AG Herring files suit against Town of Windsor for pattern of discriminatory policing after Army lieutenant pepper-sprayed during traffic stop

Army Officer Traffic Stop Lawsuit
Posted at 12:48 PM, Dec 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-31 13:37:15-05

WINDSOR, Va. - Attorney General Mark R. Herring filed a suit against the Town of Windsor alleging that its police department has operated in a way that led to discrimination against African-Americans and violated their constitutional rights.

The suit comes after Army Lt. Caron Nazario was pulled over and pepper-sprayed by a Windsor Police officer in December 2020.

During the traffic stop, which was caught on bodycam footage, the officers drew their guns, pointed them at Nazario and used a slang term to suggest he was facing execution.

Footage shows Nazario had his hands in the air as he told the armed officers, “I’m honestly afraid to get out.”

One of the officers responded, “Yeah, you should be!” He then pepper-sprayed Nazario, who is Black and Latino.

“While our investigation was spurred by the egregious treatment against Lt. Nazario that we all saw in bodycam footage, we discovered that this incident was indicative of much larger problems within the department,” Herring said in a statement. “Our months-long investigation uncovered huge disparities in enforcement against African American drivers, and a troubling lack of policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory or unconstitutional policing. We even discovered evidence that officers were actually being trained to go 'fishing' and engage in pretextual stops. That is why I have now filed suit to ensure accountability and to protect Virginians’ rights."

In the suit, filed Thursday, Herring alleges that the Town of Windsor "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."

The suit further states that “The Department lacks adequate policies to ensure that it is using force in a non-discriminatory manner, that it is performing traffic stops in a constitutional, non-pretextual, and bias-free manner, and that members of the public are able to submit and have their complaints heard in a transparent way that upholds the principles of due process.”

According to Herring's office, some of the findings uncovered by the investigation are:

  • Disproportionate traffic stops of Black drivers. Black drivers accounted for approximately 42% of the department’s traffic stops from July 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021 (810 of 1,907 stops.) During that time period, the Town stopped Black drivers between 200% and 500% more often than would be expected based on the number of Black residents in the town or county.
  • Disproportionate searches of Black drivers’ vehicles. From July 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021, the Department searched more vehicles driven by Black drivers than White drivers, even though Black residents do not constitute the majority of the population of the Town or the Commonwealth.
  • Discrepancy in data reported to Town Council and state authorities. For many of the examined months, there was a significant discrepancy between the number of traffic stops and citations reported to the town council and reported to the Virginia State Police for tracking and reporting purposes. In all instances, the numbers reported to the Commonwealth were lower than those shared with the town council, and the discrepancy has not yet been explained.

The suit is seeking a court order barring the Windsor Police Department from engaging in discriminatory law enforcement activities, as well as court-ordered policy changes in the department regarding bias-free traffic stops, consistent use of force and a way for the public to file complaints.

It also seeks a court-ordered period of third-party monitoring for the police department and a civil penalty of $50,000 for each proven violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.

News 3 asked the office of Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares for comment on Herring's lawsuit and received the following statement:

"Attorney General-elect Miyares has been reviewing all the cases being handled by the Attorney General. We look forward to reviewing the facts and applicable law for this suit once the Attorney General-elect takes office."

We also reached out to the Town of Windsor for comment. The town called Herring's decision to file the lawsuit "clearly political," and said there was no need to file a suit.

The town's statement read in part:

"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. Both before and following the incident that occurred over a year ago involving Lt. Caron Nazario, which purportedly prompted the Herring investigation, Windsor practiced non-discriminatory policing, but it still took additional steps in the spring, following media coverage and statements by citizen groups at multiple public hearings, to increase training and accountability. None of those efforts are mentioned in the Herring lawsuit, even though his office and deputies were fully aware of them for several months. Additionally, representatives of the Town and the Attorney General’s office met as recently as December 10 to discuss these advancements."

To read the full statement, click here.

The Isle of Wight County NAACP also released a statement following the Town of Windsor's:

"The Isle of Wight County NAACP is thankful for Attorney General Mark Herring and the Office of Civil Rights in their legal pursuit for a more fair and equal justice system.

"The town’s knee-jerk response to the lawsuit is a reflection of the practice and culture of the town of Windsor and its police department. Since the horrendous video of Lt. Nazario surfaced,  the Town of Windsor has spent more time trying to salvage its image and reputation, instead of protecting the civil and constitutional rights of African Americans in the Windsor community.

"In June the Department Of Justice Office of Community Relation Services stepped in to serve as mediators between the Town of Windsor, their police department, The NAACP, and the African American community to tackle the very issues that have been raised in Attorney General  Mark Herring’s lawsuit. For months we have tried to sit down at the table to negotiate in good faith and at every opportunity, The Town of Windsor has denied us that right.  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.

"Unlike the Town of Windsor, it is our hope that Attorney General - Elect Jason Miyares will focus on protecting the civil rights of African Americans and fully pursue this lawsuit once his office takes over in January.

"The NAACP will continue to communicate to the public our next steps regarding this matter in the coming days."

Later Thursday, one of Nazario's attorneys in his federal civil case said, "We're glad to see that the state is taking this case as seriously as we do."

The attorney also said in regards to the March trial that's been set, "We're locked and loaded and ready to try the case."