(The Center Square) – Following a viral video of a controversial police stop, Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle told members of the media he does not believe officers did anything illegal in a controversial traffic stop that went viral. He did say, though, they should have acted differently and the actions damaged the department’s relationship with the community.
On Dec. 5 of last year, Lt. Caron Nazario, who is black and Hispanic, was pulled over by police in Windsor, Virginia for a missing license plate. Nazario did not immediately pull over, but his lawyer has said he slowed down and drove for less than a mile so he could pull into a well-lit gas station. After he stopped, police drew their weapons and eventually pepper sprayed Navaro before putting him in handcuffs.
The police department launched an internal investigation between Dec. 8 and Jan. 28, which led to undisclosed disciplinary actions. It wasn’t until after the video became public and drew media attention that Officer Joe Gutierrez, who pepper sprayed Nazario, was fired. The other officer involved in the stop, Daniel Crocker, who was still in his training phase, is still serving on the force.
“As things continued to unfold, we got to a point Sunday where I lost faith in [Guiterrez’s] ability to continue to serve the community to the standards that we expect him to be to,” Riddle said in a news conference Wednesday.
When Nazario was pulled over, he was given conflicting commands: one officer told him to hold his hands out the window and another told him to get out of his vehicle, which would have required him to reach back into his car to unbuckle his seat belt and open the door. According to a complaint from Nazario’s lawyer, Nazario was confused about what he should do and was worried he would be killed.
Guiterrez can be heard telling Nazario he was “fixing to ride the lightning,” which is sometimes used as an expression to refer to an execution, referencing the method of death from an electric chair. Riddle said in the news conference that he understands this term to refer to being tazed, but said it was inappropriate.
“[Those comments] don’t serve any purpose to build a matter of trust between the officer and the suspect that they’re engaged with,” Riddle said. “...Those kinds of comments just continue to erode an already very rocky relationship that the police have with the public at this time.”
Riddle said there were several times in which the officers could have deescalated the situation verbally to avoid a physical confrontation. He said he and the entire police department were saddened by the video.
However, Riddle said the stop could have been a routine stop that lasted about two minutes if Nazario would have immediately pulled over his vehicle. Riddle said the officers were suspicious because he bypassed several areas in which he could have safely pulled away from the roadway, then cut across four lanes of traffic before stopping. He said the tinted windows and lack of a license plate combined with these actions made the officers particularly suspicious.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced he is working with the state police to investigate the incident. The Office of Civil Rights under Attorney General Mark Herring has also requested documents into the incident and into the history of the police department to see whether there is a pattern of discriminatory policing.
Riddle said he invites the attorney general’s office to investigate the department’s history because there is no history of discriminatory policing.
“There’s nothing there for them to find,” Riddle said. “This is a small seven-man police department. We work 24 hours a day, seven days a week covering this community. These officers love the folks here. We love this community. We’ve been here a long time.”
Referencing an ongoing lawsuit from Nazario, Riddle said he does not believe the police did anything illegal. However, he said that's for the court to decide.
Windsor is a small town of about 2,700 people.