The Charlottesville Police Department is increasing its presence around public housing sites in response to cries from residents about increased violent crime.
Residents vented generations of their concerns at an emergency safety meeting of the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority board of commissioners on Friday.
Residents acknowledged the need for long-term solutions, but implored the city to enforce dire safety needs immediately.
The meeting was called in the wake of last week’s slaying of 27-year-old Dre’Shawn Rayvon McDonald in South First Street public housing.
Police have responded to 12 shots fired calls on South First Street so far in 2020, as many as 2016 to 2019 combined, according to CPD data.
The areas around South First Street and Westhaven have seen at least three killings and 63 reports of shots fired in the past five years.
While Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who serves on CRHA’s board, and Police Chief RaShall Brackney advocated long-term solutions to address the root causes of criminal activity, they were met with fire from residents who said enough is enough.
“We don’t want another death before we’re at the table with the same conversations we’ve been having for the last year or two,” said Audrey Oliver, a former commissioner.
Residents and advocates provided a laundry list of alleged activities at public housing sites, including gambling, prostitution and drug deals.
Brandon Collins, lead organizer with the Public Housing Association of residents, said residents have lived with, “the fear that what happened last weekend was going to be the inevitable result of not being able to get control of the situation.”
“PHAR does not typically want to encourage a heavy hand on residents, but it is out of control,” he said. “We understand it’s a pandemic and it’s really hard to say anyone needs to be evicted, but residents are telling us this left and right.”
Brackney said evictions would just relocate the problem.
“It continues to sadden me that the only response that we can think of having is an overly heavily emphasized response on policing,” she said. “All we’re going to do when we evict is somebody is going somewhere else and they’re not leaving the community. Then is it no longer CRHA’s issue? PHAR’s issue? It becomes the city of Charlottesville’s issue.”
CRHA is under contract with Millennium Security to provide services over weekends. The contract is expiring and CRHA will be using Century Force LLC in the new year.
Executive Director John Sales said Millennium’s contract does not cover loitering and enforcement of the visitor policy, but ongoing concerns from residents have made it a part of discussions for the Century Force contract.
Interim Millennium CEO Ryant Washington said security is at Crescent Halls every evening and overnight in various properties on different days of the week. Brackney said officers are assigned to the area, but she’s added two more and plans to add another two after Friday’s meeting. The officers will be present Thursday through Saturday from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
CRHA plans to use capital improvements, such as lighting, cameras and maintenance, to start “making it so the environment induces safety,” Sales said.
Walker said heavy police presences will not solve crime. She specifically pointed out the so-called 1994 Crime Bill and President-elect Joe Biden’s support for it as something that put many Black men in prison, leading to more crime today.
“An increased police presence won’t prevent people from getting murdered,” she said. “It hasn’t before.”
Brackney said more officers in the area will impact Black men more than anyone else and, if the community wants more, they must recognize the consequences.
“If that starts to go on and they start to enforce it and they’re making all these arrests for all these things, I don’t want to hear next month or whenever someone is in front of council that we are arresting Black men disproportionately or we’re impacting Black men disproportionately,” she said. “We can’t have both. There are going to be other things [officers] see criminally and they are going to address. That’s just going to have to be the way it has to be for the short term.”
Resident Angela Barnes said she was fine with more officers and “that’s what we need.”
Activist Rosia Parker, who lives in public housing, said the problems have been going on for “generations and generations.”
“It’s not that we don’t want the police over here,” she said. “We want the police over here in the correct manner.”
Joy Johnson, a public housing advocate, said the community needs to collectively work toward improving itself with the help of police and other organizations.
Arlennia Lewis, who lives on South First Street, said she’s had to deal with gunshots for years.
“This is our community and we want it back,” she said. “My son should not have to go to school and complain to his teacher that he’s scared if he’s going to go home and be dead or not.”
Brackney and Walker repeatedly referred to trauma that could be caused by a heavy police presence. Lewis said it was way past the time to worry about trauma.
“It’s not, ‘I can’t do this because of how someone might feel,’” she said. “I could give a f*** how anybody feel on here when it comes down to the wellness of my kids and the police being called.”
The residents’ comments come in stark contrast to national calls to divert funding away from police departments and support community programs. Walker pointed out that Don Gathers, a local activist present at the meeting, was an advocate of defunding the police and his comments stood in contrast to other stances. She asked for consistency.
Gathers responded in the chat portion of the Zoom webinar, saying it wasn’t the time or place to discuss defunding the police. He wrote that it was the “Wrong and improper time to flex that particular muscle, but understandable and not surprising.”
Gathers was later heard making a disparaging remark about Walker when it appeared he thought his microphone was off.
Walker noted that Gathers’ mic was not muted and said she would talk with him offline.