Racial reconciliation remains elusive in Charlottesville

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The final meeting of the day left Charlottesville’s police chief stunned and fearing for her safety, so RaShall Brackney unholstered her gun and held it by her side as she left headquarters one night in June 2021.

The first Black woman to head the department wasn’t worried about protesters who were a frequent presence outside or street crime. The threat she perceived was uncomfortably close: a handful of officers who served under her.

A deputy had just briefed her on an internal probe of the SWAT team. It found widespread issues, including officers making crass racial remarks and one apparently showing a trainee how to hide misconduct, according to the internal report obtained by The Washington Post.

In a text, one disgruntled member wrote they should “take out” command staff, a comment Brackney took seriously but some officers felt was just blowing off steam.

Brackney had been hired in the wake of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville and made it nationally synonymous with hate. City officials wanted her to restore public trust in a force that badly fumbled the mayhem, modernize the department and address racial inequalities in policing that many in the city felt the march unmasked.

Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death

Brackney said the revelations about the 15-member SWAT team were glaring examples of what needed to be reformed in the department’s culture, but when she moved to discipline some members it set off a chain of events that led to her firing months later.

Brackney filed a $10 million lawsuit against the city and 10 officials this summer, alleging racial and gender discrimination and that her firing was retaliation for her efforts to root out problematic policing.

Most city officials declined to comment citing the pending litigation, but Mayor Lloyd Snook said Brackney’s termination was about her lack of effective leadership, not reform efforts. He said rank-and-file officers had lost faith in her and were leaving, creating a crisis.

The dramatic episode prompted Charlottesville’s first Black female mayor to announce in September she would not seek reelection and led to the resignation of the city manager, the fifth in just a handful of years that were beset by turmoil and infighting in government related to the rally.

It has also underscored for some that Charlottesville’s hope of becoming an example of racial reconciliation after Unite the Right remains stubbornly elusive on the fifth anniversary of the march. The city’s challenges with police reform have been mirrored nationwide.

“Many of the fissures in our community laid bare by the 2017 events remain,” said Tim Heaphy, a former federal prosecutor who wrote the definitive report on the rally. “Cynicism about government and its ability to address persistent problems continues to be widespread.”

Charlottesville was reeling after the march.

Unite the Right had unleashed a crisis of public trust in government. One glaring failure was the police department, which was unable to contain the white supremacists who brawled with counterprotesters, claiming a life and injuring nearly 50 on Aug. 12, 2017.

Heaphy’s review found the department was woefully unprepared, which prompted Al Thomas, the police chief at the time, to resign in late 2017.

The rally, which was organized in part by a local man, also prompted Charlottesville to look inward at racial inequality. The idyllic college town of nearly 50,000 regularly made lists of the best places to live, but those glossy reviews papered over deeper divisions between the experiences of Black and White residents regarding housing, education and policing.

The year before the rally, police data showed nearly 80 percent of “stop-and-frisk” stops performed by its officers were of Black residents, even though they made up less than 20 percent of the population. Anger still simmered over police sweeping up the DNA of nearly 2o0 Black men in the hunt for a serial rapist years earlier.

The demand for change powered the City Council campaign of an activist named Nikuyah Walker, who went on to become Charlottesville’s first Black female mayor in January 2018. It also caught the attention of Brackney, who was then police chief at George Washington University.

Brackney, the daughter of a steelworker, grew up in a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, before spending three decades with that city’s police department holding a range of jobs. She had experience in community policing and less punitive approaches to justice.

Brackney thought the local ferment for reform combined with the national spotlight on Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally offered an opportunity to transform the city’s police force into a national model for progressive policing. She thought her personal and professional experiences could help bridge Charlottesville’s divides.

“If you could get it right, if you could do it, how might we think about policing going forward across the nation?” Brackney said.

Brackney was chosen for the job in May 2018. The ascension of Black women to mayor and police chief for the first time in the city’s history generated national attention and stirred hope that a new era had dawned for Charlottesville.

Reality quickly intervened.

Even in her early days on the job, Brackney was buffeted by the crosscurrents that would characterize her tenure. At a City Council meeting to approve her hiring, left-wing protesters demanded she open an investigation into officers’ conduct during Unite the Right.

Star Peterson, who was badly injured when James A. Fields Jr. plowed his car into counterprotesters at the rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, limped to a microphone with her leg still in a brace. She spoke forcefully.

“We cannot move forward until we address the horrendous events of last summer and the racism that is deeply entrenched in our police department,” Peterson said. “Our pain will not let us leave last summer behind … we will not let you move on so easily — that’s a promise.”

