In his first comments about the case since it drew national attention late last week, Riddle insisted that Army 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, 27, had “created” the tense situation by failing to respond immediately on the night of Dec. 5 when a town police car flashed its lights to pull him over for failing to properly display a rear license plate.
Nazario’s lawyer rejected the chief’s statements as “victim blaming.”
But Riddle condemned the actions of officer Joe Gutierrez for escalating the situation after Nazario, who is Black and Latino, stopped at a gas station and hesitated to get out of his car as the officers screamed at him with guns drawn.
“That video is horrible. It doesn’t speak well of the way the police officer handled the situation,” Riddle said at a news conference at Windsor Town Center in this rural outpost about 30 miles west of Norfolk.
Nazario, who was wearing his Army fatigues during the traffic stop, has filed a federal lawsuit alleging police used excessive force and subjected him to racial profiling. He is seeking $1 million in damages.
Riddle also acknowledged for the first time that the federal government is investigating the department, saying FBI agents accompanied investigators from the Virginia State Police when they visited Monday.
“They asked for certain access to things, that access was granted, questions answered that they had and materials provided to them,” he said.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered a state police probe of the incident Sunday and had called for a federal investigation. Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) also launched a civil rights investigation into the office and the practices of the Windsor Police Department over time.
“They won’t find anything,” Riddle said Wednesday, calling the Nazario situation a “one-off incident.”
The Army officer said in court filings that he had recently purchased the SUV and put cardboard temporary tags inside the windows.
When police flashed their lights at him, according to the suit, he kept driving to find a safe, lighted spot to pull over. Then he said he felt confused and afraid as the officers responded with force, refusing to get out of the car and recording some of the encounter with his phone. The video his lawyers released also included police body-camera footage.
As Nazario asked the officers what was going on, Gutierrez, a veteran policeman, could be heard in the video saying, “You’re fixin’ to ride the lightning, son,” using a slang term that can mean execution.
When Nazario said he was afraid to get out, Gutierrez responded: “You should be.” Eventually the officer pepper-sprayed him, hauled him from the vehicle and, with his partner, Daniel Crocker, forced Nazario to the pavement and cuffed him. Nazario was eventually released without charges.
Riddle said Wednesday that the initial part of the incident — not seen on video — satisfied him that the officers started out responding correctly.
“Lt. Nazario took certain actions that created where we got to and I think we’ll let the courts work that part of it out,” Riddle said.
He said the department opened an internal incident report on Dec. 8 and concluded the investigation Jan. 28. Disciplinary measures were taken, Riddle said, but he declined to specify them, saying it was a personnel matter.
But Gutierrez was not fired until Sunday, after the video had become public and caused a national outcry, joining the broad debate about racial equity as fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is on trial in last year’s killing of George Floyd.
“As this thing kind of gathered legs and became viral, I personally felt there was no way he could continue to serve our community,” Riddle said. He did not directly answer questions about whether Gutierrez’s actions alone should have been enough for dismissal.
But he said the officer’s heated comments to Nazario were “not how it’s done. . . . That was inexcusable. It made me mad.”
Crocker, the other officer, was a different case, Riddle said. He had graduated from police academy training in October and was still in “field training,” the chief said. Gutierrez was supervising him and should have set a better example, Riddle said.
Riddle praised Crocker for showing proper instincts during the standoff.
“If you watch the video, you see several times where Officer Crocker makes an effort to de-escalate,” he said. “That is somebody right there who has the making of being a policeman.”
Adding that “I’ve known Daniel since he was 14,” Riddle said that after further training, Crocker “will continue to serve this community well. This was a teaching moment.”
As he veered from praising some of his officers’ actions to condemning them, Riddle stressed that such real-world situations play out very quickly and are easy to second-guess when watching video.
He said that because Nazario had no visible tags, could not be clearly seen through tinted windows, passed several well-lit areas where he could have pulled over and then “cut across four lanes of traffic” to pull into the gas station, the situation raised several red flags for the officers.
Asked if he had anything to say to Nazario, Riddle said: “I’m glad that he’s OK. At the end of the day I’m glad nobody got hurt, that situation ended the best way it could’ve. I wish he had complied a lot earlier.”
But is Nazario due an apology? “I don’t believe so,” the chief said.
In a lengthy statement, Nazario’s lawyer, Jonathan M. Arthur of Richmond, criticized Riddle’s explanation of events, saying the officers used shoddy policing.
“The statements from the Police Chief of Windsor today demonstrate the systemic policing issues that generate civil rights violations across the country,” Arthur wrote.
Arthur said Nazario did in fact comply with police demands, and he questioned the chief’s claim that no one got hurt.
“OC [pepper] spray hurts. Being threatened with ‘riding the lightning’ hurts. Being told you should be afraid to follow police commands hurts,” the statement read.
Riddle said he was committed to rebuilding the trust of the community. He said he was pursuing training programs for the seven-person force, including recognizing implicit bias. He said he would undertake weekly meetings with the town council and local stakeholders such as the NAACP.
The situation, he said, is “bad. It doesn’t help us, it doesn’t help the community. It doesn’t have any place in the community. . . . Yes, it upset me.”
Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.