A small southeastern Virginia town's police department has operated in a way that led to discrimination against African Americans and violated their constitutional rights, Attorney General Mark Herring alleged in a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The court action against the town of Windsor came after an investigation by Herring's office into its police department. The probe was prompted by a December 2020 traffic stop involving two Windsor Police Department officers and Caron Nazario, an Army lieutenant who is Black and Latino.
The traffic stop, captured on video, showed the officers drawing their guns, pointing them at Nazario, who was in uniform, and using a slang term to suggest he was facing execution before pepper-spraying him and knocking him to the ground.
The video drew nationwide attention and outrage when it came to light months after the traffic stop, when Nazario sued the two officers, at least one of whom has since been fired.
“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 said in a news release. “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."
The town responded with a lengthy statement that broadly refuted the allegations and called Herring's decision to file the suit just weeks before he leaves office “clearly political.”
Herring, a Democrat, was defeated by Republican Jason Miyares in November. Miyares will be sworn in Jan. 15.
According to Herring's office, the investigation found that while Black people make up about 22% of Windsor's population, they accounted for about 42% of the department's traffic stops between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. The department also searched more vehicles driven by Black motorists than white drivers, the complaint said.
Based on those disproportionate stops and searches, the department is “performing its law enforcement activities in a discriminatory and biased manner," the complaint said.
The investigation also found a discrepancy in the data on traffic stops and citations reported to the Town Council versus the Virginia State Police, the lawsuit said.
“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,” according to the news release.
Windsor's statement said the complaint cites “questionable data on the quantity and nature of traffic stops and searches," without providing more specifics. It also said that the town's seven-member police department has taken steps this year to increase training and accountability and that those “advancements” had been discussed with Herring's office as recently as Dec. 10.
The lawsuit asks the court to enjoin the town and its employees from engaging in discriminatory law enforcement practices. It also asks that the town be required to hire, at its own expense, an independent monitor to ensure it is complying with state and federal law. It further asks for a $50,000 civil penalty for each violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.
Herring's lawsuit was filed in the circuit court for Isle of Wight County, where Windsor is located. The town, with a population of about 3,000, is about 70 miles southeast of Richmond.
Herring's office said the lawsuit marked the first enforcement action against a law enforcement agency under a new state law empowering the attorney general to file suit to stop systemic violations of Virginians’ civil rights.