Outrage over the encounter, which was seen in a viral video, continued simmering as some prominent Black leaders, including Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and state Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), pushed for something beyond the State Police probe that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ordered Sunday. They want federal officials to investigate.
There was widespread agreement that the tiny Windsor Police Department — with about seven sworn officers, the chief included — should not be entrusted to dig into why Caron Nazario, an Army second lieutenant pulled over because his newly purchased SUV lacked a permanent license plate, was held at gunpoint, pepper-sprayed, struck and handcuffed. The temporary tag was taped to the window, Nazario said in a federal lawsuit he filed against the officers.
“That’s like the fox guarding the henhouse,” Lucas said in an interview Monday. “It has got to be an independent investigation — State Police or preferably the federal level.”
Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor, said only federal law enforcement has “the independence, transparency and resources” to tackle the job.
Calls have been mounting for independent investigations of controversial police-involved incidents in Virginia in recent months, following two fatal shootings of Black men by law enforcement officers and video of the December stop of Nazario. Maryland passed a law requiring independent probes of police-involved fatalities this weekend.
In Virginia, groups such as the NAACP and Black Lives Matter have been joined by state officials including Northam, Herring and various legislators, who say removing the probes from the agencies involved is the best way to ensure public confidence, transparency and impartiality.
Herring announced last week that he was working with the state’s NAACP to overhaul the way police shootings are investigated in the state. One idea is to create a unit within the attorney general’s office that would investigate such shootings, but that would require a change in Virginia law.
In a letter sent Monday to Windsor Police Chief Rodney D. “Dan” Riddle, Herring signaled that he’d launched a sweeping civil rights probe by requesting records of any complaints filed over the past decade related to the department’s traffic stops, use of force or alleged racial bias. The attorney general only recently gained the authority to conduct that sort of “pattern and practice” investigation, under a new law that took effect March 1.
The moves come as Herring, who is seeking his third term, has been criticized by his Democratic challenger, Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (Norfolk), for not acting forcefully enough on police misconduct.
The push for independent probes began to gain steam in March, when the state NAACP asked Herring’s office to look at the shooting of 18-year-old Xzavier Hill by Virginia State Police during a traffic stop in January.
Then family members, activists and state officials called for the Virginia State Police to take over the investigation of the shooting of Donovon Lynch by Virginia Beach police at the end of March, after authorities offered inconsistent accounts of the slaying. Virginia Beach’s police chief acceded to those requests.
Lynch’s family and their attorney held a news conference Monday to dispute the account by Virginia Beach police that Lynch was brandishing a gun when he was shot by a yet-unidentified officer. The family said a witness who was with Lynch told them he did not have a gun out.
Fairfax has called for a federal investigation of Lynch’s death as well.
“On April 5, I attended the funeral of Donovan Lynch,” the lieutenant governor said in a written statement. “He was shot dead on March 26 by a Virginia Beach Police Officer. Donovan Lynch was 25 years old. It is chilling to know that Lt. Caron Nazario easily could have become another fatal tragedy. There must be change and that change must arrive quickly.”
The state’s Democratic officeholders have been the most outspoken about Nazario’s treatment by police, with Fairfax and the four other contenders in the party’s June gubernatorial primary expressing outrage over the episode on Facebook and Twitter. The others are former delegate Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William), Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas), former governor Terry McAuliffe and state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond).
The seven Republicans seeking their party’s nomination have not weighed in on social media, and just two replied to requests seeking comment. A spokeswoman for Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights) said he’d found the video “deeply concerning” and echoed calls for an outside investigation. Former think tank executive Peter Doran said the case “is exactly where it needs to be: in the courts. That means due process.”
“When we work on criminal justice reform issues, it’s made to look like we are against police, and that is not the truth,” said Lucas, who sponsored a Senate bill to prohibit police from making traffic stops for minor infractions. “What we’re trying to do is get these bad cops out of law enforcement.”
One bill that failed in the session — modifying the state law on qualified immunity for police officers — would probably have made it easier for Nazario to mount his lawsuit.
“Lt. Nazario’s situation only underscores the real need for these laws in Virginia,” said state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax).
Windsor officials have said one of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, has been fired. They have not commented on the status of the second officer, Daniel Crocker.
Officials in Windsor, about 30 miles west of Norfolk, also announced that they had posted all body camera footage of the incident on the town website in an effort to “rebuild the public’s trust in the Windsor Police Department.”
Julie Tate and Steve Thompson contributed to this report.