Tazewell racial profiling

William Wilson Jr. points at the Confederate flag on an officer’s clipboard.

TAZEWELL, Va. — Two Tazewell police officers have been terminated as a result of an ongoing investigation into claims of racial profiling within the department.

Officers D.C. Grizzel and T.J. Crabtree were relieved from duty Monday after a formal complaint was filed against Grizzel following a traffic stop June 11.   

According the official complaint filed with the department June 13, William Wilson Jr., a 32-year-old black male from Jonesborough, Tennessee, was in town visiting family 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 into the store, Grizzel, a 23-year-old white officer, followed him into the parking lot and conducted a traffic stop.

A BOLO 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 was registered in Tennessee, according to his statement, where only the back plate is required.

Wilson said he felt 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 requested to search Wilson’s vehicle when he asked if they had probable cause. The officers said the missing tag was enough probable cause to search the car, according to the complaint. The complaint states Wilson later asked to speak to a supervisor.

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 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 charge 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 of the situation.

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 that is at the center of the controversy.

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.  According to the department, Grizzel and Crabtree made salaries of $31,920 and $33,000 respectively.

Neither the Virginia State Police nor Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Lee Dennis played a role in the investigation. The state police 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 about the matter. Day said the sheriff’s office was reluctant to investigate the matter because Cpl. Harris and his K-9 were involved in the case.

Mills said no town officers at the scene were wearing a body cam, nor did they have cameras in their vehicle during the stop. Mills said the town has been having trouble with its cameras for a few weeks.

The attendant at The Cave said the store does have cameras when asked by The News & Press, but she wasn’t sure how long they kept the footage or if anyone had checked them and said the owners would have to give permission for viewing 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 Grizzel never had any problems and left the department on good terms.

Mills declined a request by The News & Press to speak with either officer. Mills said this was the first complaint the department has had during his time there. He has been chief for nearly two years and was a lieutenant with the department for two years after spending time as the chief at the Cedar Bluff Police Department and the 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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