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WPD Chief: Viral video, not Gutierrez’s actions, led to his firing

WINDSOR

The Windsor Police Department’s decision to fire Officer Joe Gutierrez last Sunday — four months after he held a Black Army lieutenant at gunpoint during a traffic stop and pepper-sprayed him — had more to do with a video of the incident going viral online than the incident itself, according to Police Chief Rodney “Dan” Riddle.

The chief held a press conference April 14 — his first public appearance since the video and the lawsuit 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario filed on April 2 made national headlines.

Riddle said he watched his officers’ body cam footage of the incident “multiple times” during the department’s internal investigation, which he said began Dec. 8 last year — three days after the incident. That investigation ended Jan. 28, concluding “Windsor Police Department policy was not followed.” “Disciplinary action was taken” that same day, but Gutierrez was allowed to keep his job.

That changed last weekend, when the video and Nazario’s allegations of police brutality attracted the attention of national media outlets and prominent government officials, among them Gov. Ralph Northam, who’s called for an independent investigation of the department by the Virginia State Police.

“As things continued to unfold, we got to a point Sunday where I lost faith in his ability to continue to serve the community,” Riddle said. “Bottom line is, we’re a small community; we’re 2,600 people. We know just about everybody here. That’s why we have good relationships within our community … that was destroyed by the social media posting, the coverage of it. There was no way, in my mind, that he could ever engage in this community in an effective manner beyond that day.”

Riddle declined to specify what disciplinary actions Gutierrez faced after the department’s internal investigation concluded, calling the matter a “personnel issue.” But he denies his department has been less than transparent about the incident.

“The video was released to Mr. Nazario’s attorney in mid-December,” Riddle said. “There’s been no attempt to hide this or keep this from anybody. They’ve had possession of it for well over four months.”

But one person who said he hadn’t known of the incident prior to The Virginian-Pilot breaking the story April 8 is Windsor Town Councilman Jake Redd.

Redd was present during the chief’s press conference and also attended the Town Council meeting the night before, where Mayor Glyn Willis — following a two-hour closed session to discuss the “performance, discipline or resignation” of town employees, made a statement of support on behalf of the council for Chief Riddle and Officer Daniel Crocker, the officer who initiated the Dec. 5 traffic stop and was also seen on video pointing his gun at Nazario.

“We as a council fully support the Windsor Police Department, and that includes Chief Riddle and Officer Crocker,” Willis said.

Asked why Gutierrez had been fired — but not Crocker — Riddle said that while both officers had been with the department for less than a year, Gutierrez had far more experience in law enforcement and was serving as the department’s training officer. Crocker, on the other hand, had just graduated the police academy last October and was still in his on-the-job training phase.

“If you watch the video you’ll see there’s several times in the video where Officer Crocker makes an effort to de-escalate that situation verbally … he changes his pitch, his tone, his demeanor,” Riddle said. “That is somebody right there who has the makings of being a policeman.”

“I’ve known Daniel since he was 14; he’s a lifelong resident of the town of Windsor,” Riddle added. “There is little doubt in my mind that with some additional training and more years under his belt he will continue to serve this community well.”

As for Gutierrez being captured on video telling Nazario he was “fixin’ to ride the lightning,” “I take that, based on my police career, as a reference to an electronic control weapon or a taser,” Riddle said.

Nazario’s lawsuit, however, says there’s another meaning to the phrase.

“This is a colloquial expression for an execution, originating from glib reference to execution by the electric chair,” the lawsuit states.

In the videos, the officers give conflicting commands to Nazario, at times telling him to keep his hands out of the window and other times telling him to get out of the car, which would have required putting at least one arm back inside the vehicle to unbuckle his seatbelt. At one point, Nazario tells the officers he’s “honestly afraid” to exit his vehicle, to which Gutierrez responds, “Yeah, you should be.”

Riddle called Gutierrez’s “ride the lightning” remark “inappropriate” and his “you should be” remark “inexcusable.”

“That upset me; it made me mad,” Riddle said.

But he blamed Nazario for the incident ultimately ending the way it did, saying there were “certain actions” the lieutenant took, such as slowing down but not stopping and passing “multiple locations” where he could have pulled off the roadway before ultimately stopping at a well-lit BP gas station one mile away, raised “red flags” for the responding officers based on their training.

“Those officers initially reacted relatively well in my opinion,” Riddle said. “The use-of-force continuum, escalation of force, de-escalation of force, they actually were doing it. They came out with their firearms. Officer Gutierrez transferred to his taser and eventually to his pepper spray and then went hands-on, so that’s coming down the use-of-force continuum.”

“What they missed, though,” he said, “was the opportunity to verbally de-escalate that situation, to engage Mr. Nazario in a positive manner and use language to gain compliance from him.”

“At the end of the day, I’m glad that nobody got hurt,” Riddle said. “I wish he would have complied a lot earlier.”

Asked if he felt he owed Nazario an apology for the way the lieutenant was treated, Riddle replied, “I don’t believe so.”

In addition to the pending investigations of the department by the state police and Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s Office for Civil Rights, Riddle confirmed that afternoon that there is now a federal investigation pending as well by the FBI.

Herring, on Monday, issued a press release stating his office had requested the department send over numerous records in its search for a pattern of discriminatory and abusive policing over the past 10 years.

“I invite them,” Riddle said. “There’s nothing there, there’s nothing there for them to find.”

The state police have since issued a press release stating they are looking to hear from anyone who may have witnessed the Dec. 5 encounter between Nazario and officers Gutierrez and Crocker, which occurred at approximately 6:35 p.m. at the BP gas station located at the intersection of Windsor Boulevard, Church Street, Bank Street and Court Street. Anyone with video footage or information on the traffic stop is asked to email questions@vsp.virginia.gov.