Top Charlottesville officials say they were unaware that Virginia State Police troopers used city vehicles to respond to a weekend rally protesting police brutality, saying the decision came from an unnamed officer.
The City Council, City Manager Tarron Richardson and Police Chief RaShall Brackney released a joint statement Thursday to address the issue, which had been bubbling since Monday night.
The statement was released shortly before the council finished a four-plus-hour closed session to discuss the performance of Richardson, Brackney, City Attorney John Blair and Clerk of Council Kyna Thomas. No action was taken in open session.
Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg shared pictures with the City Council during its virtual meeting Monday and asked why state troopers were seen driving city police-marked vehicles for a peaceful rally Saturday.
“I don’t have any knowledge of any state troopers driving city cars,” Brackney said at the meeting. “They didn’t have our vehicles and don’t have our vehicles.”
The joint statement says that “a few” city vehicles were made available for “shared use by the participating agencies.” Brackney and Richardson were not aware of the specifics of the operational decision during Monday’s meeting, the statement says.
“We understand there is a tremendous amount of work for us to do in order for us to earn your trust,” the statement says. “We also understand inaccurate or incomplete information will only prevent the relationships we wish to build from ever coming to fruition. We regret that a more detailed explanation of the city’s response was not available at the City Council meeting on Monday.”
The statement acknowledges some facilities maintenance vehicles were given temporary city police markings and driven by VSP officers. Permission to use the vehicles came from “a Charlottesville police department officer responsible for transportation and logistics.” The officer is not named.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker, in a later-deleted Facebook Live video Thursday evening, said the city didn’t get information out about the police response quickly enough.
“It took us way too long to get a response out,” she said. “We really screwed up the response to this question.”
Hundreds of people protested on Saturday, calling for police defunding during a march that started at the John Paul Jones Arena.
The city, Albemarle County and the University of Virginia entered a unified command to plan the response to the demonstration. UPD Police Chief Tim Longo, who led the planning, looped the Virginia State Police into the effort, the statement says.
City police joined the command because of the “mobile nature of recent local and national demonstrations” and an apparent growing presence of “those who would want to silence or challenge our community’s calls for reform are ever-present and becoming more visible in Charlottesville,” the statement says.
Brackney was the city’s liaison officer and Capt. Joseph Hatter was the city’s incident commander.
The statement emphasizes that the city was aware VSP would be present, but “we did not initiate this particular request and were not fully aware of the number of officers who would be present.”
Walker said that when a unified command is established, VSP is automatically included in preparations.
In some of Stolzenberg’s photos, three unmarked tour buses are shown driving down Fourth Street Northwest toward City Yard flanked in front and behind by marked VSP vehicles. Men dressed in black gear are later seen getting off the buses at City Yard. Other photos show officers in riot gear traveling in the back of city trucks.
On Thursday evening, Stolzenberg said the city’s statement “adequately explains Monday’s untruths from the city’s perspective, with its apparently extremely limited knowledge of VSP operations in our city under the Unified Command.”
Stolzenberg said he believes the bigger issue is the “overwhelming militarized force” that came to the city on Saturday in response to a protest against police brutality. He said the statement actually “raises more questions than it answers.”
“Why wasn’t the city aware of VSP’s show of force? What is the purpose of a Unified Command if CPD isn’t privy to basic operational details like the arrival of three busloads of troopers? Who gave the order for those troopers to suit up in riot gear and drive to Barracks Road?” he said. “If those troopers had unlawfully attacked the nonviolent, youth-led expression of our sacred First Amendment rights — as we’ve seen they are prone to do — would city police stop them? Or would they join in?”
No injuries or criminal incidents were reported related to Saturday’s rally.
Rally organizer Zyahna Bryant said the decision to have such a heavy police presence is concerning.
“It is not only concerning that the police chief claimed that she was not aware of this, when it is clear that there was a heavy police presence around Charlottesville all day on Saturday, but also, the fact that such a heavy police presence was organized for a peaceful rally planned and organized by local Black youth,” she said in an emailed statement. “This police strategy was not used for the other demonstrations leading up to this one. So what was different? Why was this necessary if the other rallies were all peaceful?”
Walker defended Brackney, saying that the chief didn’t lie, but that the situation wasn’t handled well.
“We really screwed up the response to this question,” she said. “I guess it would have been better if it was a lie because we should know who was driving our vehicles. And someone did know, but the people at the council meeting, the police chief, the city manager didn’t know.”
“No one has any reason to trust us and we have to earn that trust and we have to do the right things to earn that trust.”