WINDSOR, Virginia — Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit against the Town of Windsor for having a "pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory policing."
“This investigation was spurred by that the video that we all saw," explained Herring.
In a response, the Town of Windsor called Herring's lawsuit unnecessary, "political" and "for the sake of headlines."
The lawsuit -- coming in Herring's last days before Republican Jason Miyares takes the job -- is a follow-up to when two Windsor Police officers pulled over Army Lt. Caron Nazario for not having a visible rear license plate, then pointed guns at him, and pepper-sprayed him.
Herring said, “We conducted this investigation and it revealed wide disparities in enforcement against black drivers and searches of cars owned or driven by black drivers. We filed suit to put a stop to it.”
Nazario had a temporary license plate taped to his back window, court records show. He was in uniform, stayed calm through the interaction, and told the officers who were pointing guns at him that he was afraid to get out of his vehicle.
After an internal investigation, the town of Windsor fired one of the officers, Joe Gutierrez, for not following police policy.
Shortly after that, in April, Herring's office asked the police department for use-of-force records going back 10 years and complaints that involved traffic stops, use of force, and "treatment on the basis of race, color, and/or national origin."
On Thursday, Herring's office said they had chosen to sue the town in a "first of its kind lawsuit."
A spokesman said the power to take this action came from a new state law that allows the attorney general to "stop systemic violations of Virginians' civil rights."
“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 wrote.
“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," he continued. "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."
The spokesman said Herring's office found evidence that Windsor Police officers would disproportionately pull over Black drivers for traffic stops (by 200%-500%) and disproportionately search the cars of Black drivers.
“We even uncovered instances of not just a lack of policies but in some instances no policies governing important topics, use of force of law enforcement policies. We even found evidence that officers were being trained in how to go fish and do pretextual stop," said Herring.
Investigators also allegedly found discrepancies in the number of traffic stops reported to the town council, and those reported to the Virginia State Police.
Herring's lawsuit is looking for these remedies:
- A court order to ban Windsor Police from policing in a discriminatory way
- Court-ordered policy changes to make traffic stops constitutionally fair, regulate use-of-force policies, report use-of-force incidents to the state, and allow the public to file complaints (which will be taken seriously)
- A court order for a third party to monitor the police department to make sure it's complying with the Virginia Human Rights Act and other constitutional standards
- A $50,000 penalty for each violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act
A few hours after Herring's announcement, Joel Rubin, a spokesman for the Town of Windsor shared a response from the local government.
"The decision by Attorney General Mark Herring to file a lawsuit against the Town of Windsor on the eve of the new year and just 17 days before he leaves office is clearly political," it starts.
Rubin said the Windsor Police Department practiced non-discriminatory policing before and after the incident with Nazario, but since then, had increased training and accountability measures.
You can read the full response below.
The Isle of Wight County NAACP also issued a statement Thursday, thanking Herring and the Office of Civil Rights for their legal pursuit.
"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 statement read.
You can read the full statement below:
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 their police department. Since the horrendous video of Lt. Nazario surfaced, the Town of Windsor has spent more time trying to salvage their 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.