FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 20, 2021
City's Response to Virginia Police Benevolent Association Survey
Yesterday, the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, Central Virginia Chapter (“PBA”) announced to the press that it has performed a survey of its membership, and that the results of the survey indicate dissatisfaction by the PBA membership with Command Staff within the City’s Police Department. The PBA’s efforts and ongoing media campaign surfaced within the context of a difficult reorganization and the recent terminations of employment of members of the City’s SWAT Team.
The events of 2017 forced the City of Charlottesville and the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) to perform a critical self-assessment of its approach to public safety, and policing. After a review of 169 applicants, a selection process was initiated that included members of the community, members of the Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) and City Councilors. That process resulted in the appointment of RaShall M. Brackney, Ph.D. as Chief of Police in June 2018. Chief Brackney was tasked with updating and reforming how police services are provided within the City of Charlottesville, as well as working to bridge a divide between the city’s citizens, especially African American residents, and law enforcement. Chief Brackney, and CPD Command have been reflective, introspective, and proactive as part of their ongoing efforts to dismantle decades old, policing practices within the department.
When Chief Brackney commenced her work, the climate and culture of CPD was embedded in traditional, procedural policing approaches that created an “us vs them” mentality—a warrior mentality—which had not embraced, trained, or espoused the concepts of 21st Century Policing demanded by the City’s diverse residents. Police services were based on a traditional model of overreliance on outdated policies, practices, and training, as the use of specialized units (such as the Strategic Policing Bureau, the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement (JADE), and SWAT) that developed their own sub-cultures within CPD.
Chief Brackney is engaged in a difficult process of remodeling CPD to embody modern concepts of trust, transparency, and legitimacy. One of the first efforts she undertook, in July 2018, was to engage Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff and Dr. Tracie L. Keesee , co-founders of the Center for Policing Equity (CPE). The purpose was to empirically determine the potentiality for disparate impact under CPD’s current approach to policing, and to co-create a more just and fair system of public safety in Charlottesville. That process is still ongoing.
Next, Chief Brackney undertook a multifaceted review of CPD operations and internal accountability systems. Studies of the social structures within municipal police departments have shown that autonomous, specialized units, such as narcotics and SWAT, can develop a culture of aggression that negatively impacts both the individuals participating in those units and other members of a department who regularly interact with them. Chief Brackney reviewed outstanding Internal Affairs cases, the effectiveness of specialized units, examining CPD’s relationship to JADE, and the role of School Resource Officers (SROs) in Charlottesville City Schools (CCS). The outcome of this review process was that CPD severed its relationship with JADE, removed SROs from Charlottesville High School, dissolved Specialized units within CPD, hired a Fourth Amendment Analyst, and began publishing statistics regarding CPD’s encounters and detentions; posting summaries, outcomes and corrective actions associated with all Internal Affairs Investigations; posting all General Orders online, and publishing each “Response to Resistance” incident in which force was utilized.
During this time, police officers have come under more scrutiny than ever before, including as a result of tragic incidents that received national attention, such as the death of Marcus-David Peters (who was killed by a police officer in Richmond in 2018 while experiencing a behavioral health crisis) and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 while being arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill , and so many others who have died at the hands of police. As cities across the nation undertake major reform actions, police departments face challenges with officer retention, morale, and recruitment.
In response to those challenges, in August 2020, officers within CPD, with the assistance of Chief Brackney, initiated an internal survey and received approximately 85 responses. The survey included both yes/no type questions, but also invited officers to submit comments containing personnel information regarding identifiable supervisors and staff. Before Command staff could sort through and analyze all the information, the City began receiving FOIA requests for the forms. A decision was made to maintain the confidentiality of the information provided regarding identifiable individuals, in order that the results could be considered and utilized in a productive manner. To date only singularly redacted survey forms have been publicly released to FOIA requesters.
To date, in response to Command Staff recommendations, Chief Brackney created a Command Advisory Board, comprised of rank and file members, both sworn and civilian, to which any member of CPD may offer information, recommendations, or suggestions for changes. To date few suggestions have come forward that would improve the City workplace or officers’ service to the community, but the Chief remains hopeful that the Advisory Board can provide a voice for a wide range of officers. The City Council has also recently requested the City Manager’s Office outline a timeline for development of a collective bargaining ordinance, which may provide a new avenue for public safety employees to have a voice.
