Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney refuted claims of racial profiling made by leaders of the Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville Church following an October incident and called on the church’s leadership to apologize or be terminated during a press conference Thursday.
The press conference followed an internal affairs investigation conducted by the police department after the church published a letter addressed to Brackney on Oct. 15 detailing allegations of racial profiling against one of its members.
According to the letter, which was written by the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles and signed by various church members, a congregant was surrounded by police while walking to church on Oct. 7 after the city police received a call from a University of Virginia student.
Per the letter, the church member was told by city police that he matched the description of a suspect in a series of break-ins, though the letter contends that the suspect looked nothing like the church member, other than that both men are Black.
“He has faced discrimination for ‘walking while black’ before, but this racial profiling and harassment must stop,” the letter reads. “Your police department owes our member an apology. He needs to feel safe in our church neighborhood.”
However, on Thursday, Brackney refuted the claims made in the letter, providing officer-worn body camera footage from the incident, as well as the 911 call, and accused the church of “race baiting.”
“The complaint highlights the power of the community members here seeking to leverage their privilege and self-serving agendas by jumping on the bandwagon approach that many in this community have adopted without regard for those involved,” Brackney said.
Earlier this month, Brackney said she received a letter from the church member involved in the incident in which he wrote that the church “had it wrong” and did not represent him.
Brackney said the claims made in the church’s letter were “fourth-hand” and almost entirely unfounded, but she did agree that accountability was needed, before asking by name for the individuals who signed the letter to “apologize or to be terminated” for their actions.
Police screened footage from the incident, in which an officer can be heard saying that he was being flagged down by the church member. According to Brackney, this serves as further refutation of claims made in the church’s letter that the officers stopped and surrounded the church member.
During the roughly 10-minute clip, the officers can be heard explaining to the man that they are in the area due to a call and because of a series of break-ins nearby. Though the man is difficult to hear in the clip, based on officer responses it appears he is aware of why the officers are in the area and flagged them down because of that.
An officer tells the man that he should not walk through people’s backyards and private property and should instead take a different route, which matches a claim made in the church’s letter that “one of the officers even suggested that he walk another way to church!”
The church member appears upset by the 911 call and the description of him, leading to an interaction with an officer in which the officer claims that the incident is not racial profiling.
“I’m not going to keep arguing with you about it. You’re trying to push this race thing that it’s not, and I’m tired of hearing about it,” the officer can be heard saying. “It has nothing to do with race; they just had their house broken into by someone who came from the same direction that is fitting the same description.”
The interaction did not result in any charges and Brackney said the department made steps to investigate the incident prior to the church’s letter.
“African American men, Black men have suffered at the hands of law enforcement for decades, for centuries — why would we want to create even more wedge issues when it doesn’t actually exist? Or in incidents where it doesn’t exist?” she said. “So to the community I would ask before you cosign, before you lend your personal or professional reputation to demand that people are terminated and fired and to apologize, think about how you could use your privilege and your power in a way that could benefit the community instead of tearing it down.”
Following the press conference, a post from Peebles addressed to the church’s congregants was posted on the church’s website.
The letter briefly summarized the press conference and the findings of the internal affairs investigation before asking the church community to respect their member’s wishes and make no further efforts to address the situation.
In response to a series of questions from The Daily Progress, Rev. Peebles wrote in a statement that she was disappointed by “unfair accusations” made by Brackney during the press conference and clarified that the letter sent from the church’s board of trustees never asked for resignations.
“We just asked that the police not stop people of color for ‘walking while black,’ and said our concern was that they should feel safe to walk on the streets of our neighborhood,” she wrote.
Peebles emphasized the church’s disappointment in the outcome of the investigation, which the church believes has “minimized our member’s experience, our concerns, and our right to ask for the police to respond to us without malice.”
“Our congregation stands by all our members of color, and united we remain vigilant against systemic racism and oppression. We will continue to ask questions, to speak out against injustice whenever we can,” Peebles wrote. “We will continue to ask for truth and honesty from our public officials. We will listen and believe the people of color in our city as we hold those in power accountable.”