State authorities in Virginia will investigate an encounter captured on body camera that appears to show a police officer threatening to execute a Black Army officer during a traffic stop, officials said Sunday.
The announcement from the Virginia State Police came after Gov. Ralph Northam said he was “angered” by the incident, which occurred on Dec. 5 on a road about 30 miles west of downtown Norfolk.
“Our commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable,” he said.
Northam added that he would invite the U.S. Army officer, Lt. Caron Nazario, for a meeting to discuss police reform.
In a statement, a state police spokeswoman said the department’s superintendent had been in touch with the governor and Rodney Riddle, the police chief of Windsor, where the confrontation occurred.
“At Chief Riddle’s request and the Governor’s directive, the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation is initiating a thorough and objective criminal investigation into the Dec. 5, 2020 traffic stop conducted by the Windsor police officers,” she said.
Windsor’s town manager said in a statement that an internal investigation found that the officers who pulled Nazario over — Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker — did not follow departmental policy. They were disciplined and ordered to take additional training, said the manager, William Saunders.
Gutierrez was later fired, Saunders said.
“The town of Windsor has remained transparent about this event since the initial stop, and has openly provided documents and related video to attorneys for Lt. Nazario,” he said.
In a federal civil lawsuit filed last week, Nazario said he was driving in a newly purchased Chevrolet Tahoe when he encountered police on U.S. Highway 460 in Windsor. He was in uniform at the time of the stop.
Nazario, who is Black and Latino, conceded in his complaint that he didn’t immediately pull over. He instead put on his emergency lights and continued for another 100 seconds, driving under the speed limit, so he could safely park in a well-lit gas station parking lot less than a mile down the road.
That’s when Windsor police Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker pulled guns on Nazario, who was accused of driving without license plates, according to the lawsuit and body camera footage.
Nazario insisted he followed police commands to keep his hands outside the window, but officers allegedly became agitated when he asked what justified the escalated pullover.
“What’s going on? You’re fixin’ to ride the lighting, son,” Gutierrez said, according to the lawsuit and body camera video.
“This is a colloquial expression for an execution, originating from glib reference to execution by the electric chair,” Nazario’s attorney Jonathan Arthur wrote in the lawsuit.
Virginia recently outlawed capital punishment, but put prisoners to death via the electric chair for more than a century. The last prisoner to meet that grisly fate was Robert Charles Gleason Jr., 42, who pleaded guilty to two prison murders and threatened to continue killing until he received the death penalty. He was electrocuted on Jan. 16, 2013.
Nazario told police that he was “honestly afraid to get out” of his SUV, video of the incident showed, before Officer Gutierrez replied, “Yeah, you should be!”
Footage also showed Nazario being pepper-sprayed multiple times, “causing him substantial and immediate pain,” the lawsuit said. It also led to “substantial property damage to Lt. Nazario’s vehicle and choked Lt. Nazario’s dog, who was sitting in the rear of Lt. Nazario’s vehicle, secured in a crate,” according to the suit.
“Gutierrez responded with knee-strikes to Lt. Nazario’s legs to force an already compliant and blinded Lt. Nazario down on his face ostensibly to handcuff him,” Arthur wrote. “Notwithstanding the fact that Nazario was on the ground and in tears, Gutierrez and Crocker continued to strike Lt. Nazario.”
The officers later warned Nazario not to complain about their treatment of him, threatening to criminally charge him, the lawsuit said. If the lieutenant would “chill and let this go,” then no charges would be filed, according to Arthur.
Nazario was ultimately not criminally charged or cited for any traffic violation, his attorney said. A new vehicle tag was clearly visible in Lt. Nazario’s rear window, Arthur claimed.
The officers could not be immediately reached for comment through publicly listed phone numbers.
A town manager told the Virginian Pilot that the officers still work for the police department.
David K. Li
David K. Li is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.
Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News based in California.