A former Virginia police officer shouldn't be charged after he pepper-sprayed, struck, and handcuffed a Black U.S. Army Lieutenant during a 2020 traffic stop that sparked outrage across the nation, a special prosecutor determined.
Special Prosecutor and Commonwealth's Attorney Anton Bell said police didn't break state law during the 2020 confrontation involving uniformed military officer Caron Nazario in Windsor, Virginia, per CNN.
"Although I find the video very disturbing and frankly unsettling, (Officer Raymond) Gutierrez's use of force to remove (Caron) Nazario did not violate state law as he had given multiple commands for Nazario to exit the vehicle," Bell wrote after his investigation of the incident.
In December 2020, two Windsor officers pulled over Nazario and repeatedly used pepper spray and brandished their guns at him, a news release from former Attorney General Mark Herring's Office reported.
Officer Gutierrez was fired after the traffic stop but the other officer remained employed, Windsor Town Manager William Saunders told CNN at the time.
Though Bell declined to recommend state charges, the special prosecutor formally referred the case to the US Attorney's Office for a federal civil rights investigation.
"The problematic issue, however, were Gutierrez's statements throughout the entire ordeal, which would lead a reasonable person to wonder whether underlying bias was a the root of how and why Nazario was treated in like manner," Bell wrote.
Video from Nazario's cell phone and the officer's body-worn cameras captured the incident that served as a stark reminder for many Black Americans that a military uniform doesn’t necessarily protect against police brutality, AP News reports.
Nazario's legal team praised Bell for recommending a civil rights investigation into Gutierrez's use of force but disagreed with the findings that the former cop shouldn't face criminal charges.
"It should not be the Commonwealth's Attorney's place to determine alone that no crime has been committed (especially when the Commonwealth's Attorney harbors such concerns that they refer the matter to US DOJ," Attorney Jonathan Arthur told CNN. "That is why we have the jury system. That is why we have judges. That is not why we have Commonwealth's Attorneys."
"All too often, when it comes to law enforcement violating the laws, we see our Commonwealth's Attorneys fail to apply the same zeal and standards when "prosecuting" law enforcement as they do with other citizens," Arthur added.
Former Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring sued the town of Windsor in December 2021 over the incident, arguing that the Windsor Police Department discriminated against African Americans.
According to the lawsuit, Gutierrez told Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning” at one point during the traffic stop where police delivered "knee strikes" to his legs, struck him multiple times while on the ground, and handcuffed him.
The suit against Windsor is still pending, spokesperson for Attorney General Jason Miyares told CNN.
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