Updated at 10:25 p.m.
Embattled Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas announced Monday that he has retired, effective immediately, after serving in the role for about 18 months.
When questioned during a public hearing at the start of the City Council’s meeting Monday, City Manager Maurice Jones said Thomas volunteered to step down from the position.
Jones will formally appoint an interim police chief in the next week, according to a news release from the city. Until that time, Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants will lead the department.
The search for a new police chief will begin immediately.
Thomas was sworn in as chief on May 23, 2016. He took over after Timothy J. Longo retired.
Prior to Charlottesville, Thomas served as chief of police for the city of Lexington.
“Nothing in my career has brought me more pride than serving as the police chief for the city of Charlottesville,” Thomas said in the release. “I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to protect and serve a community I love so dearly. It truly has been an unparalleled privilege to work alongside such a dedicated and professional team of public servants. I wish them and the citizens of Charlottesville the very best.”
Thomas’ departure follows an independent review of the city’s handling of a series of events this year, including the deadly Aug. 12 white nationalist rally. The review, released Dec. 1, found several missteps on city officials’ part, Thomas included.
The review alleges that Thomas attempted to hide material from investigators and intentionally allowed the fighting in and around Emancipation Park on the morning of the rally so that an unlawful assembly could be declared.
But Thomas’ attorney, Kevin Martingayle, denied the allegations after a news conference detailing the review led by former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy.
Martingayle declined to comment on Thomas’ resignation Monday. Thomas did not respond to emails.
Attorney and civil rights activist Jeff Fogel, who has feuded in the past with Thomas and other police officials over alleged police misconduct, said he wants more of an explanation for the abrupt retirement in light of unresolved questions about how the white nationalist rally this summer was handled.
“I would like to ask him if he was forced out. I think we deserve an explanation of what happened on Aug. 12,” Fogel said in an interview Monday. “It’s important for the police department and the city to move forward knowing what actually happened. I’m concerned the city is not going to say anything if they can avoid it.”
Fogel said he also thinks elected city officials and other community members who are well connected to their state counterparts should push to hold Virginia State Police Col. W. Steven Flaherty accountable for the failure to protect the public from the violence that erupted during the August rally.
“They should be pushing for the removal of Flaherty, but they won’t. Everyone’s a chicken. They’re all afraid of something — I don’t know what,” Fogel said.
During Monday’s council meeting, several people spoke about Thomas and the questions about the reports about how city and state officials handled the rallies this summer.
“There are still questions that have yet to be answered … are we close to a resolution? Hopefully it isn’t the immediate retirement of the chief,” said Janette Martin, president of the Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP.
M. Rick Turner, the past president for the local NAACP branch, implored the council to not make Pleasants the interim chief or the new police chief.
According to the report from Heaphy’s law firm, Hunton & Williams, Pleasants was not authorized to order state troopers to use tear gas on people who started to yell at the police after protesting a July Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville that had just ended.
Pleasants, according to the report, told other officers after the incident: “Damn right I gassed them.”
“You can’t hire that man,” Turner said. “He would be the worse police chief in the country.”
Invited to comment after the public hearing period was already over, Councilor-elect Nikuyah Walker also lambasted the city and Pleasants.
“To tell us that he resigned voluntarily and expect us to believe that is unacceptable,” Walker said.
“The only person being held accountable is a black man? There needs to be a whole list of people who need to be held accountable,” she said.
In the release, the city manager praised Thomas for his service to the public.
“Chief Thomas has served his country and three communities here in Virginia with distinction and honor,” Jones said. “He is a man of integrity who has provided critical leadership for our department since his arrival. We wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
In an email, Mayor Mike Signer declined to elaborate much further on the news about Thomas’ departure.
“I don’t have anything to add to Mr. Jones’ statement, other than I hope he will engage in a robust, nationwide search for Chief Thomas’ successor,” Signer said.