Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is suing a small town for operating its police department in what he says is a discriminatory manner.
In the lawsuit filed Thursday against Windsor, a town of less than 3,000 about 30 miles west of Norfolk, the attorney general asserts that police department statistics from the last two years show officers disproportionately targeted Black drivers for traffic stops and vehicle searches.
The suit stems from Mr. Herring’s investigation into the Windsor Police Department prompted by a video of a traffic stop that went viral showing officers repeatedly pepper-spraying Army Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Hispanic.
The body camera footage of the December 2020 traffic stop shows two officers pointing their guns at Mr. Nazario and using a slang term to suggest he would face execution. The officers then repeatedly pepper-sprayed Mr. Nazario, who was wearing his Army uniform, and knocked him to the ground.
The video sparked public outcry after it became widely circulated when Mr. Nazario sued both officers in April.
At least one officer has since been fired.
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“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,” Mr. Herring said in a statement.
The investigation revealed “huge disparities” in law enforcement against Black drivers, along with a “troubling lack of policies and procedures to prevent discriminatory or unconstitutional policing,” he said.
Mr. Herring argues in the suit that Black people make up about 22% of Windsor’s population of just over 2,700 residents, but they accounted for roughly 42% of traffic stops between July 1, 2020, and Sept. 21, 2021.
He also says officers searched more cars driven by Black drivers than white drivers during the same period.
The data show the “department is performing its law enforcement activities in a discriminatory and biased manner,” the suit states.
The suit also says that the department classified Mr. Nazario’s traffic stop as a “felony stop,” despite not having a policy on what constitutes such a stop.
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“The lack of such policies and supervision has led to the biased application and use of force on members of the public,” it states.
Additionally, data on traffic stops and citations reported to the Virginia State Police “were lower than those shared with town council, and the discrepancy has not yet been explained,” Mr. Herring said.
Mr. Herring says the department’s actions constitute violations of the Virginia Human Rights Act and the Law Enforcement Misconduct Act.
He wants the Isle of Wight County Circuit Court to enjoin the town from engaging in discriminatory law enforcement practices and to pay an independent monitor to ensure compliance. He also seeks a $50,000 civil penalty for each violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act “to vindicate the public interest.”
Thursday’s suit is the first to be brought under a new state law allowing the attorney general to bring litigation to stop systemic violations of Virginians’ civil rights, according to Mr. Herring.
The town of Windsor and the Windsor Police Department did not respond to requests for comment sent Thursday.