Virginia governor orders investigation of Caron Nazario police traffic stop

The governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, said on Sunday he was “disturbed and angered” by an incident in which an army lieutenant was threatened, knocked down and pepper-sprayed by two police officers during a traffic stop.

Related: ‘Excited delirium’: the controversial defense that could be used in the Chauvin trial

The Democrat said he had directed state police to investigate, and that he had invited Lt Caron Nazario to meet him soon.

“We must all continue the larger dialogue about [policing] reform in our country,” Northam said.

Nazario, who is Latino and Black, has filed a federal lawsuit over what court papers say was a violent traffic stop in which the officers pointed their guns, knocked him to the ground, pepper sprayed him and “threatened to murder him”.

The suit, filed in the US district court of Norfolk, Virginia, against Windsor officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, alleges violations to Nazario’s constitutional rights and includes allegations of assault, illegal search and illegal detention.

The incident was captured on video and has come to national attention at a time of heightened awareness over police arrests of minorities and racial injustice, particularly in light of the televised trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, in the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody last May.

Nazario was in uniform and driving a new SUV with a temporary paper tag displayed on the back window on 5 December, when he was told to pull over on US Highway 460 in Windsor, a town of about 2,600 about 70 miles south-east of Richmond.

The lawsuit says Nazario put on his blinkers, slowed down and looked for a lighted place to stop. The suit says an officer radioed to dispatch that a driver without a tag was “eluding police” and it was a “high-risk stop”. Another officer came to the scene.

Nazario stopped at a gas station less than two minutes after being signaled to pull over. During the stop, which was captured on police body cameras and Nazario’s phone, Nazario told police he was afraid to get out of his vehicle.

One officer said, “Yeah you should be”, the suit says. An officer also stated that Nazario was “fixing to ride the lightning”, an apparent reference to execution by electrocution.

Nazario had his hands up, the suit says, and offered no resistance but was pepper-sprayed, knocked to the ground and detained. Ultimately the police chief arrived at the scene and Nazario was released without charge, the suit says.

After the altercation, the suit says Officer Gutierrez said he understood why Nazario looked for a lighted place to pull over, saying: “I get it, the media spewing race relations between law enforcement and minorities. I get it.”

On Sunday, Governor Northam said: “The incident in Windsor is disturbing and angered me and I am directing the Virginia state police to conduct an independent investigation.

“Our commonwealth has done important work on police reform. But we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable and people are held accountable.”