“Huge” police disparities were allegedly discovered in the town of Windsor, Virginia, by investigators, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said Thursday according to The New York Times. As a result, the town is being sued, not only in connection to an incident from December 2020 but for what investigators have called a pattern of discriminatory policing.
“We even discovered evidence that officers were actually being trained to go ‘fishing’ and engage in pretextual stops,” Herring said. During the announcement, Herring recalled the “egregious treatment” of U.S. Army Lt. Caron Nazario, a case that prompted a monthlong investigation into the city and its police department.
“While our investigation was spurred by the egregious treatment against Lieutenant Nazario that we all saw in bodycam footage, we discovered that this incident was indicative of much larger problems within the department,” Herring said Thursday. The investigation revealed “huge disparities in enforcement against African American drivers, and a troubling lack of policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory or unconstitutional policing,” the statement continued.
Nazario was stopped on his way home in his new SUV for not having a license plate on Dec. 5, 2020. But that’s not the issue: When confronted by police officers, Nazario was not only held at gunpoint, but also pepper-sprayed through the window of his vehicle and threatened with death, Daily Kos reported.
While officers claimed it was because he didn’t have a license plate, his newly purchased vehicle clearly displayed a temporary tag. Justification for the stop was never given, resulting in a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Nazario against Windsor officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker. The lawsuit alleged excessive force and other constitutional violations, and claims the officers struck Nazario after he was “compliant and blinded” by pepper spray, NBC News reported.
At the time of the incident, body camera footage found Nazario saying: “I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car.” An officer replied to him saying, “Yeah, you should be.”
According to the Times, the suit is the first time the state of Virginia has sued a law enforcement agency under a new law that gives the attorney general the right to do so in cases involving civil rights violations.
The lawsuit seeks to reform the department through court-ordered policy changes. It notes the disproportionate number of Black drivers stopped within the town. According to the suit, between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2020, Black drivers accounted for 42% of the department's traffic stops, a rate 200% to 500% greater than what it should be based on the size of the area's Black population, NBC News reported. Additionally, the suit found that the number of traffic stops and citations reported to the town council was lower than the number reported to the state for tracking and reporting purposes.
The lawsuit also claims that the department “violated the Virginia Human Rights Act (‘VHRA’) and the Virginia Public Integrity and Law Enforcement Misconduct Act (‘VPLEM’) in its provision of law enforcement services through the Windsor Police Department.” As a result, it requests not only reform but monitoring of the department. A civil penalty of $50,000 for each proven violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act was also noted in the lawsuit.
“We hope with this lawsuit the Town of Windsor will take this matter seriously and they will have no other choice but to sit down and have a results-driven conversation with the African American community,” Valerie Cofer Butler, Isle of Wight County NAACP chapter president, told the Times.
While Windsor town officials did not immediately issue a statement following the lawsuit’s announcement, Chief Rodney Daniel Riddle of the Windsor Police sent a “statement from the town” to the Times, in which he noted that the decision to file a lawsuit against Windsor was “clearly political.”
“Windsor, including its police department, remains vigilant in protecting the rights of all residents of the town, Isle of Wight County, Commonwealth of Virginia and nation, regardless of race or gender, who pass through its limits,” the statement Riddle emailed said.