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Five years later, Charlottesville still faces police reform challenges

Charlottesville residents and public officials were forced to scrutinize policing in the city as the region’s racist legacy was laid bare in August 2017, and community members voiced their criticism of both local and state police’s handling of the white supremacist of local activists led to the creation of the Police Civilian Review Board, now called the Police Civilian Oversight Board. A city officials were still reeling from what some see as their failure to keep the community safe during the Unite the Right rally five years ago today, the City Council elected to dissolve the Citizens’ Advisory Panel in favor of a new independent review board for the police department. The board has evolved over the past few years, with the city hiring a director last year.

“The efforts of that first group of individuals that got together and really paved the way for a city of Charlottesville’s size to say, ‘We need to have accountability and accessibility in policing’ – that is nearly unheard of,” said Ashley Marshall, Charlottesville’s Deputy City Manager of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

But community members have remained critical of the city’s approach to police reform over the past five years, concerned that there hasn’t been enough change.

“I was present at the torch rally on Aug. 11 [2017]. And I watched the police hang back,” said Brad Slocum, secretary of the Charlottesville area chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. “The city has not only failed to address some of the issues [of policing] but in fact has kind of gone backwards on them.”

And in regards to race, there is scant evidence that much has changed.

A report released earlier this year revealed the Charlottesville Police Department continues to show a trend in arresting more Black people than white people. In 2021, 56% of total arrests were of Black people, while 42% were of white people. These statistics remain unchanged from 2020, though 2021 saw an decrease in total arrests at 831 down from 922 in 2020. According to 2020 census data, 65.18% of the city’s population is white and 15.3% of the city’s population is Black.

“The Charlottesville Police Department is committed to breaking down barriers in order to practice 21st century policing. Crime is not only a police problem, it is a social problem, and we are committed to working with the community to develop solutions. If we want to be the change and change the narrative, we have to work together,” CPD wrote in a statement to The Daily Progress.

“The scars from August 2017 still remain, but what matters is how we move forward and grow together. We realize that after this event, the public’s perception of policing in America was tarnished. It is our hope, that with our team of honorable and trustworthy officers, we can restore trust and add a new meaning to policing in Charlottesville. It is our vow to maintain the highest standard of ethical conduct and integrity at all times. We are stewards of the community. First and foremost, we are here to protect and serve the citizens of Charlottesville,” the statement continued.

Budget, transparency are concerns

Community members, activists, and even city councilors have asked for more transparency in the police department’s budget. While the department got about $1.3 million more than it has in previous years, community members voiced concerns that it’s unclear where the money in that budget is going.

Elizabeth Stark, co-chair of the Charlottesville area chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said it’s hard to know what needs to be reformed when the budget isn’t detailed.

“We cannot start assessing the efficacy of policing and what the cops are really doing in our community until we have that information,” she said.

Another issue is morale. Former chief RaShall Brackney was fired last year and is suing the city on the basis of race, color and sex discrimination. In the lawsuit, she alleges that she was fired because of her reform efforts. City officials have pointed to an exodus of officers from the department in explaining the decision to part ways with Brackney, with officials stating morale was low among officers.

Now, as the city embarks on its search for a new police chief, the same questions that arose about policing in August 2017 are coming up again.

“We need to establish a culture of oversight,” said Hansel Aguilar, the city’s new PCOB director. “It’ll be hard to make recommendations on what twenty-first century policing looks like without knowing, without doing an audit of the department.”

This would include analyzing the department’s practices and what may need to be reformed.

The 21st Century Policing Model was created by an Obama administration task force to identify best policing practices and offer recommendations on how those practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.

Nancy Carpenter, a member of the PCOB, said she thinks the board needs to do more to work with the community, especially those who are most marginalized by the police.

“It’s more than just setting up a table at a festival or whatever,” Carpenter said. “I hope we can really have some public comment and overt conversations. We need to acknowledge that we do have a problem with policing in this community. If you listen to the people who are speaking from their community, you know that [problem] exists.”

That’s one of the changes Aguilar wants to make. He said under the PCOB’s new operating procedures and changes in Virginia state law, the board can do more than it has in the past, and that includes holding forums for community input.

However, Aguilar says police reform must be a collaborative effort to be successful. He quoted his report to City Council in November 2021: “Civilian oversight, however, is not a panacea for solving all policing issues. To tackle the systemic issues in policing, we need a multi-faceted, evidence-based, and trauma informed approach that includes all sectors of society.”

Carpenter wants the city and the PCOB to collaborate with community groups like Peace In The Streets and the B.U.C.K Squad, which aim to deescalate potentially violent situations before the police get involved. City Council has put some money towards programming for these groups, but Carpenter sees more room for direct collaboration.

As the city looks toward hiring a police chief, community input has been at the forefront of the discussion. The city hired POLIHIRE, a Washington, D.C.-based search firm, to manage the search. POLIHIRE released a survey to collect residents’ input on what they want out of their new chief to help build a profile of the perfect candidate when the firm starts advertising, interviewing and hiring. The survey, created and managed by POLIHIRE, also asks for information on what topics are most important for the next chief to address and advice residents may have.

Looking to the future

Mayor Lloyd Snook has his own thoughts and vision for the future of the city’s police force.

“I would like to see a police chief that is committed to the model of the twenty-first century police force,” Snook said. “You need two things: you need to have a clear vision, and you need the ability to attract and keep a team committed to that vision. So what we’ll be looking for and be recommending that the city manager be looking for is someone who has both the vision and the ability to build and keep a team.”

Snook said that while Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers will ultimately be in charge of making the decision, City Council will get to make recommendations. And Snook said he hopes community members will be vocal about what they want throughout the hiring process.

“There will be a lot of opportunities for people to tell us upfront, what they’re looking for and what we should be trying to fold into our decision making process,” Snook said.


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