Charlottesville’s Police Civilian Review Board tiptoed around Police Chief RaShall Brackney’s recent press conference on claims of racial profiling while bemoaning shortcomings in its ability to review the case Thursday.
The press conference hung heavily over the beginning of the board’s meeting, with some board members criticizing the chief’s actions and others saying it wasn’t in the board’s purview to weigh in.
Last week, Brackney held a press conference to refute claims of racial profiling made by leaders of the Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville Church following an October incident. In the press conference, she called on the church’s leadership to apologize or be terminated.
The church published a letter addressed to Brackney saying 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.
According to the letter, the congregant 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.
Brackney refuted the claims and accused the church of “race baiting.” Officers were cleared of any wrongdoing through an internal affairs investigation. The press conference was held the day before an officer, who had been internally cleared in a separate incident involving use of force, was convicted of assault in Charlottesville General District Court.
Under the CRB’s current structure, it can only conduct a hearing and review the case if the congregant chooses to appeal the internal affairs ruling. Board chair James Watson said the congregant had been sent a letter saying he could pursue a hearing on the complaint.
During public comment, Charlottesville resident Molly Conger said there’s no reason for the congregant to trust the process if they may receive a “public excoriation” from the police chief.
“They have no reason to trust the complaint process,” she said. “They have no reason to trust the police and they have no reason to trust you if you don’t go to bat for him.”
Board member Nancy Carpenter said the CRB needs to strongly advocate for changes to its structure, which will be possible under recent legislation approved by the General Assembly. She said the community needs to trust the board and its power.
“We don’t want anybody to feel like if you want to come forward to us and anonymously file a complaint that you’re going to be doxxed,” she said, referring to the term used when someone’s personal information is publicly disseminated.
Board member Bill Mendez called the situation “very unfortunate.”
“The way the chief handled it in public is very unfortunate,” he said. “But just because the chief does something we believe is not wise or appropriate, does not mean we should respond in the same way.”
Board member Bellamy Brown said the board can only review complaints through an appeal and has no role overseeing Brackney’s conduct.
“Obviously a lot of the comments were inflammatory, but again that purview exists with the city manager and the City Council in regards to disciplinary action,” he said.
Watson said the board inherited a “passive process” and doesn’t have the ability to “jump out in front” of things like Brackney’s press conference. He feels as though he has less power as a board member than he did as a civilian because he cannot comment on case specifics.
“Now I can’t even talk about events when they happen,” he said. “Supposedly that would weaken our ability to hold a hearing. We can’t talk about details that would require a hearing because we’d be considered biased.”
Board member Dorenda Johnson said Brackney’s rhetoric in the press conference “isn’t the first time that she’s stepped out and displayed what she’s displayed.”
“It’s just no type of communication whatsoever and I really don’t feel that they want to have the communication we need,” she said in reference to the police department.
Johnson was frustrated with leadership within the city.
“This is going to be an extremely difficult battle because we have to gain the trust of this community,” she said. “How do we get them to trust us when they see the lack of leadership we have?”
Johnson said the board needs an executive director, legal counsel and to fill a vacancy, but without leadership “none of that is going to make a lot of difference.”
Board member Phillip Seay, the only nonvoting member, said he had his “thoughts’’ on Brackney’s press conference, but wouldn’t comment because “this is not the forum.” He said the board is “in limbo” because of its current structure, but is trying to make a difference.
“I know everybody wants change to happen quickly,” he said. “I believe with the circumstances we have at this time, this committee is doing the best with what it has to work with.”
Watson said legal counsel should be selected in early January. Interviews for an executive director are scheduled for Jan. 6 and the application process for the board vacancy is expected to open next week.