Windsor settles suit with AG over police misconduct

Published 2:03 pm Saturday, September 16, 2023

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Windsor has reached a written settlement with Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares to resolve a lawsuit alleging an “unlawful pattern” of conduct by the town’s police department.

The 11-page court order, which Judge H. Thomas Padrick signed on Sept. 7, imposes no monetary fine, but rather requires the town to obtain accreditation from the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission, which Miyares termed the “gold standard in policing” in a news release.

The town is further required to, within 90 days, create a policy requiring an “independent third-party review system” for misconduct and use-of-force complaints. All complaints, and the results of the third-party review, are to be submitted annually to the Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights over the next three years.

Miyares’ predecessor, Mark Herring, filed the lawsuit 17 days before he left office after overseeing a state probe into a 2020 traffic stop where Windsor officers held a Black and Latino National Guardsman, 1st Lt. Caron Nazario, at gunpoint and pepper-sprayed him. The case was the first of its kind under a 2021 state law intended to stop systemic civil rights violations by law enforcement.

“What we all saw in the shocking traffic stop video involving Army Lt. Caron Nazario was an egregious and unjust use of power,” Miyares said. “I join the hundreds of thousands of good and decent law enforcement officers who stand against the kind of police misconduct we witnessed. Police are the only government entity that has a monopoly on the use of force in American society, so it’s important that they be good stewards of that responsibility and strive for excellence in the administration of justice. Excessive use of force and violations of constitutional liberties will not be tolerated in Virginia.” 

The settlement agreement, however, asserts that the town “does not admit to any violations” of the 2021 law or any other federal or state laws.

The written settlement comes nearly a month after Windsor’s Town Council voted 5-1 on Aug. 8 to enter into an agreement with the state, following a closed-session meeting on Aug. 8.

Windsor Mayor George Stubbs did not immediately respond to The Smithfield Times’ request for comments. Councilman Jake Redd, who’d cast the sole dissenting vote at the Aug. 8 meeting, called the state’s claims against the town “overreach” but said the town had “very little choice” but to settle due to “a financial crunch that the state is pushing us into.”

Town Attorney Fred Taylor provided the newspaper with a written statement on behalf of Windsor, which asserts the settlement “upholds the Town’s obligation to its community to avoid further unfair and unjustified financial impositions placed upon the citizens of Windsor by the Office of the Attorney General” and “successfully ends any debate on whether the Town violated” the 2021 law.

The town’s statement asserts there “is no, and never has been, any pattern of discrimination in the Town of Windsor Police Department.”

Valerie Butler, past president of the Isle of Wight County NAACP, called the settlement “a win for those citizens of the town of Windsor and others who have been unjustly stopped” while driving.

“The town of Windsor and their police department has continued to maintain they were innocent, however, this Circuit Court consent order shows otherwise,” Butler said.

Herring’s original complaint had sought a $50,000 civil penalty against the town for each proven violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act. The signed settlement agreement, however, makes no mention of monetary damages. Rather, the order states the Windsor Police Department is to apply to the U.S. Department of Justice for a $165,000 grant to become an accredited agency.

When Miyares took over in mid-January 2022 the case saw a complete turnover in personnel and a near-total rewrite of its original claims. While it still alleged “racially-biased traffic enforcement, searches, seizures, detentions and excessive force,” it no longer included Hearing’s allegation that Windsor police disproportionately stop Black motorists.

Herring had originally alleged that Black drivers accounted for 42% of the town’s traffic stops from July 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2021, though Black people account for only 21% of the town’s population and 22% of Isle of Wight County’s. Windsor had responded to Herring’s allegation by claiming in a court filing that the statistic didn’t account for the number of non-residents who pass through Windsor on Route 460, a four-lane highway.

Windsor’s statement asserts that from 2016 through 2023 only 20 of its Police Department’s 23,000 interactions with citizens involved use of force, and that only six of those use-of-force incidents involved African Americans.

Nazario sued Windsor officers Daniel Crocker and Joe Gutierrez in 2021, the latter of whom was fired after video footage of the encounter went viral online and sparked accusations of racism. A nine-member jury awarded Nazario $3,685 in January – far less than the $1 million-plus Nazario and his attorneys had requested – after finding Gutierrez liable for assault and Crocker liable for having illegally removed a firearm from Nazario’s car.

Crocker had pulled Nazario over the night of the incident for allegedly lacking a rear license plate. Nazario had a temporary, expired New York tag taped to his car’s rear window, but Crocker said he didn’t see it and accused the guardsman of eluding police for having driven roughly a mile down Route 460 before stopping at a BP gas station. Gutierrez, who was Crocker’s training officer at the time, responded to the scene when Crocker reported a “felony traffic stop” to dispatchers.

The two officers approached Nazario with guns drawn, and shouted conflicting commands at him to exit his vehicle and keep his hands outside the car’s window. Body camera footage recorded Gutierrez telling Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” a phrase Nazario alleged in his suit to refer to an execution but Gutierrez argued was a reference to a taser.