When Nazario told police on Dec. 5, 2020, that he was “honestly afraid to get out” of the car, the officer replied, “Yeah, you should be!”
From there, body-cam footage shows police pepper-spraying, striking and handcuffing the 27-year-old, and using a slang term suggesting that he would face execution, the complaint says. The lawsuit claims police also threatened to end Nazario’s military career if he spoke out about the incident.
“I’m serving this country, and this is how I’m treated?” said Nazario, according to body-cam video.
Nazario, who is Black and Latino, filed a lawsuit this month against Windsor officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker alleging excessive force that the lieutenant says was due to racial profiling. The federal lawsuit obtained by The Washington Post, which was filed in the Eastern District of Virginia on April 2, is seeking at least $1 million in damages and for the court to rule that Gutierrez and Crocker violated his constitutional rights, specifically the Fourth Amendment.
“Short of people getting murdered, it’s the most egregious conduct I’ve seen on film by police,” Jonathan Arthur, Nazario’s attorney, said to The Post.
Neither Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle nor Mayor Glyn Willis immediately returned requests for comment Saturday. A town manager told the Virginian Pilot that Gutierrez and Crocker still work for the police department.
The lawsuit comes as the nation continues to deal with incidents of excessive force involving police and people of color. The state of Virginia last year passed a slew of criminal justice changes that addressed policing. New laws took effect last month to limit the use of deadly force by police in Virginia, including a ban on certain dangerous policing tactics that have been a focal point of discussion during the trial of Derek Chauvin in the death of George Floyd.
The body-cam footage of Nazario’s incident went viral over the weekend, with his name trending on Twitter into Saturday. “These cameras captured footage of 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 abuses of authority,” the lawsuit says.
According to the complaint, Nazario, a health services administrations officer at the Virginia National Guard, was still in uniform when he was driving home on Dec. 5. His Chevrolet Tahoe was so new that the Department of Motor Vehicles hadn’t given Nazario permanent plates, so he had cardboard temporary plates taped to the inside of the vehicle. Body-cam footage of the night shows that the temporary tags were visible on the car.
Crocker initiated a traffic stop on Route 460 around 6:30 p.m. because Nazario was lacking a rear license plate, not seeing the temporary plate in the car window, the lawsuit claims. He was soon joined by Gutierrez in Windsor, a small town about 30 miles west of Norfolk. Not wanting to pull over in the dark on a busy road, Nazario slowed down and pulled into a well-lit BP gas station, which took less than two minutes, Arthur said. By doing this maneuver, one that police later said “happens all the time,” Gutierrez told authorities that his training and experience indicated to him that Nazario was “almost certainly” a minority, according to the lawsuit.
The officers considered it a “felony traffic stop,” causing them to draw their weapons and demanding Nazario “obey” their order to get out of the car. Seeing that the situation had escalated, Nazario hit record on his phone and set it on the dashboard of his car.
“What’s going on?” Nazario calmly asked the officers, who were not answering his question.
“You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son,” Gutierrez said, according to Nazario’s cellphone video, invoking a colloquial term for execution by electrocution. Later on, Gutierrez is heard threatening to use a Taser on the man. Arthur said “ride the lightning” was most famously referenced in the movie “The Green Mile,” a film about a Black man facing execution.
Shortly after police refused to say why they had their guns drawn on Nazario, they pepper-sprayed him multiple times, according to video.
“This is f----- up, this is f----- up,” Nazario said, adding that he was trying to breathe. “This is really messed up.”
When a blinded Nazario struggled to take off his seat belt and exit the car, Gutierrez said to him, “You made this way more difficult than it had to be if you just complied!”
Then, Nazario got out of the car and asked for their supervisor. In response, and out of the video’s field of view, Gutierrez delivered “knee strikes” to the Army officer’s legs, which knocked him to the ground, the lawsuit claims. Nazario’s attorney says the two officers proceeded to hit the lieutenant some more before handcuffing him.
During the encounter, Gutierrez could be heard saying to Nazario on his body-worn camera, “I get it, the media spewing race relations between law enforcement and minorities, I get it.”
According to the lawsuit, the officers threatened to destroy his military career if Nazario spoke out about the incident. Nazario was allegedly told by police that if he would “chill and let this go,” then the officers would not press baseless charges of their own against him and would release him, records show.
In an incident report from Gutierrez that’s included in the lawsuit, the officer claimed that his decision to release Nazario without charges was made because he didn’t want the military to “take punitive actions against him.”
“Being a military veteran, I did not want to see his career ruined over one erroneous decision,” Gutierrez wrote.
In an interview Saturday, Arthur, Nazario’s attorney, said that his client seeking at least $1 million in damages is meant to send a message “to officers that this type of behavior will not be tolerated.” Since the encounter with police, Nazario, a graduate of Virginia State University, has had recurring nightmares and gets “freaked out” whenever he sees law enforcement, Arthur said.
“It just blows my mind that two officers thought they could get away with it,” Arthur said. “He did everything right.”
Alex Horton contributed to this report.