A retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Senate is calling on the Department of Justice to investigate whether there is an "unlawful pattern or practice of conduct" at the police department in Windsor, Virginia, after officers held a uniformed Guard officer at gunpoint and doused him in pepper spray.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking DOJ to investigate whether Windsor police regularly engage in searches and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment, and if officers regularly conduct discriminatory policing.
"Given the alarming nature of the video evidence documenting brazenly violent and disrespectful treatment of an Army Officer wearing his uniform, it is logical to infer that this incident may be indicative of widespread law enforcement misconduct," Duckworth wrote to Garland.
Second Lieutenant Caron Nazario, who is Black and Hispanic, was ordered from his vehicle during a traffic stop in December, which police say was due to a missing license plate on his SUV, although he says he had a temporary tag visible in the back window. What followed was caught on multiple police body cameras.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Sunday he is having State Police conduct its own investigation, saying the incident is "disturbing" and "angered" him.
"Our Commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable," Northam said in a statement.
Nazario, who serves in the Virginia National Guard's 29th Infantry Division, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, saying his rights were violated and he was not charged with any crimes.
In publicly released footage, officers point guns at Nazario and shout contradictory orders, telling him to keep his hands up while also demanding he exit the vehicle. He's later hit with multiple bursts of pepper spray. Nazario tells officers he is afraid to get out of his car, and one responds, "Yeah, you should be." An officer also is heard saying, "You're fixing to ride the lightning, son," which could reference the use of a taser or death by electric chair.
One of the police officers in the encounter, Joe Gutierrez, was fired from the force after an internal investigation found he violated the department's policy on excessive force by pepper-spraying Nazario. The other officer, Daniel Crocker, is still with the department.
The military community responded to the released video with outrage. The Army's top enlisted leader, Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, commended the lieutenant for keeping calm amid officers shouting and pointing weapons at him.
"Like many of you," Grinston tweeted Monday, "I was concerned by the video of [Nazario's] traffic stop in December. He represented himself and our Army well through his calm, professional response to the situation -- I'm very proud of him."
Grinston, who shared a video describing his own challenges with his racial identity, said he has been assured Nazario is receiving support from his unit leadership.
"Situations like this are what I want Soldiers to discuss," Grinston said. "This is the reality that some of our Soldiers still face. As a leader, you should know that and be willing to have conversations about how events like this impact your teams."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.