A City Council work session this week discussed ideas from two city working groups who want to change the culture of policing in Charlottesville, discussing ideas such as bringing in outside organizations or city employees to handle situations police officers may not need to be involved with.
The Marcus Alert working group, focused on mental health crisis response in the city, recommended the city create a task force that would focus on a Marcus Alert implementation plan as well as the potential to create a 24/7 mental health crisis center separate from the hospital and the jail. This could potentially be a partnership with Albemarle County and/or the University of Virginia.
One of the key participants was former Police Chief RaShall Brackney, an advocate for changes in policing, appearing in public for the first time since her contract was terminated last month.
One of the groups, the Imagining A Just Cville, was created by and is led by Mayor Nikuyah Walker to explore ways to end mass incarceration and unfair or violent treatment by police in the city.
The other group, the Marcus Alert group, is co-chaired by Myra Anderson, a local activist and mental health advocate, and Vice-Mayor Sena Magill. Councilor Lloyd Snook also serves on the workgroup that includes community members, leaders of local organizations and emergency services professionals. The group was started in response to the Marcus Alert law, signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in late 2020, is a Virginia law named for Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old teacher living in Richmond who was killed while in a mental health crisis by a Richmond City Police officer on May 14, 2018. The Marcus Alert law allows localities to develop mental health intervention strategies to limit police involvement in mental health crises.
The four-and-a-half hour work session Tuesday highlighted the research and stories of members of both working groups. As a former member of the two groups, Brackney presented findings on the impact of police officer discretion in the city.
“One of the most powerful tools that an officer possesses is discretion,” Brackney said. She said discretion is not simply a matter of making an arrest or letting someone go free. Discretion, Brackney said, also comes down to individual interactions and how officers treat civilians in various types of encounters.
Nancy Amin, a student at the University of Texas School of Law, assisted Brackney in research about officer interactions. In 2019 and 2020, Amin found that the majority of police interactions with civilians were related to alcohol and narcotics or property crimes. In 2019, 63% of interactions were based on probable cause. That number increased to 65% in 2020.
Brackney also talked about authentic diversion tactics, or bringing in outside organizations or city employees to handle situations police officers may not need to be involved with. The working group is recommending that the city look into these kinds of alternatives.
On Sept. 1, City Manager Chip 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 release until Nov. 30. He cited the results of a Police Benevolent Association survey as the reasoning behind his decision.
Community member Wanda Smith talked the effects of mass incarceration on her family. Her siblings were arrested for drug use when she was a teenager, and she raised their children.
“I was raising a child at 17 years old,” Smith said. “When [my siblings] went away, it took a part of me away.”
Neal Goodloe, a criminal justice planner with the Jefferson Area Criminal Justice Board, presented research on criminal justice trends by race in Charlottesville from 2011-2020.
The study is a longer‐term trend analysis, studying reported crime, arrests and incarceration data from 2011 to 2020.
The study tallies the number of Black and White arrestees and inmates observed among a number of key criminal justice metrics to highlight areas of disproportionality, and to measure any change in that disproportionality over the decade.
Goodloe focused his presentation on 10 key findings:
Reported crime fell significantly in Charlottesville from 2011 to 2020, especially when compared to other Virginia cities of comparable size. The number of Charlottesville arrests decreased by similar percentages among Black and White people over the decade, in all three major crime categories. Arrests of older people have been on the increase, especially among Black people age 55 or older, while arrests of 18‐24 year‐olds have fallen sharply.
Intakes of Charlottesville‐responsible inmates have fallen significantly, slightly more so among White inmates than among Black inmates. Black inmates were increasingly taken into the jail on more charges than white inmates from 2011 to 2020. Black inmates were significantly less likely to be released pretrial than were white inmates throughout the decade. Average length of stay fell among Black inmates, while rising modestly among White inmates.
Still, on average, Black inmates served 24.2 days longer than White inmates in 2020. The percentage of Black Charlottesville inmates increased as length of stay increased. Bed day expenditures dropped significantly among both Black and White inmates from 2011 to 2020. Black arrests, jail intakes and bed day expenditures in the city remained significantly disproportionate throughout the decade, when compared to US Census estimates of the Black population of Charlottesville and surrounding jurisdictions.
“All of this suggests that crime is down in the city … city arrests are down … incarnation is down, all of them substantially, and all of them in a way that does not appear that they are significantly influenced by COVID. These are long-standing trends,” Goodloe said.
“However, while there are fewer numbers of people incarcerated, it has not significantly changed the disproportionality between the number of black people being arrested and incarcerated, and then the number of white people being arrested and incarcerated in the city,” he said.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Joe Platania talked about the ways his office is working to limit incarcerations.
“We try and reduce all first-time felonies to misdemeanors to not saddle people with those debilitating and crippling consequences of a felony prosecution and a felony conviction. If there’s a violent crime, that’s a different story, and we go case by case, but our default in our offices is looking at felonies and saying ‘Does this need to be a felony prosecution? Can it be a misdemeanor prosecution?’” Platania said.
“Really an overall mindset of trying to look at jail as a last resort, not as a first option, I think has allowed us to be down to around 100 folks over at the jail,” he said.
Anderson spoke about the personal importance of the Marcus Alert to her. Anderson said she has struggled with mental health issues since she was a child.
“The first time that I had a mental health crisis at the age of 12 was the first time that I got introduced to police intervening … I remember it was very confusing for me at that time because I didn’t know why the police were showing up when I had spoken to the guidance counselor, but I do remember that I felt like I was in big trouble being let out in handcuffs,” Anderson said.
Anderson said she suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and that she continued to have traumatic responses to police intervening in her mental health crises.
“It is a privilege to call the police and [feel] that they will show up in a way that’s helpful and not harmful,” Anderson said.
Anderson said Brackney was directly involved in one experience when she found police intervention to be less negative. She said Brackney once assisted her while in crisis and comforted her throughout the ordeal.
The workgroup wants the city to explore the how a mental health crisis center would be funded and staffed as well as how to implement a Marcus Alert plan.
The Charlottesville Police Department is supportive of the Marcus Alert system but has said there are funding and staffing concerns.
Charlottesville is also working to be in compliance with National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 by July 2022 by creating a suicide prevention hotline and response effort.