RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is suing the town of Windsor, alleging a pattern of discriminatory and unconstitutional practices against Black people by its police department.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in Isle of Wight Circuit Court came after an investigation spurred on by a December 2020 traffic stop in which Windsor police officers pepper-sprayed and pointed their guns at U.S. Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino.
The traffic stop gained national attention after body-camera footage was made public, with the Virginia NAACP and advocacy groups calling for an investigation.
Nazario, who was in uniform, was handcuffed and knocked to the ground during the traffic stop. He sued the two officers involved and one was fired from the department.
“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,” Herring said in a statement.
The AG’s office said in a release that the investigation revealed unconstitutional racial disparities in traffic stops, searches and discrepancies in data reporting to the Town Council and state authorities. According to Herring’s office, the investigation found that:
- Black drivers accounted for approximately 42% of the department’s traffic stops from July 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021 (810 of 1,907 stops.) During that time period, the Town stopped Black drivers between 200% and 500% more often than would be expected based on the number of Black residents in the town or county.
- From July 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021, the Department searched more vehicles driven by Black drivers than white drivers, even though Black residents do not constitute the majority of the population of the Town or the Commonwealth.
- For many of the examined months, there was a significant discrepancy between the number of traffic stops and citations reported to town council and reported to the Virginia State Police for tracking and reporting purposes. In all instances the numbers reported to the Commonwealth were lower than those shared with town council, and the discrepancy has not yet been explained.
Herring alleges that Windsor, in its provision of law enforcement services through the town’s department, has violated the Virginia Human Rights Act and the Virginia Public Integrity and Law Enforcement Misconduct Act.
“We even discovered evidence that officers were actually being trained to go ‘fishing’ and engage in pretextual stops,” Herring continued. “That is why I have now filed suit to ensure accountability and to protect Virginians’ rights.”
In a statement, the town of Windsor called Herring’s lawsuit “clearly political” and asserted that its police department has continued to conduct non-discriminatory policing before and after the traffic stop of Lt. Nazario and has taken additional steps to ensure that it has in the aftermath.
“None of those efforts are mentioned in the Herring lawsuit, even though his office and deputies were fully aware of them for several months,” the statement read.
Windsor’s statement added that representatives of the town and the AG’s office met on Dec. 10 to discuss the efforts and also claimed that Herring’s office presented “an ultimatum demanding immediate action or the threat of litigation” despite knowing the Town Council would not meet until Jan. 11, 2022.
“Given that the Complaint cites questionable data on the quantity and nature of traffic stops and searches, as well as its reporting, the suit lacks any context as to what the Town has done over the past year to address any concerns,” Windsor’s statement continued. “The Town is stunned that this suit was filed on December 30, just hours before Courts closed for the year. This matter certainly should have been left to the incoming Attorney General to pursue, if it indeed had merit in the first place.”
The Windsor police chief was not available when 8News reached out for a comment regarding the lawsuit, but the town’s statement contested the AG’s office’s investigation. The statement asserts that all traffic stops by the Windsor Police Department “are conducted in a constitutional bias free, non-pretextual manner, the use of force is consistently applied and that use of force incidents are properly reported and the public can file complaints and have them taken seriously.”
The lawsuit from the AG’s office seeks to have the court prevent the Windsor Police Department from performing any discriminatory practices, implement policy changes to ensure traffic stops are done in a bias-free, non-pretextual manner and that use of force incident reports are properly shared with Virginia State Police.
Virginia State Conference NAACP President Robert N. Barnette said the Virginia NAACP commends Herring “for completing a thorough investigation at our request and filing a pattern of practice lawsuit of the Town of Windsor Police Department.” Barnette added that the organization is “both disturbed and outraged” by the investigation’s findings, pointing to the racial disparities in traffic stops.
The suit also calls for a court order for a period of third-party monitoring of the town’s police department, with Windsor footing the bill, to ensure it is in compliance with the law. It also seeks a $50,000 fine for each violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.
Virginia’s attorney general has the authority under a new law to file lawsuits aimed at ending systematic civil rights violations. The AG’s office said this lawsuit, which is being handled by Herring’s Office of Civil Rights, is the first time Herring has used that authority against a law enforcement agency.
Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares (R) will be sworn into office on Jan. 15, 2022, and will likely take over the lawsuit Herring has filed.
“Attorney General-elect Miyares has been reviewing all the cases being handled by the Attorney General,” Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Miyares, wrote in an email to 8News. “We look forward to reviewing the facts and applicable law for this suit once the Attorney General-elect takes office.”