Three weeks after the firing of Police Chief RaShall Brackney, community members and elected officials still have questions about why a chief with no public record of wrongdoing was let go.
During Monday’s City Council meeting, City Manager Chip Boyles answered some questions Mayor Nikuyah Walker posed during the Sept. 7 meeting, but he declined to answer some, citing personnel confidentiality.
On Sept. 1, Boyles exercised his right to terminate Brackney’s employment contract upon 90 days’ notice. Brackney, who was hired by the city in June 2018, will be on paid administrative leave until Nov. 30. In a city statement released that day, Boyles said he was “looking for a new leadership direction in the department.” Brackney has not been reachable for comment since this announcement.
Assistant Chief of Police James Mooney, who was set to retire, will remain in his position until an interim police chief is hired by Boyles with the help of a committee.
Last week, The Daily Progress published an op-ed written by Boyles, in which he explained the influence of Police Benevolent survey results that were critical of Brackney’s leadership. Results indicated that many officers did not have trust in Brackney.
Boyles also said he wished he’d worked more with City Council and Brackney before firing her. during the meeting, Boyles echoed the sentiments of his op-ed, reiterating that in hindsight, he would’ve involved councilors more in his decision making process.
“Having had time to consider the impact … While standing firm on the decision I did make, the fact is I could have handled the decision quite differently. I could have and should have engaged Council and my leadership team in more deliberating and on my intended action, so that I not only had their input, but also a broader perspective of the community’s response,” Boyles said.
Boyles said he had two meetings with PBA representatives, one discussing the results of the survey and the other discussing conversations the association had with police officers. Boyles declined to elaborate on the discussions and said he has no recordings of these meetings.
Boyles said he approved the unsigned city press release published in Aug. 12 responding to the PBA survey results. He said the release was co-written by himself, Brackney, City Attorney Lisa Robinson and Mooney and was approved for Deputy Director of Communications Joe Rice to post.
“The statement should have been identified by the city manager,” Boyles said, referencing the fact the statement was not signed so it was initially unclear who wrote it.
Boyles also said that Mooney had submitted retirement paperwork on Aug. 31 and on Sept. 1 agreed to stay on for up to six months through a retirement allowance until Boyles replaces Brackney with an interim chief of police.
Boyles said city staff was preparing information to answer additional questions at the next meeting on Oct. 4, including the number of police officers who have left the department over the past three years.
Walker asked Boyles to clarify what he determines are private personnel matters.
“I just think that things that are individualized with any of our employees that were not of a public nature would be something that would be [considered] personnel in nature and not disclosable. That’s something I would I would rely on the City Attorney for giving me advice on,” Boyles said.
Walker moved to amend the agenda to include discussion of Brackney’s firing, discussion of the path forward hiring a new police chief and discussion of complaints about Police Civilian Review Board chair Bellamy Brown. Councilors voted to discuss hiring criteria but pushed discussion of Brackney and Brown to the next meeting in order to have more time to prepare.
Councilor Lloyd Snook cited the need for time to consult with Robertson about what personnel details can be discussed publicly.
Walker said she didn’t understand the concern because Boyles publicly discussed the decision in the op-ed.
“It’s not that we can’t [discuss it] because I think the city attorney has said we are permitted to. There are pieces of it that I think are more complex than just us talking about the one decision,” Snook said.
Snook said he feels the issue with the discussion is partly that the City Manager was permitted under city charter to fire Brackney and it wasn’t a decision the City Council is authorized to have control over.
Councilor Michael Payne voiced support for public discussion of Brackney’s termination.
“I’ve been more open to [discussing it] … it should be discussed at a meeting, I would be more comfortable if it wasn’t the next meeting, just to have a little more notice in terms of what the parameters will be in terms of personnel matters,” Payne said. “But certainly, at a minimum, I think it’s true that there ought to be a public discussion and some response from city leadership … to the extent they can be openly discussed as personnel matters.”
Snook said he agreed with Payne.
Walker said she thought the councilors should have been prepared to discuss Boyles’ decision to fire Brackney because she brought it up at the previous meeting.
Boyles said there will be a committee to hire an interim police chief. The committee will be made up of council representatives, members of the city manager’s office, police department representatives, the Police Civilian Review Board and Human Rights Commission and at least three citizens. He said the Virginia Police Chiefs Association has made some recommendations for interim candidates.
This committee would also find a search firm to hire the permanent police chief, Boyles said. The search firm would manage the process and would help determine City Council and community involvement.
Councilor Heather Hill said in 2018, City Council was involved in some of the interview process to hire Brackney.
Walker emphasized the importance of finding a candidate who would build on the equity reforms Brackney made.
“How do you attract a reform-minded individual?” Walker asked. She urged councilors to consider this in the interview process and to ask candidates about reform.
Walker said she would like the council to look at amending the city charter to prevent the city manager, an unelected position, from unilaterally firing department heads.
Robertson confirmed that the hiring and firing of the police chief is the city manager’s job under the current charter. City Council would have to radically change the current city charter to change how these decisions are made in the future, and change the current city manager form of government in the city.
In Charlottesville’s council-manager form of government, day-to-day duties, including public safety operations, are implemented and overseen by the city manager. The city manager oversees all city employees and the city budget. The city manager is expected, in concert with city staff, to implement the decisions of the elected City Council. The city manager is hired by City Council.
Under the current model, the public does not elect a mayor. The mayor is elected by their fellow City Council members. The mayor essentially serves as leader of City Council meetings, but does not have additional powers or control that other councilors don’t have.
Previous City Councils have discussed changing this form of government in the past, but discussions never really got off the ground.
Walker closed the meeting by speaking for about ten minutes about her concerns with policing in the city. She called out former Charlottesville Police Chief Bryant Bibb, who wrote an op-ed published in The Daily Progress and Charlottesville Tomorrow where he pushed back against the claim that the department is systemically racist.
“This is not a community that is committed to the reforms that it was committed to in 2017,” Walker said.
Walker also criticized Boyles and the councilors for allowing PBA complaints to influence the firing of Brackney.
“And what I want you all to understand is that you don’t have to have the conversation … with your kids that I’ve had to have with mine their entire lives [about] growing up in this community, trying to survive it … You all have put cops in positions of power, where they can control and dictate even who is here and what they do,” Walker said.