According to an announcement from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office, an investigation revealed “disturbing evidence of discriminatory, unconstitutional policing.” Herring has now filed suit against the Town of Windsor alleging that its police department has operated in a way that led to discrimination against African Americans and violated their constitutional rights. This is the first enforcement action against a law enforcement agency under the new state law empowering the attorney general to file suit to stop systemic violations of Virginians’ civil rights.
“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. “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. We even discovered evidence that officers were actually being trained to go ‘fishing’ and engage in pretextual stops. That is why I have now filed suit to ensure accountability and to protect Virginians’ rights.
“I believe that Virginians should be able to count on their attorney general to identify and stop violations of their constitutional rights. That’s why I worked with legislators to authorize this kind of investigation and enforcement, and to make the Office of Civil Rights a permanent part of the Office of Attorney General. This work to protect the rights of Virginians must always be at the heart of the OAG’s mission.”
In his suit filed today in Isle of Wight Circuit Court, Attorney General Herring alleges that the Town of Windsor “violated the Virginia Human Rights Act (‘VHRA’) and the Virginia Public Integrity and Law Enforcement Misconduct Act (‘VPLEM’) in its provision of law enforcement services through the Windsor Police Department.
The suit further states that “The Department lacks adequate policies to ensure that it is using force in a non-discriminatory manner, that it is performing traffic stops in a constitutional, non-pretextual, and bias-free manner, and that members of the public are able to submit and have their complaints heard in a transparent way that upholds the principles of due process.”
The investigation into the Windsor Police Department was prompted by a traffic stop involving two WPD officers who pulled over Lieutenant Caron Nazario, a Black Latino man, and proceeded to spray him repeatedly with pepper spray and point firearms at him.
Herring’s office says that the troubling findings uncovered by the investigation are:
- Disproportionate traffic stops of Black drivers—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.
- Disproportionate searches of Black drivers’ vehicles—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.
- Discrepancy in data reported to Town Council and state authorities. 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’s suit is seeking:
- A court order barring the Windsor Police Department from engaging in discriminatory law enforcement activities;
- Court ordered policy changes in the department to:
- ensure that traffic stops are conducted in a constitutional bias-free, non-pretextual manner,
- ensure that the use of force is consistently applied and that use of force incidents are properly reported to the Department of State Police in accordance with state law,
- ensure the public can file complaints, have their complaints taken seriously, and provide the opportunity for an appeal;
- A court ordered period of third-party monitoring of the Department, at its own expense, to ensure compliance with the Virginia Human Rights Act, Virginia Public Integrity and Law Enforcement Misconduct Act, and the U.S. Constitution; and,
- A civil penalty of $50,000 for each proven violation of the Virginia Human Rights Act.
This case is being handled by Attorney General Herring’s Office of Civil Rights.
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