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Army Lieutenant Sues Police Officers In Virginia For Excessive Force

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The police department in Windsor, Va., has fired an officer involved in a traffic stop. Video shows two officers stopping a Black and Latino Army lieutenant. He was held at gunpoint and was pepper-sprayed. The lieutenant is now suing. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Caron Nazario was behind the wheel of his brand-new Chevy Tahoe, according to the lawsuit, when he was pulled over by police in Windsor, Va., in December of 2020.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN WAILING)

ROSE: One of the officers wrote in a report that Nazario was eluding police, but Nazario's lawyer says he was simply looking for a well-lit place to pull over. What happened next was recorded both by police bodycam video and by Nazario himself on his cellphone, videos that are now evidence in the lawsuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #1: Open the door. Get out of the car.

ROSE: Two police officers approached the car with their guns drawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

CARON NAZARIO: Why are your weapon drawn? What's going on?

ROSE: Nazario is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and is wearing a military uniform. He raises his hand in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

NAZARIO: I'm serving this country, and this is how I'm treated?

ROSE: In one of the bodycam videos, an officer says he initially stopped Nazario for not having a rear license plate, although the footage later shows that a temporary tag was visible in the rear window. Still, the officers repeat their commands for Nazario to get out of the car.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

NAZARIO: I'm honestly afraid to get out. Can I...

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #2: Yeah, you should be. Get out. Get out.

NAZARIO: What's going on?

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #1: Get out the car.

NAZARIO: What did I do?

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #2: Get out now.

NAZARIO: I have not committed any crime.

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #2: You're being stopped for a traffic violation. You're not cooperating at this point right now, you're under arrest...

NAZARIO: For a traffic...

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #2: You're being detained. OK? You're being detained for...

NAZARIO: For a traffic violation, I do not have to get out the vehicle. You haven't even told me why I'm being stopped. Get your hands...

UNIDENTIFIED WINDSOR POLICE OFFICER #2: Really? Get out the car now. Get out of the car.

ROSE: A few moments later, the video shows one of the officers squirting Nazario in the face with pepper spray before pulling him out of the vehicle. Jonathan Arthur is Nazario's lawyer.

JONATHAN ARTHUR: If they'll do this to a uniformed officer, what are they going to do to a normal person?

ROSE: Arthur says police eventually let Nazario go without any charges, but threatened to derail his military career unless he kept quiet.

ARTHUR: He's now putting himself out there, facing this retaliation to try and prevent this from happening to anyone else.

ROSE: The federal lawsuit accuses the officers of assault and racial profiling and seeks $1 million in damages. On Sunday, Governor Ralph Northam announced an independent investigation led by Virginia State Police. And the town of Windsor announced that police officer Joe Gutierrez, who used the pepper spray against Nazario, has been, quote, "terminated from his employment."

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT'S "DANZIGER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.