In his first major public meeting in the wake of a spate of recent shootings, Charlottesville Police Chief Michael Kochis got nearly two hours of free advice from a community in pain.
“We have young children with guns, and they can’t even spell,” resident Dorenda Johnson said at a community forum Kochis convened at Old Trinity Church on Monday evening.
“They can’t even spell,” she repeated. “How did we get here?”
Born and raised in Charlottesville, Johnson encouraged her own “Black brothers and sisters” to pursue some self-reflection on the recent rise in violence, which was one of the evening’s central themes.
But so was an opposing view.
“It feels like you are representing an organization,” one young man challenged the police chief and his officers. The man complained that officers don’t even make eye contact with people on the street.
“They don’t speak to me, bro,” said the young man.
A man who gave his address as 10 1/2 Street said that he was struggling to recall when he’d last seen an officer walking a beat and asked for a show of hands if anyone else had.
Few hands rose.
“That’s a failure,” said that man. “We need to see you in the neighborhood to know you’re actually doing your job.”
Kochis noted near the meeting’s start that his department is understaffed, down a third of its force. And while the chief conceded that police could be doing better, he said that officers are still a crucial line of defense when there’s trouble.
“No one’s calling parks and rec,” said Kochis. “They’re calling police.”
Kochis reiterated what he told The Daily Progress on Friday, that he plans to target three specific neighborhoods that have become hot spots for gun violence: 10th and Page, parts of Charlottesville “a little further away from 10th & Page” and the Corner near the University of Virginia. Each has been a scene of gun violence in recent months.
Shootings have taken 11 lives and injured at least 21 people in the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County since September, according to a Daily Progress tally. In Charlottesville alone there have three homicides in the first six weeks of the year, officially surpassing the two killings that were reported in that same period last year.
There was an emotional moment on Monday evening when the mother of Daiquan Anderson, a man slain near Court Square in September, asked the chief for information. He said he’d like to speak with her privately.
Her friend, Francine Chambers, told the crowd that she predicted from the moment of Anderson’s slaying that nobody would be arrested.
No one has.
Chambers said that she organized a gun buyback to honor Anderson’s life.
“You get them guns off the street,” she shouted. “This is a hot mess.”
Kochis, who took office in mid-January, expressed anguish Monday about the ubiquity of guns.
“They’re coming from all over. Guns are being left unlocked in people’s homes, stolen, you name it,” said Kochis. “Most of our shots-fired calls that we’re seeing are typically teenagers, between neighborhood beefs to settle conflicts.”
He said the city gets an average of one shots-fired call each day and that police plan to open a substation on Prospect Avenue shortly in response.
One person demanding accountability of the police without vilifying them was Mary Coleman, the executive director of City of Promise, which connects young people in Charlottesville’s West haven, Starr Hill and 10th & Page neighborhoods to mentors, tutors, after-school programs and service providers. While she too lamented the apparent lack of officers on the street, she spoke fondly of participating in a program called the Citizen’s Police Academy and feeling empathy for them.
“Twelve weeks together, we’re eating together, they’re humanized to me,” said Coleman, who then suggested reversing the program and having officers spend 12 weeks with the citizens. There was laughter and applause.
Coleman’s group is dedicated to reducing poverty, and that was something several speakers on Monday evening cited. One of them was Jay James, a well-known radio host speaking Monday on behalf of the Bridge Ministry.
“People are being set up for failure,” said James. “What about working with their parents who are stuck in a cycle of systemic oppression?”
The B.U.C.K. Squad, a Charlottesville group dedicated to removing gun violence from the city’s streets, didn’t speak during the meeting, but one of the group’s leaders expressed enthusiasm afterwards for some of the things that were said.
“It’s all economic, a lack of resources, a lack of fathers, and we’re just seeing the results,” said the squad’s Assistant Executive Director Bryan Page. “The kids are abandoned.”
Page said one thing he heard Monday evening chilled and anguished him.
“We know these people,” said Page. “They’re babies.”