April 11 (UPI) -- Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday said he directed the Virginia State Police to investigate a December traffic stop by two police officers who pepper sprayed and held at gunpoint a uniformed Army service member.
Northam in a statement said the incident in Windsor, about 30 miles west of Norfolk, was "disturbing" and angered him.
"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, adding he has also invited Lt. Caron Nazario for a meeting in the near future.
The investigation was announced after Nazario, an Army medic, filed a lawsuit early this month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, accusing Windsor Police officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker of using excessive force, violating his First and Fourth Amendment Rights and of illegally searching his SUV on Dec. 5 when they pulled him over.
According to the lawsuit, which was first reported on by The Virginian-Pilot, Nazario, who is Black and Hispanic, was in his uniform when pulled over ostensibly for lacking a license plate on his vehicle.
His lawyers argue in the document that despite learning there was a license plate the officers escalated the situation by reporting it as a high-risk felony stop, pulling their weapons, detaining Nazario, threatening his life, spraying him with peppery spray and searching his vehicle.
"Finally, to cover up their illegal actions and to extort silence from Lt. Nazario, the Defendants threatened to destroy Lt. Nazario's military career with a series of baseless criminal charges if Lt. Nazario decided to seek redress regarding their conduct," the lawsuit states. "They escalated this traffic stop with what they acknowledged was an 80% certainty that Lt. Nazario was a minority."
The incident was a captured on the officers' body-warn cameras as well as by Nazario's cellphone, showing what his lawyers say is "behavior consistent with a disgusting nationwide trend of law enforcement officers, who, believing they can operate with complete impunity, engage in unprofessional, discourteous, racially biased, dangerous and sometimes deadly abuse of authority."
The lawsuit states that Nazario was driving a new SUV, which had a cardboard temporary plate taped to the inside of the rear window as he awaited to receive a new one from the DMV.
After pulling Nazario over, the officers pulled their weapons as Nazario repeatedly asked what was happening.
Gutierrez told Nazario that he was "fixin' to ride the lightning," an expression referring to execution by electric chair, the lawsuit states based on the obtained footage of the traffic stop.
Nazario told the officers who had been asking him to get out of the vehicle that he feared to do so and then Gutierrez attempted to remove him from the vehicle before pepper spraying him multiple times and without warning, the document said.
Gutierrez removed Nazario from the vehicle and conducted knee strikes to Nazario to force him down to the ground and then put him in handcuffs, the lawsuit states, adding the officers then "began an interrogation that was, in fact, a thinly veiled attempt to get Lt. Nazario to agree to their attempt to reframe the events to obscure their culpability and to frame Lt. Nazario as being at fault."
Nazario, who was released without charges, is seeking $1 million in damages, the lawsuit states.
The town of Windsor released a statement Sunday acknowledging the traffic stop and stating an internal investigation was conducted as per department policy in situations of use of force finding the officers had acted inappropriately.
"This resulted in disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January and continue up to the present," it said. "Since that time, officer Gutierrez was also terminated form his employment."
"The Town will continue to provide information related to this event in its commitment to openness. The Town has also requested an investigation of this event by the Virginia State Police, and joins with elected officials who have called for a full and complete review of the actions of these officers," it said.