PETERSBURG, Va. — While he said he felt bad for how the events of a traffic-stop late last year unfolded, the police chief of the town where a Black and Latino military officer from Petersburg, Virginia, was accosted by two of his officers said Wednesday that he does not think the soldier is in need of an official apology.
In response, Army Lt. Caron Nazario's legal team said Windsor Police Department Chief Rodney D. Riddle "continues a false narrative" of the case and blaming their client for initiating it. They said the video of the stop "shows otherwise" that their client was nothing but compliant.
"I'm gonna own what we did," Riddle said about the stop during a news conference Wednesday in the Isle of Wight County, Virginia, community where Nazario was stopped last December while on his way home. "My guys missed opportunities to verbally de-escalate that thing and change that outcome."
When asked by a reporter if Nazario was owed an apology for that, Riddle replied: "I don't believe that," adding he wished the driver "would have complied a whole lot earlier."
Video of the traffic stop at a BP gas station in Windsor, Virginia — about 50 miles southeast of Petersburg — shows officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, with guns drawn, ordering Nazario out of his vehicle after he was stopped for allegedly not having a rear license tag. Nazario was returning to Petersburg following an assignment.
Gutierrez, the closest to Nazario in the video, repeatedly tells Nazario to get out while Nazario repeatedly asks why he was stopped.
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At one point, Gutierrez reaches for his taser and threatens Nazario with "riding the lightning," an idiom for tasering or death by electrocution. He later sprays Nazario in the face with oleoresin capsicum, commonly called pepper spray.
Nazario was eventually pulled out of the car and placed in handcuffs on the ground. Eventually, the officers notice that the rear tag was taped to the inside of the rear windshield, and they let him go. According to the video, they told Nazario to keep quiet about the stop under the threat of facing more charges.
That happened on Dec. 5, 2020. Earlier this month, Nazario's attorney filed a $1 million lawsuit against the officers in Norfolk federal court.
Gutierrez, a field training officer for the seven-person Windsor police department, was fired following an internal investigation by the department. Crocker, a Windsor native and rookie on the force, was disciplined because Riddle said in the video, he noticed Crocker attempting to diffuse the tension.
"If you've watched the video, officer Crocker makes an effort to de-escalate that situation verbally when he changes his pitch, his tone, his demeanor," said Riddle, adding he has known Crocker since he was 14 years old. "That is somebody right there who has the makings of being a policeman that sees, that understands what's important."
Both the Virginia State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are conducting external investigations into the traffic stop.
As for Gutierrez, Riddle said the decision to fire him was a combination of the results of the investigation plus what the chief saw on the video. "As a result of all those things, I've lost my confidence in him to be able to effectively engage this community," Riddle said.
While not condoning the way the situation played out on the video, Riddle defended the way in which the officers initially handled the events leading up to the stop. Nazario claims in his lawsuit that he did not stop right away when he saw the police lights because he was looking for a well-lighted lot to pull into where everyone would be safe.
"There were things that led up to that traffic stop, there were certain actions that Mr. Nazario took that raised red flags for those officers based on their training," Riddle said. "They may be dealing with something beyond an ordinary run-of-the-mill stop. Those officers initially reacted relatively well in my opinion."
The chief said he has not spoken with Nazario or his lawyer about the incident, adding he was glad no one was seriously hurt in the stop.
Nazario's legal team begged to differ.
"OC spray hurts," attorneys Jonathan Arthur and Andrew Bodoh said in a statement released by their office. "Being threatened with 'riding the lightning' hurts. Being told you should be afraid to follow police commands hurts."
Riddle called the ensuing actions "a teachable moment' in how not to handle such issues in a calm manner. "That was inappropriate and created unnecessary fear in Mr. Nazario," Riddle said.
At one point in the video, Nazario was heard saying he was "afraid" to get out. Gutierrez responded, "You should be."
"That was inexcusable," Riddle said of Gutierrez's comment.
Nazario's lawyers contend that their client obeyed the officers' request to stop by using the turn signal to show he was looking for a safe place to stop. They also said Nazario responded quickly to each of the commands.
"The Officers’ decision not to communicate information to allay Lieutenant Nazario’s reasonable fears of facing guns, despite Lieutenant Nazario’s compliance, continued the one-sided escalation of this interaction," the statement from Arthur and Bodoh read.
"The chief continues a false narrative and victim-blaming," they said. "He claims Second Lieutenant Nazario did not comply. The video shows otherwise."
Follow Bill Atkinson on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI
This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Police chief says Army officer not owed apology for pepper-spraying