It’s been a tough year for the Charlottesville Police Department.
Last summer’s white supremacist rallies, including one that ended in violence and death, changed the city socially and politically. Few agencies felt that change more than the police department, which saw three chiefs in the span of one year.
While some officers say in private conversations that the department’s multiple transitions have been disquieting, create a sense of uncertainty and have hurt morale, experts say the changes could be good for the agency and the city overall in the long run.
“The transition of command in a police agency can be both exciting and potentially challenging for the organization and its membership,” said former Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy J. Longo, who retired in 2016 after serving 15 years as the city’s top cop.
Longo, an expert on police practices and police-related civil rights violations, is now a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Law. He also teaches a course in police use of force. He said the events of last summer and the leadership changes are likely to change the community and the police department for the foreseeable future.
“A change in leadership brings about the opportunity for a fresh perspective and a ‘shift’ in course that may prove beneficial for both the department and the community that it serves,” Longo said.
There have been several shifts in the past year.
Former Chief Alfred S. Thomas Jr., the city’s first black police chief, retired four months after the Aug. 12 rally after serving for about 18 months.
Maj. Gary Pleasants, a 30-year veteran of the department, took over as interim chief but faced strong community opposition after being named in a report by a former federal prosecutor as the officer who ordered tear gas to be used on counter-protesters during a July 8, 2017, Ku Klux Klan rally.
The city then hired retired Chesterfield Police Chief Thierry Dupuis as interim chief. He served until May, and current Chief RaShall M. Brackney joined the department in June.
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The use of tear gas at the KKK rally after an unlawful assembly declaration resulted in community backlash, with claims that police were overzealous.
The opposite issue surfaced after the Aug. 12 rally as citizens decried a lack of police response to battling protesters at the Unite the Right rally, in which one protester, Heather Heyer, was killed and dozens injured during a car attack.
The car drove down a street that was supposed to have been blocked off by police, striking protesters and two other cars that were stopped as protesters walked by.
The anger became outrage when Thomas was accused by former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy in a report on the rallies of intentionally allowing fighting between the rally-goers and counter-protesters. Heaphy also accused Thomas of trying to hide information from him and of trying to determine what his officers told the attorney.
The outrage led, however indirectly, to the resignation and retirement of Thomas, the appointment of Dupuis and the hiring of Brackney. It also led to the empanelling of a new police oversight committee that does not include a single member of law enforcement. Several veteran police officers in leadership positions retired during the year, as well.
“In this particular case, [Brackney] is coming into a community and department that has been shaken by incredibly tragic events that have left a scar that will take a lifetime to heal,” Longo said. “The press coverage, which spanned across the nation, painted both our local government and broader community in a less-than-favorable light.”
Longo said the publicity and the reaction and criticism from area residents impacted the department, as well as the City Council and other arms of local government.
“The end result is a fractured constituent/local government relationship that will require careful attention and a well-thought-out strategy if it is to be successfully healed,” he said.
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Healing, a word often bandied about town, is Brackney’s goal. She said she hopes to bring the department together and solidify leadership positions, wherever those leaders are found.
“Stabilizing the organization and leadership requires a holistic approach, to include identifying the formally recognized leaders, as well as those leaders who can assist with stabilizing the organization from the ground up,” she said. “This includes professionally and personally developing our personnel so that they can readily transition into future leadership roles.”
How retirements of veteran officers will affect the department is difficult to gauge, Brackney said.
“I believe it is too early to determine the long-term impact,” she said. “But best practices suggest that utilizing a collaborative approach allows for a smoother transition as personnel understand the mission and buy into the shared objectives, goals and outcomes.”
City Councilor Kathy Galvin said she’s already noticed a change in the department since Brackney’s arrival.
“Officers now smile and wave back to me when I’m walking on the mall or cycling on the street. Just last year, in contrast, the young officers in particular would often look right past me and not engage,” she said.
“Last month, though, on a community bike ride with Mayor [Nikuyah] Walker, five officers from the bicycle squad escorted about 20 to 30 cyclists, myself included, through town,” she said. “These officers were friendly, engaging and committed to our safety. We got a little spoiled, actually, because they stopped traffic at every intersection. Another nice touch was one officer had a little stuffed puppy named Rocko strapped to the back of his bike. It attracted children like bees to honey.”
With the rally’s anniversary nigh, and uncertainty about which groups, if any, plan to visit the city and with what intent, Galvin said the police department’s performance likely will be closely watched.
“She’s only been here a [short while], but she projects confidence, know-how and leadership without abandoning principles of teamwork,” Galvin said of the new chief. “The weekend of Aug. 12 will be a test for us all, but Chief Brackney is a consummate professional who believes in preparation and inspires her department. To paraphrase what one officer said to me about her, she makes us smile and glad to be here.”
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While the anniversary will be a test, officials and community members want to see how the department will change. They also want to be a part of that change. That’s one reason the City Council created the Police Civilian Review Board. The committee currently is working to determine its scope, responsibilities and final composition.
“Their charge is to make sure our policing practices are just and in keeping with the values of our community,” Galvin said. “Faith in the fairness of our criminal justice system is foundational to public trust. We need to build back a lot of trust since Aug. 12 and before, especially within our African-American community.”
Charlottesville attorney Jeff Fogel, who has represented many clients in civil rights lawsuits against local police and who has fought for information on the city department’s stop-and-frisk program, applied for the board but was not appointed. He said the committee’s effectiveness could depend on the working relationship with Brackney.
“It’s a hard question. A lot of what happens depends on the new police chief and how much she’s willing to let people in,” he said.
Fogel said community members and review board members are interested in looking at the department’s past, going beyond last summer’s rallies, in order to forge a different future.
“One problem is that no one in the city government or the police department wants to look at the past, acknowledge mistakes and address what happened and what went wrong,” he said. “But can you ignore what happened in the past? No. I’d love to say in court about my criminal defendants, ‘that was in the past. Let’s look forward to the future.’ That won’t work in court, and it shouldn’t work that way with the police. It’s an excuse to ignore what has happened and to not address it or acknowledge it.”
Fogel said police officials need to look at past policies and address them.
“For instance, stop-and-frisk still goes on regardless of who is the police chief, and no chief has wanted to address that,” he said. “We still cannot get access to information about the stops, why the stops were made and the narratives of the stops. There are policies like that which people want addressed. I think it’s premature to know what this police chief is going to do about it. I’m looking forward to after August and the anniversary [of the Unite the Right rally] when the new police chief can dig in and look at some of the issues.”
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Longo said the memories of the rallies and the violence will impact the future of relations between the department and the community. But, he said, it’s time to move on.
“While some may see this as a difficult challenge for both the chief and our department, I believe that it presents a tremendous opportunity to pause, re-think and reset direction in a way that will far exceed any previous course of action,” Longo said. “I think that it’s time to take our eyes off the past and look forward to see how we can help restore the community’s faith, trust and confidence in our local government and its leadership.”
Brackney said the department needs to build relationships in the community to build trust.
“In Charlottesville, we have the opportunity to implement best practices and shape the narrative for police-community relations,” she said. “In order to do so, we must collectively define what does a healthy relationship look like between law enforcement professionals and the communities we serve. We then need to identify pathways moving forward to achieve those goals and finally build on successful outcomes.”