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2 Tazewell officers fired over racial profiling claim

2 Tazewell officers fired over racial profiling claim

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TAZEWELL, Va. — Two Tazewell police officers have been terminated as a result of an investigation into a claim of racial profiling.

Officers D.C. Grizzel and T.J. Crabtree were relieved from duty Monday after a formal complaint was filed against Grizzel following a June 11 traffic stop. No reason was given for the firings.

According to the complaint filed June 13, William Wilson Jr., a 32-year-old from Jonesborough, Tennessee, who is black, was visiting family in town when he drove to Heritage Health Care to pick up his aunt from work on the night of June 11.

He was driving west on Fincastle Turnpike around 8:35 p.m. when he stopped at The Cave, a local convenience store, to buy gas. As Wilson pulled in, Grizzel, a 23-year-old white officer, followed him into the parking lot and conducted a traffic stop.

A be-on-the-lookout had been issued for a vehicle fitting the description of the one Grizzel saw approaching him on Fincastle Turnpike, according to Town Manager Todd Day.

Grizzel told Wilson a missing front license plate was the reason for the stop, according to the complaint.

Virginia law requires that cars have a license plate on the front and back of every vehicle; however, Wilson’s car is registered in Tennessee, which only requires the back plate, according to his statement.

Wilson said he felt he was racially profiled by the traffic stop and that tensions were high during the encounter. Grizzel asked to see Wilson’s license and registration and informed him it was also illegal to have items hanging from a rearview mirror, according to the complaint.

Officers asked if they could search Wilson’s vehicle, and he asked whether they had probable cause. The officers said the missing tag was enough to warrant a search, according to the complaint. The complaint states that Wilson later asked to speak to a supervisor.

Tazewell County Sheriff Brian Hieatt said his office also dispatched Cpl. Quentin Harris and a K-9 to The Cave at the town’s request. Day said Grizzel was the town’s usual K-9 officer, but his cruiser was being repaired, and he was driving the cruiser issued to Crabtree at the time of the traffic stop. Crabtree’s cruiser was not equipped to carry the K-9, so the department had to ask for help from the Sheriff’s Office, Day said.

Wilson said Harris threatened him with an obstruction charge if he didn’t let the dog search the vehicle. He later agreed to allow officers to walk the K-9 around the car, according to the complaint.

No drugs were found during the search, but Wilson said he was cited for having an object hanging from his mirror. He said Grizzel threatened to take him to jail if he did not sign the ticket.

Tazewell Police Chief David Mills confirmed the citation to The News & Press on Tuesday but said the ticket had not been turned in to Tazewell County General District Court.

The story set off a firestorm on Facebook after Wilson shared a photo of the clipboard Grizzel was using that bore a sticker of the Confederate battle flag, and the department launched an internal investigation.

Crabtree, 35, was not named in the original complaint, but results of the town’s investigation showed Grizzel was using Crabtree’s clipboard when he wrote the ticket.

Mills said Crabtree was using an unauthorized clipboard that someone outside the department had given him. Crabtree was not the one who placed the emblem on the clipboard. Mills said the department’s policy requires officers to use town-issued equipment. The policy also requires that equipment not be defaced.

Both officers were placed on paid administrative leave during the department’s investigation.

Neither the Virginia State Police nor county Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Lee Dennis played a role in the investigation. The VSP declined the town’s request to investigate because no criminal charges were filed against the officers, Day said.

Dennis said his office was never contacted. Day said the Sheriff’s Office was reluctant to investigate because Cpl. Harris and his K-9 were involved.

Mills said town officers at the scene weren’t wearing body cams and there were no cameras in their vehicles. He added that the town has been having trouble with its cameras for a few weeks.

The attendant at The Cave said the store does have cameras, but she wasn’t sure how long they keep footage or whether anyone checked it. She said the store’s owners would have to give permission for anyone to view any video.

Grizzel worked with the St. Paul Police Department for two years before he took the job in Tazewell in September 2018, according to St. Paul Police Chief Jonathan Johnson. He said there were no problems with Grizzel, who left the department on good terms.

Mills said this was the first complaint the department has had during his nearly two years as chief and two years as a lieutenant. Previously, he worked as chief at the Cedar Bluff Police Department and captain of detectives at the Tazewell County Sheriff’s Office.

Day said he wants to continue the investigation and to get more information, not only about what happened but to improve the way the department operates day to day.

“The way the town of Tazewell communicates with its citizens left something to be desired,” he said. “Plus 90% of what has been posted on Facebook is wrong, but we didn’t do everything right either.”

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