Virginia’s attorney general filed a lawsuit Thursday seeking a court-ordered monitor for the police force in the small town of Windsor, in the Hampton Roads area, where a Black military officer was subjected to a violent traffic stop that sparked outrage after video of the incident became public last spring.
The lawsuit follows a months-long inquiry in which Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said his office found a pattern of discriminatory behavior by Windsor police, including excessive traffic stops of African Americans, in violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act and the Virginia Public Integrity and Law Enforcement Misconduct Act.
The legal action, filed in state court, comes a year after Army Lt. Caron Nazario, wearing his military fatigues, was held at gunpoint, struck, pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by Windsor police after they stopped him on Dec. 5, 2020, because his newly purchased SUV lacked permanent license plates. He said a temporary tag was taped to a window.
When Nazario told officers that he was “honestly afraid to get out” of his SUV, one of them replied, “Yeah, you should be!”
Herring’s lawsuit says, “At no time did Lieutenant Nazario use or attempt to use force against the officers.”
Video of the incident became public in April after Nazario, who is Black and Latino, filed a federal lawsuit over the incident. The town, 50 miles west of Virginia Beach, is predominantly White, with about 2,700 residents and seven police officers. At least one of two officers involved in the traffic stop was fired.
“While our investigation was spurred by the egregious treatment against Lt. Nazario that we all saw in body-cam footage, we discovered this incident was indicative of much larger problems within the department,” Herring said in a statement. He cited “huge disparities in enforcement against African American drivers and a troubling lack of policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory or unconstitutional policing.”
Joel Rubin, a public-relations executive representing the town, said Windsor officials cooperated with Herring’s inquiry and are “stunned” by the lawsuit. He called the case “clearly political” and said it was filed “for the sake of headlines.”
“Windsor practiced non-discriminatory policing” before the Nazario incident “but it still took additional steps in the spring … to increase training and accountability,” Rubin said in a statement. He said the lawsuit “lacks any context as to what the Town has done over the past year to address any concerns.”
Herring said he wants the court to order the town to “adopt policies and procedures” to ensure bias-free traffic stops, prevent the discriminatory use of force and create an easy, transparent process for the public to file complaints with the department. The court also should order the town to hire an independent monitor to supervise the improvements, the lawsuit says.
It also says the town should be ordered to pay $50,000 in damages for every proven violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.
From July 1, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, Windsor police conducted 1,907 traffic stops, in which 810 of the drivers were Black, according to the lawsuit, filed in circuit court in Isle of Wight County. The lawsuit says that “between nine and twenty-one percent” of Windsor residents are Black, along with about 22 percent of Isle of Wight residents.
“Consequently, the Town stopped Black drivers between 200% and 500% more often than would be expected based on the number of Black residents in the Town or Isle of Wight County,” the lawsuit asserts.
Examining only traffic stops involving Windsor residents, the lawsuit asserts, investigators found that “approximately 40% of traffic stops are conducted on Black drivers, again indicating a stoppage rate of between 200% and 500% more than would be expected based on the number of Black residents of the Town.”
Officers also searched more vehicles driven by Black motorists than by White motorists from July 2020 to September 2021, the lawsuit says.
It says the department “lacks adequate policies to ensure that it is using force in a non-discriminatory manner, that it is performing traffic stops in a constitutional, non-pretextual, and bias-free manner, and that members of the public are able to submit and have their complaints heard in a transparent way that upholds the principles of due process.”
Rubin said Herring’s complaint “cites questionable data on the quantity and nature of traffic stops and searches.” He said that “all traffic stops” by Windsor police are “bias free,” that “the use of force is consistently applied” without racial discrimination and that “the public can file complaints and have them taken seriously.”