Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Sunday that he has ordered the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation into a December traffic stop that saw two police officers pepper-spraying an army officer.
“The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me—and I am directing the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation,” Northam wrote in a statement.
“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.”
Northam added that he has invited the army officer Lt. Caron Nazario to meet with him.
The encounter, which occurred on Dec. 5, 2020, first drew attention after Nazario sued the two officers alleging that they had violated his constitutional rights.
Body camera footage from that day obtained by The Associated Press shows Nazario, who is Black and Latino, dressed in his uniform holding his hands up as two officers with their guns drawn demanded he get out of his car.
Nazario did not immediately comply, telling the officers that he was “honestly afraid to get out.” One of the officers could be heard saying, “Yeah, you should be! Get out! Get out!”
At one point, officer Joe Gutierrez was seen spraying Nazario, who was still sitting in his car with his hands up, with pepper spray multiple times at close range, before ordering Nazario again to “get out of the car.” Nazario eventually complied.
Nazario could be heard asking the police officers to tell explain “what was going on,” as the two officers tried to force the army officer to the ground.
Gutierrez also allegedly told Nazario during the incident that he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” which the lawsuit says Nazario interpreted as a “colloquial expression for an execution” by an electric chair.
The Epoch Times has been told by law enforcement officers that they commonly use the term to refer to the use of a taser on a suspect.
The police department in charge of the two officers said Sunday they had fired Gutierrez. The department said it had conducted an internal investigation to determine the appropriateness of the actions and found that the officers had not followed police department policy.
“This resulted in disciplinary action, and department-wide requirements for additional training were implemented beginning in January and continue up to the present. Since that time, Officer Gutierrez was also terminated from his employment,” the statement said.
The Town of Windsor has also requested the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation.
The Associated Press reported that during the incident, officer Daniel Crocker who initially encountered Nazario radioed that he was attempting to stop a vehicle with no rear license plate and tinted windows. He said that he believed the driver was a “high-risk traffic stop” because he was “eluding police.”
Nazario’s attorney Jonathan Arthur told the news wire that Nazario was not trying to elude the officer but was searching for a well-lit area “for officer safety and out of respect for the officers.”
Gutierrez, who was driving by, heard Crocker’s call and decided to join the traffic stop.
The article was updated with further clarification about the term “ride the lightning.”