The police chief of the small Virginia town where Caron Nazario was pulled over at gunpoint, threatened, and pepper-sprayed said the incident “upset” him. But he still doesn’t believe the Army lieutenant is owed an apology.
Windsor Police Chief Rodney “Dan” Riddle acknowledged during a press conference Wednesday that an internal investigation into the controversial Dec. 5 traffic stop concluded in late January.
Riddle viewed body-camera footage of the incident multiple times, he said. And some level of disciplinary action was taken, which Riddle declined to describe.
Then the four-month-old incident went hugely viral, in part because Nazario, who was in uniform at the time of the traffic stop, filed a lawsuit against the cops on April 2, alleging violations of his constitutional rights. (The lawsuit was first reported by the Virginian-Pilot.) And the police department had to act again.
As the traffic stop drew outrage and national media attention, the chief “got to a point” over the weekend where it became clear that one of the two officers involved could no longer serve the community, Riddle said. So, Joe Gutierrez, who pepper-sprayed Nazario and told him he “should be” afraid, was fired.
The state’s attorney general said he’d investigate the department for an “unlawful pattern or practice of conduct.” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam called the treatment of Nazario, a Black and Latino man, “disturbing.” Even the FBI is investigating, according to the Virginian-Pilot.
Despite all that, Riddle seemed to at times defend the officers and deflect blame toward Nazario during his press conference Wednesday. When asked if he had anything to say to Nazario, for example, he said: “At the end of the day, I’m glad that nobody got hurt, that the situation ended the best way it could’ve. I wish he would have complied a whole lot earlier.”
“I’m going to own what we did wrong,” Riddle said. “My guys missed opportunities to verbally de-escalate that thing and change that outcome.”
Still, when asked if he thought the department should apologize to Nazario, Riddle said: “I don’t believe so.”
“Lt. Nazario took certain actions that created where we got to,” Riddle said. “And I think that, you know, we’ll let the courts sort that part of it out, and litigate that part.”
Jonathan Arthur, the attorney representing Nazario in his lawsuit, slammed Riddle’s comments in a lengthy press statement Wednesday. The president of the local Isle of Wight NAACP also called for Riddle’s resignation in the wake of his comments, according to WTKR, a CBS affiliate in Norfolk.
“The chief says he is glad that no one got hurt. OC spray hurts,” Arthur said, referring to the pepper spray Gutierrez used on Nazario. “Being threatened with ‘riding the lightning’ hurts. Being told you should be afraid to follow police commands hurts.”
The video of the traffic stop showed that officers “missed some serious opportunities,” Riddle said, while adding that Nazario had raised red flags. The officers treated the traffic stop as a high-risk encounter and drew their weapons because Nazario had allegedly taken a while to pull over, had tinted windows, and lacked a license plate. The cops initially handled the situation well, Riddle said.
But the SUV was newly purchased, and temporary tags were visible on the back of the vehicle, according to the lawsuit filed by Nazario. And he began to slow down within seconds of Windsor Police Officer Daniel Crocker initiating the traffic stop. He drove less than a mile only so he could reach a well-lit BP gas station.
Riddle noted that both officers were relatively new to the department, although Gutierrez had more experience, while Crocker was a recent graduate of the police academy and was still in field training. Crocker made an effort to de-escalate the encounter, Riddle said, and “has the makings of being a policeman.”
“As the event unfolded, there were some moments there where the use-of-force continuum—escalation of force, de-escalation of force—they actually were doing,” Riddle said. “They came out with their firearms. Officer Gutierrez transferred to his Taser, then eventually to his pepper spray, and then went hands-on. So that’s coming down the use-of-force continuum.”
“What they missed, though, was the opportunities to verbally de-escalate that situation,” Riddle said. “To engage Mr. Nazario in a positive manner, and use language to gain compliance from him.”
Riddle pointed out that one phrase used by Gutierrez, ”You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning,” was likely a reference to utilizing a Taser, though it was still inappropriate. The lawsuit alleged it was a “colloquial expression for an execution.”
Riddle also said he was upset by Gutierrez telling Nazario that he “should be” afraid.
“Those kind of comments, they don’t serve any purpose,” Riddle said.
But the small police department still has to reckon with them.
“We’re a small community,” Riddle said. “We’re 2,600 people, and we know just about everybody here. That’s why we have good relationships within our community itself, is our ability to interact with people.”
“That was destroyed by the social media posting, the media coverage of” the incident, he said.