A police officer in Virginia who confronted a uniformed Black Army medic at gunpoint and doused him with pepper spray during a traffic stop, an exchange captured on video, has been fired, officials said Sunday.
The officer, Joe Gutierrez, was terminated for his role in the Dec. 5 encounter involving Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, the town of Windsor, Virginia, said in a statement posted on its website.
Officials said an internal investigation had determined that Gutierrez’s actions were not consistent with the department’s policies. They did not provide further details on when Gutierrez had been fired.
Body camera footage of the encounter has drawn widespread attention and criticism of Gutierrez, as well as another officer who was also involved in the traffic stop. Both officers were sued April 2 in U.S. District Court in Norfolk by Nazario, who has accused the officers of using excessive force and violating his constitutional rights.
Windsor, a rural town of about 2,700 people that is about 30 miles west of Norfolk, said in the statement Sunday that it had requested an investigation into the traffic stop by the Virginia State Police.
“The town of Windsor prides itself on its small-town charm and the community-wide respect of its Police Department,” the town said. “Due to this, we are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light. Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future.”
There was no lawyer listed for Gutierrez in court records, and efforts to reach him Sunday night were not immediately successful.
Earlier Sunday, Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, a Democrat, said on social media that he had begun an outside review of the encounter.
“The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me — and I am directing the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation,” Northam said. “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 that he would invite Nazario to meet with him for a discussion about police reform.
A lawyer for Nazario, Jonathan Arthur, said in a statement on Monday that his client was “gratified by the outpouring of support” he had received.
While the termination of Gutierrez was “appropriate,” Arthur said, “we must consider steps to decertify officers that engage in this behavior, so that they cannot seek employment with other law enforcement agencies.” Police departments, he added, also must “consider seriously” the failure of officers “to promptly intervene to end an unjust police-civilian encounter as it unfolds.”
The medic was driving to Petersburg, Virginia, from a drill weekend the night of Dec. 5 when he saw police lights flashing behind him.
According to the lawsuit and video footage of the encounter, Nazario, who is Black and Latino, drove about a mile to a gas station because he had been nervous about stopping on a darkened road.
“Get out of the car,” one officer can be heard yelling as Nazario, remaining seated, repeatedly asks why he has been stopped and why the officers have drawn their guns. He positions his empty hands outside the window.
“I’m honestly afraid to get out of the car,” Nazario says.
“Yeah,” says Gutierrez, according to footage from his body camera. “You should be.”
Nazario was wearing his Army uniform at the time.
“I’m serving this country and this is how I’m treated?” he said. “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is you’re fixing to ride the lightning, son,” Gutierrez yells.
After he was sprayed, Nazario began crying and cursing.
The police officers did not arrest Nazario and did not file charges.
In a report from that night, the officers said they had pulled over Nazario because his SUV did not have license plates. Nazario said he had recently bought a Chevrolet Tahoe and was waiting for license plates. Temporary ones had been taped inside the rear window and were visible, according to the lawsuit.