Virginia’s attorney general filed a lawsuit Thursday against the town of Windsor, seeking changes in policing and saying that his office’s monthslong investigation uncovered evidence of discriminatory, unconstitutional policing.
The Windsor Police came under scrutiny after an incident in December 2020, when police officers threatened and pepper-sprayed Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino military officer, at a traffic stop, an encounter that was caught on camera.
Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, said in a statement that “while our investigation was spurred by the egregious treatment against Lt. Nazario that we all saw in bodycam footage, we discovered that this incident was indicative of much larger problems within the department.”
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The investigation revealed “huge disparities in enforcement against African American drivers, and a troubling lack of policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory or unconstitutional policing,” the statement said.
This was the first time the state of Virginia has sued a law enforcement agency under a new law that gives the attorney general the right to do so in cases involving civil rights violations. About 2,600 people live in Windsor, a town roughly 70 miles southeast of Richmond.
Chief Rodney Daniel Riddle of the Windsor Police emailed a “statement from the town” and the police department that said the decision to file a lawsuit against Windsor was “clearly political.”
“Windsor, including its police department, remains vigilant in protecting the rights of all residents of the town, Isle of Wight County, Commonwealth of Virginia and nation, regardless of race or gender, who pass through its limits,” the statement said.
Nazario, of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, was driving to Petersburg, Virginia, last year when he saw police lights flashing behind him. He did not want to stop on a dark road, so he drove about 1 mile to a gas station, according to a lawsuit and video footage of the encounter.
When he stopped, a Windsor police officer ordered Nazario, then 27, to get out of his car. Nazario asked why he had been stopped and why the officers had drawn their guns.
“I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” he said as he stayed in his seat.
“Yeah,” says one of the officers, according to footage from his body camera. “You should be.”
The officers proceeded to pepper-spray Nazario while he was in his car as he pleaded for them to make sure his dog, Smoke, was not choking in the back of the car.
In April, an officer involved in the stop, Joe Gutierrez, was fired from the police department. The attorney general announced an investigation that month.
The state’s lawsuit seeks court-ordered policy changes in the Windsor Police Department, including that traffic stops are conducted without bias and that use-of-force incidents are reported in compliance with state law.
It also seeks a court order barring the Windsor police from engaging in discriminatory activities and a court-ordered period of independent monitoring of the department, at its own expense, with a civil penalty of $50,000 for each proven violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.
The attorney general’s investigation found that Black drivers accounted for about 42% of the department’s traffic stops from July 2020 through Sept. 2021. That number was much higher than expected based on the number of Black residents in the town, the office said. In addition, the number of traffic stops and citations reported to the town council was lower than the number reported to the state for tracking and reporting purposes.
Windsor is one of nearly 100 Virginia communities to receive federal grants encouraging tickets. Awarded by state authorities, the annual grants ranged last year from $900 to the village of Exmore for catching seat belt violations, to $1 million to Fairfax County for drunken-driving enforcement. Windsor got $15,750 to target speeders.
After the footage of Nazario’s stop was released last year, Windsor leaders moved to pursue ways to slow traffic “while reducing police and citizen contacts,” including electronic signs and rumble strips. The Windsor police also ended grant-funded patrols, saying it was “in the best interest of our agency and our community.”
On Friday, the statement sent by Riddle said that the police department practices nondiscriminatory policing and has taken additional steps since the incident to increase training and accountability.
The statement also called the data cited in the attorney general’s investigation “questionable.” It said that the town’s seven-person police force includes minority representation. “There was no need for Mr. Herring to file this lawsuit, except perhaps for the sake of headlines, which he will surely receive,” the statement said.
A spokesperson for the town, Joel Rubin, said the attorney general’s numbers were questionable because they did not take into account many people passing through the town, which is along a highway, Route 460.
In April, Nazario filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. He accused the officers of illegally searching his car, using excessive force and violating his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments. He also accused the officers of threatening to destroy his military career by charging him with multiple crimes if he raised concerns about their conduct, according to the complaint.
A lawyer for Nazario could not immediately be reached for comment.
Valerie Cofer Butler, president of the NAACP chapter for Isle of Wight County, thanked the attorney general for taking action and said the group had tried for months to “negotiate in good faith” with Windsor leaders.
“We hope with this lawsuit, the Town of Windsor will take this matter seriously and they will have no other choice but to sit down and have a results-driven conversation with the African American community,” she said.
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