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Virginia police officer who pepper sprayed Army lieutenant gets terminated

Virginia police officer who pepper sprayed Army lieutenant gets terminated

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The Windsor, Virginia police officer who made headlines after being caught on a body camera dousing an Army lieutenant with pepper spray during a traffic stop has been fired, according to town officials.

The officer, Joe Gutierrez, had confronted Caron Nazario, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps when he noticed that Nazario’s newly purchased vehicle with tinted windows did not have license plates in the usual spots on the car.

Nazario, a Black Latino, was in full uniform when he was pulled over, but Gutierrez and his partner were apparently annoyed that he waited until he was in a clear, well-lit area at a gas station before complying with the request to stop.

The Army lieutenant claims that he did so “for officer safety and out of respect for the officers,” but the law enforcement officers presumably didn’t see it that way.

Once Nazario pulled into the gas station the temporary license plates posted in his rear window were clearly visible, but rather than apologizing for the mistake, Gutierrez instead pulled out his service weapon and pointed it at Nazario while ordering him to exit his vehicle.

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The distraught service member facing the barrels of the officer’s guns replied that “I’m honestly afraid to get out” of his car, stating that “I have not committed any crime.”

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Gutierrez, undeterred by Nazario’s army uniform, ignored his pleas and the fact that their initial rationale for the traffic stop had been mooted by the sight of the temporary license plates.

“You’re being stopped for a traffic violation. You’re not cooperating, and at this point, right now, you’re under arrest,’ he insisted. “You’re being detained for obstruction of justice.”

After an attempt to open the car’s door to drag Nazario from the vehicle, Gutierrez had enough of what he likely saw as a refusal to submit to his authority and pumped multiple doses of pepper spray into the innocent suspect’s face.

After the video of the incident went viral online, Nazario announced that he would be suing the officers involved for violating his constitutional rights.

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According to an account of Officer Gutierrez’s termination in The New York Times, “officials said an internal investigation had determined that Mr. Gutierrez’s actions were not consistent with the department’s policies,”  but gave no further details on the timing of the firing.

The town officials in Windsor also announced that they had requested that the Virginia State Police launch an investigation into the traffic stop.

“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,” the statement continued.

The incident also garnered the attention of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam who posted a statement on Facebook condemning the actions of the police during the traffic stop and vowing to investigate.

“The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me — and I am directing the Virginia State Police to conduct an independent investigation,” Gov. 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.”

The speed with which Officer Gutierrez was fired after the video of the incident went viral is remarkable considering the lack of consequences for law enforcement officials involved in similar incidents across the country.

The officials in Windsor should be commended for their swift action in dealing with the transgressive behavior by one of their police officers.

If only the rest of the country could be equally responsive.

Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter. 

Original reporting by at The New York Times and by Celine Castronuevo at The Hill.

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