After hearing of what he called “disgusting and disturbing actions” allegedly committed by police officers against homeless people living in Market Street Park, Charlottesville police chief Michael Kochis held a press conference to announce the results of an internal investigation. “It has been determined that the allegations that our officers have been targeting Black, unhoused individuals with violence, and that officers have only been asking Black, unhoused individuals to leave the park, are unfounded and simply did not occur,” Kochis told a room of some 25 people on Thursday.
Kochis then showed bodycam footage that he said vindicated his officers.
The investigation was a response to allegations made by local Deidre Gilbert during public comment of a recent city council meeting.
Speaking of a Sept. 16 incident, Gilbert described an officer encountering a sleeping homeless man, KeMarcus Murray.
“He was trying to wake him up, but instead of gently touching him or maybe using a nightstick, he decided to kick him,” Gilbert told council.
She also noted that Roscoe Boxley, who was previously residing in the park, was arrested for being there past curfew on Sept. 12. But she claimed that white people who were in the park were not bothered.
Kochis said that after hearing Gilbert’s accounts, he asked Commonwealth attorney Joseph Platania to watch bodycam footage of the kicking incident.
“Mr. Platania and his assistant reviewed the footage and immediately determined that the contact with the individual in question was incidental to the lawful discharge of the officer’s duties reasonable under the law and does not rise to the level of battery,” Kochis said.
The footage shows a pair of officers approaching multiple people in the park and asking them to leave. Eventually they approach Murray who appears to be sleeping in his tent.
“Sir, I need you to start packing your stuff up because you have to leave the park,” an officer says.
Murray does not respond, and another officer approaches him.
“Wake up,” the second officer says, using his foot to contact the bottom of the Murray’s foot, in what some called a kick but Kochis called a “touch.”
“Kick me again,” Murray can be heard saying multiple times.
When describing the incident, Kochis said that the officer “touched the heel of the person’s foot with his own foot to wake him up.”
Afterwards the officer can be seen walking away, saying Murray “is going to go back to sleep.”
The video ends seconds later.
Kochis said that Murray “packed up his stuff and left” and that there was no further incident with Murray after the footage ended.
In the video, Murray did not appear to be getting ready to leave the park.
The Sept. 12 bodycam footage shows the arrest of Boxley, who is sitting in a chair in the walkway, fully aware that he is about to violate the 11 p.m. curfew.
“We don’t got nowhere to go. Nowhere at all. Everywhere we’ve been y’all have ran us off,” Boxley says to the officers.
One officer asks if Boxley had tried finding a bed at the Salvation Army, Charlottesville’s only overnight shelter, which regularly reaches capacity and turns people away.
“Do you think I’d be out here if I could get into Salvation Army?” Boxley says. “You’re going to lock me up right now because I ain’t going nowhere, and the only way I’m going somewhere is if you lock me up. I’m going to be heard one way or another.”
When the clock struck 11 p.m., Boxley stood from his chair and immediately put his hands behind his back, waiting to be arrested. He was protesting the park’s curfew, which has since been lifted by City Manager Sam Sanders.
Sanders’ decision granted a small victory to the homeless, who say that the public park is one of the few places they can sleep and feel safe.
And while some may feel Thursday’s press conference vindicates police, it absolutely serves as a reminder that Charlottesville continues to lack solutions to address the needs of its unhoused population.
Kochis alluded to this while taking questions from the audience.
“I’m just going to be frank. I’m sorry, but I’ve worked in two other jurisdictions, the city of Alexandria and the town of Warrenton,” he said. “Both had a 24-hour shelter with wraparound services, and I’ve never been in a jurisdiction that hasn’t had either.”
Until he came to Charlottesville, that is.
As the city’s only overnight shelter, the Salvation Army only has about 50 beds. And while City Council has approved its request to remodel the facility and more than double the number of beds, the non-profit is still raising funds for the project. The updates will not be completed for another two years.
While The Haven provides services for the homeless during the day, years ago the city prohibited it from serving as an overnight shelter.
Executive director Anna Mendez told The Daily Progress that while the city has indicated a willingness to reconsider that decision, it is still in the very early stages of that conversation.
“It would be incredibly premature to put any type of timeline on it,” Mendez said.
In the meantime, Charlottesville’s homeless are stuck. Market Street Park serves as a respite, but local residents are already unhappy with their presence there.
Locals’ anxieties have only worsened since Wednesday, when police reported that a person was stabbed multiple times “in or around” the park.
One man in the audience brought that alleged incident up during the Thursday press conference. The stabbing verified his fears that the removal of the curfew “is going to breed more criminality.”
“Does that not create a precedent for shutting this park down and eliminating this crime that’s in the downtown retail and residential area of Charlottesville?” he asked Kochis.
The details of the alleged stabbing are murky. While police say a person was stabbed in the early hours of Sunday morning, multiple people living in the park told The Daily Progress they did not hear any screams or see any blood.
Asked why police described the incident as happening “in or around” the park, Kochis said that was the description given by the victim while at UVa Medical Center.
“When we went to the hospital, that’s what we were told from the person, because he was kind of out of it,” Kochis said.
Kochis could not say exactly where the alleged assault actually occurred.
“That’s why we’re asking the public who was there, just like we would if there was a stabbing in Belmont or West Haven,” he said, referring to the ongoing investigation.
Yet again, the city finds itself scrambling to find a solution to its growing homelessness crisis. Until it does, incidents between police and the unhoused are likely to continue.
“When we are called, it’s typically because multiple systems have failed these communities,” Kochis said Thursday. “And when those systems fail, we’re left. And we’re not always best suited to deal with those, but we have to answer the call.”