Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Sunday he is directing state police to investigate an encounter captured on body camera that appeared to show a police officer threatening to execute a Black Army officer during a traffic stop.
Northam said in a statement that 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.
Messages left with the police department and the town attorney in Windsor, where the confrontation occurred, were not immediately returned Sunday.
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.