August 1, 2021

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Virginia Opens Investigation Over Army Officer Who Was Pepper-Sprayed – The New York Times

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The attorney general of Virginia said on Monday that he was investigating whether there was an “unlawful pattern or practice of conduct” at the Windsor Police Department after a uniformed Black U.S. Army medic was held at gunpoint and doused with pepper spray by its officers.

Two members of the Police Department conducted a traffic stop on Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, in December, during which one of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, threatened Lieutenant Nazario before dousing him with pepper spray and pushing him to the ground, according to body camera footage of the episode.

Mr. Gutierrez’s actions were “appalling” and “dangerous,” Mark Herring, the attorney general, said in an interview on CNN on Monday night.

His office has requested records from the Windsor Police Department from as far back as a decade as part of its investigation into “whether there might have been a pattern of police misconduct either by these officers specifically or more broadly within the department,” Mr. Herring said.

“If so,” he said, “then we’ve got more work to do to make sure that this never happens there again.”

Mr. Gutierrez was fired after the Police Department conducted an internal investigation into the episode and determined that he had not followed the department’s policies, the town said in a statement on Sunday.

An investigation was underway by the Virginia State Police, Mr. Herring said, adding that it was important to also have an “independent, unaffiliated agency to fully investigate and to make sure that there is accountability.”

The investigation by the attorney general’s office was seeking to determine if “this is an isolated incident” or if there had been previous complaints of “unconstitutional policing or brutality” by the officers or the department, said Mr. Herring, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year.

The attorney general’s office has requested the personnel records for the two officers involved in the traffic stop, as well as records of any complaints to the department over the last 10 years regarding the use of force, traffic stops or “treatment on the basis of race, color and/or national origin,” according to a letter sent on Monday to the chief of police, Rodney Daniel Riddle.

A representative for Chief Riddle did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The town said in its earlier statement that the episode had resulted in disciplinary action and “departmentwide requirements for additional training,” and that Windsor would “continue to provide information related to this event in its commitment to openness.”

Lieutenant Nazario filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia this month accusing the officers of illegally searching his car, using excessive force and violating his rights under the First Amendment. The lawsuit seeks $1 million in compensatory damages.

In footage of the traffic stop, Lieutenant Nazario says to the officers: “I’m serving this country and this is how I’m treated? What’s going on?”

Mr. Gutierrez yells, “What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son.”

In the lawsuit, Lieutenant Nazario also accused the officers of threatening to destroy his military career by charging him with multiple crimes if he complained about their conduct.

Mr. Gutierrez told Lieutenant Nazario that the police chief had given him the discretion to let him go so long as the lieutenant did not “fight and argue.” Mr. Gutierrez also threatened that he would write a summons if Lieutenant Nazario did not “chill” about the traffic stop, and that the Army would be alerted if a summons were written. Lieutenant Nazario said he would be alerting his supervisors about what had occurred.

Michael Grinston, sergeant major of the Army, said in a tweet on Monday that he was proud of Lieutenant Nazario, who he said had “represented himself and our Army well through his calm, professional response to the situation.”

In his interview with CNN, Mr. Herring said that “it was Lieutenant Nazario who was the calm one — who was the responsible one.”

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