/AP

A violent, threat-filled traffic stop of a Black and Latinx Army officer, 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, has drawn new attention to the scope of police misconduct as the world watches the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who killed George Floyd.

The incident, which took place in in Windsor, Virginia, in December 2020, has come under new scrutiny following the release of body camera footage, and after Nazario filed a lawsuit in early April against the officers who made the stop. Saturday, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced an investigation into what he called a “disturbing” incident.

Nazario has said he was driving through eastern Virginia when he saw flashing police lights behind him. He did not stop immediately, but turned his hazard lights on and proceeded slowly to a well-lit gas station. His decision to do so — as well as the tinted windows and temporary license plate on his new SUV — apparently caused officers to decide they were about to conduct a “high-risk traffic stop.”

Given this perceived risk level, officer Daniel Crocker stepped out of his police vehicle and immediately pointed his gun at Nazario’s car, shouting at the lieutenant to “get out of the car now.”

“What’s going on?” Nazario asked. “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”

“Yeah, you should be, get out now!” another officer, Joe Gutierrez, can be heard saying immediately after.

Despite Nazario’s questions, the officers didn’t tell Nazario why he was being pulled over: It was because they couldn’t see a license plate on his vehicle. The car was new; a temporary cardboard license plate had been taped to Nazario’s rear window.

Instead, they attempted to forcibly open Nazario’s door, even as Nazario maintained he did not have to exit his vehicle for a traffic violation. Gutierrez then pepper-sprayed Nazario four times, yelling at him to get out of the car as Nazario asked for help unbuckling his seatbelt. Once he was able to unbuckle himself, the lieutenant was forcibly pushed onto the ground.

“Can you please talk to me about what’s going on?” Nazario asked. “Why am I being treated like this, why?”

“Cause you’re not cooperating! Get on the ground! Lie down or you’re gonna get tased,” one of the officers can be heard saying; at one point, Gutierrez can be heard saying, “You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son.”

Ultimately, Nazario was not arrested; as paramedics arrived on the scene to treat Nazario for the pepper spray, Gutierrez said he’d spoken to the police chief, and the department planned to release the lieutenant without any charges.

“There’s no need getting this on your record,” Gutierrez is heard saying in the bodycam footage. “I don’t want this on your record. However, it’s entirely up to you. If you want to fight it and argue ... if that’s what you want, we’ll charge you,” Gutierrez said.

The offer, Nazario’s lawsuit alleges, was an attempted quid pro quo. The lieutenant claims he was told if he didn’t “chill and let this go,” officers would ensure his military record would be damaged. Nazario responded by telling the officers he would let his superiors know what happened.

Gutierrez said in the footage that would be understandable given “the climate we’re in, with the media spewing with the race relations against minorities,” but that any legal action by Nazario “doesn’t change my life one way or the other.”

Ultimately, the incident did change his life; he was fired following an investigation into the incident by the Windsor Police Department. His firing, however, raised the question of whether there are a few “bad apples” in policing, or if behavior like that he and Crocker displayed in December is part of a larger problem with policing.

Police misconduct is a systemic problem

Gutierrez’s firing came because his department found that “Windsor Police Department policy was not followed” during the traffic stop.

“The Town of Windsor prides itself in its small-town charm and the community-wide respect of its Police Department,” the department said in a Sunday press release. “Due to this, we are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light. Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future.”

The statement was markedly similar to a statement made by Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo about his former officer Derek Chauvin’s behavior the day George Floyd died. Testifying during Chauvin’s murder and manslaughter trial, Arradondo, and other law enforcement officials, were particularly impassioned in distancing his police department from Chauvin’s actions.

“That in no way, shape, or form is anything that is by policy,” he said on the stand. “It is not part of our training. It is certainly not part of our ethics or our values.”

As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas writes, statements such as these are part of an effort by police to avoid greater scrutiny into their practices:

While the officers’ testimony can be interpreted as a changing tide in an opaque culture, it’s likelier that the high-profile nature of the trial is forcing them to cast Chauvin as the bad apple — the one officer who doesn’t represent the broader department and system of policing, the one they need to throw out — as a way to avoid greater examination of police.

But when excessive force by police is observed everywhere, not just in Minneapolis, or in St. Louis, in Louisville or Rochester — but in Windsor, Virginia, a town some 50 miles west of Virginia Beach and home to just under 3,000 people, it only adds to the narrative that racist police violence is systemic. The steps taken by the Windsor Police Department are similar to all those testimonies by Minneapolis officers. An immediate distancing from Gutierrez, an admonition. Things like that don’t happen here.

The breadth of prominent incidents of bad policing makes it clear that there is something wrong throughout the US, and research has shown there is a national problem with traffic stops as well. The Stanford Open Policing Project found, after analyzing almost 100 million traffic stops in the US, that Black drivers are about 20 percent more likely to be pulled over by police for traffic violations. And once that happens, Black drivers are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be searched than white drivers, even though white drivers are statistically more likely to have drugs, guns, or other contraband in their cars, according to the decade-long study, conducted by researchers at Stanford and New York University.

And there are a number of bad outcomes for Black drivers at traffic stops that highlight exactly why Nazario told the officers he was “honestly afraid to get out,” from the arrest of Sandra Bland to the death of Philando Castile, to a more recent example.

Sunday, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was killed near Minneapolis during a traffic stop by a police officer who mistook her taser for a gun after he stepped back into his vehicle following a brief struggle.

Nazario was not killed, but incidents like these show why he may have had reason to fear he might be.