Putting this in context as it relates to the current climate and culture of CPD: in June 2021 a member of the public sent Chief Brackney a video made by a police corporal who was a member of the SWAT team, a supervisor of police officers, and a field training officer responsible for preparing new police recruits to perform the duties of their position. The video was made by the corporal in April of 2020 while he was in uniform, wearing a different officer’s name tag, sitting in a police patrol car, and utilizing a City-issued phone. He sent the video via group text message “chats” to his fellow SWAT team members, other police officers, and citizens. The video contained profanity and language indicative of the very subculture of aggression that Chief Brackney is committed to eradicating from Charlottesville policing. The police corporal in the video stated that unspecified “things are f***d up,” expresses dissatisfaction, and states that he is looking forward to when “we can get back to some hood gansta sh**t”. At one point, he states “I hope y’all haven’t killed your f***ng wives or children yet.” This police corporal also participated in text message chats in which he commiserated with officers making comments about City command staff such as: “I say we kill them all and let God sort it out”. He participated in other text message exchanges targeting two CPD officers with whom he was angry, stating, “let’s take em both out.”
A subsequent internal affairs review of the corporal’s on-duty behavior in relation to officers he was responsible for training and supervising, and with whom he served on the SWAT Team, revealed several disturbing behaviors, particularly in connection with training and operations of the SWAT Team. Those activities run the gamut from videoing simulated sex acts, circulating nude videos of females and themselves, to videotaping children of SWAT members detonating explosives, and firing police department-issued semi-automatic weapons, at unauthorized training events. The PBA dismisses the actions documented within the corporal’s video, and presumably would also dismiss the other videos generated by SWAT Team members while performing their job duties, as “It’s officers just being silly.”
In response to the discoveries, the Chief took swift action to dissolve the SWAT Team. The Chief gave notice of possible disciplinary action to the police corporal, who then resigned from employment. The Chief referred three other collateral matters for criminal investigation by outside agencies, who declined to find any unlawful conduct; subsequently, the Chief gave notice of possible disciplinary action to two other SWAT Team members, one resigned and one was subsequently terminated from employment. These actions have not been well received by the former members of the SWAT team, or by officers who are former members of other special teams previously disbanded by the Chief. The timing of the PBA’s media releases should be considered in this context.
While these internal investigations were pending, and while disciplinary proceedings remain where in progress, attorneys for the Virginia Police Benevolent Association, Central Virginia Chapter (“PBA”) contacted two City Councilors in June 2021, in a thinly veiled attempt to encourage them to influence the disciplinary process, a process matter that Councilors generally have no role in. The City Councilors have been briefed and they expect the City Manager and Chief of Police to continue their efforts to ensure that aggressive, misogynist, machoistic, paramilitary-style and racist attitudes and behavior will not be tolerated within the workplace, as it presents a threat to public safety and to the safety of all the officers who diligently, conscientiously and lawfully perform their duties every day.
Most recently, On August 10, 2021 Michael Wells, President of the PBA Virginia Police Benevolent Association, Central Virginia Chapter (PBA), transmitted a letter to the Mayor and City Council. The letter expressed concerns that the PBA membership has with the Police Department Command Staff, specifically targeting Chief Brackney, in their survey. (Membership in the PBA includes many individuals who are not current City employees, and extends to all sworn and retired law enforcement personnel and law enforcement support personnel employed by any public employer)
The City Council, City Manager and Chief Police understand that the Charlottesville community expects a unified organizational approach to dismantling systemic racism and eliminating police violence and misconduct in Charlottesville and across the nation. This cannot be done without discomfort, and the City officials responsible for undertaking this work will not be popular among the individuals whose behavior is being required to change. We must continue to build on the progress made during this historically, momentous period of criminal-legal justice reform. It requires the leveraging of all available resources such as a professional, well-trained oversight body to support police work, and local support from community and community leaders. We must remain committed to building community partnerships, while proactively addressing conditions that cultivate crime and social disorder. We must remain committed to promoting transparency and fostering trust between the community and CPD. We must remain committed to “Service Beyond the Call."