Protesters were a fixture outside police headquarters. Brackney said one held a sign that read, “Honk if you hate police.”

Brackney said her reception was no easier inside the building. She was one of three Black women in a department of about 115 officers. She said the force was nearly 90 percent White and overwhelmingly male.

Brackney, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat, said some officers embraced her plan for reforms but that many others viewed her with suspicion. She said that resistance was summed up in an encounter in the hallway with a commander during her first days on the job.

When Brackney introduced herself, she said, the man replied: “I voted Republican, and I don’t drink any f—ing pumpkin lattes.”

Brackney said she found a police department badly in need of modernization and defined by an insular law enforcement culture, in which promotions were based on personal relationships and an “us versus them” mentality with the public. The department declined to comment.

Brackney said she set about trying to change that culture. One of her biggest — and most controversial — moves was reorganizing the department.

She withdrew officers from a regional drug task force, which she said was targeting too many low-level users instead of drug dealers. She also stopped sending resource officers into schools, a practice she said criminalized disciplinary issues. Other departments across the country have made similar moves as part of reforms.

Brackney said she was leery of special units because her research had shown they are often spots where corruption and other problems develop in departments.

Many officers saw it differently.

Nearly a dozen current and former Charlottesville police officers declined to comment for attribution or did not respond to messages, but three said they felt disbanding the special units hurt the department’s ability to fight crime and was demoralizing because the posts were desirable career moves. They also said Brackney alienated officers with her leadership style.

The true turbulence was just beginning.

The SWAT probe began with a tip.

The email that landed in Brackney’s inbox in June 2021 was from a former law enforcement officer, who alleged a Charlottesville police officer was having an inappropriate relationship with a female officer who had been his trainee, the email shows.

“I have included a video that was sent to his trainee(s) that clearly shows his unprofessionalism and state of mind,” the tipster wrote.

Brackney said she tensed up. She wondered what the video would show and whether it might spark a scandal that could upend everything she had been working toward over three years as chief. She hit play.

The corporal appears on screen in his cruiser, sitting near a rifle while wearing mirrored sunglasses, the video shows.

In the clip that was sent to a SWAT team group text, he complains about the department and says the TV show “Tiger King” will lift moods: “Nothing like a guy who has tigers — most of them illegal — trying to seduce straight men into gay sex with meth.”

He ends by saying he hopes they can get back to “some f—ing ’hood gangster shit.”

Brackney said she didn’t know what the corporal meant by the “gangster” comment, but she was alarmed enough to immediately suspend him and launch an investigation. She seized his work phone and others from the SWAT team. The probe quickly exploded.

Text messages from the corporal revealed him wanting to “take out” the “top four,” according to the internal police report on the investigation. A video shows the corporal appearing to instruct a trainee on how to cover up misconduct, according to the report. The corporal, who has resigned from the department, declined to comment.

A sergeant on the SWAT team texted the corporal that the corporal’s videos making fun of a Black trainee were funny and that “his skin gets whiter everyday with u,” the report details.

Other texts revealed SWAT members had staged an unauthorized training, deploying tear gas that drew complaints from residents and businesses in the area and sparked two small fires, according to the report. Another SWAT member allowed his children to detonate an explosive and shoot a rifle, and later sent out a video he recorded of a nude woman dancing, the report found.

Brackney said the messages were disturbing and seemed to confirm her concerns about special units. She said it was brazen that the texts and videos were recorded and distributed on work phones. To her, it conveyed a sense of impunity. These were officers who helped train the force.

Brackney began disciplinary action against six officers involved, which resulted in a handful of resignations, a firing and proceedings that are ongoing, according to Brackney. City officials have publicly noted the resignation of the corporal and another officer and said one person was fired. Other SWAT team members involved declined to comment, did not respond to requests for interviews or could not be reached.

Mike Wells, the president of the Central Virginia chapter of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), declined to comment because he is named in Brackney’s lawsuit, but accused Brackney of overreacting in an interview with a local NPR affiliate at the time.

“I’ve seen that particular video, and it’s much ado about nothing in my opinion,” Wells said of the video that sparked the SWAT probe. “I think they should have counseled them and said, ‘Hey, this is completely inappropriate,’ maybe give them some sort of reprimand. Does it warrant firing? I don’t think so.”

In the radio interview, Wells called the other conduct uncovered in the probe “silly” and “stupid” and said Brackney was using the situation to advance her progressive agenda.

Two former officers who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because they feared professional consequences said they felt the punishment was part of a pattern of heavy-handed discipline by Brackney. In particular, they dismissed the talk of killing officers as idle chatter. Brackney referred some comments for criminal investigation, and the officers were cleared.

As a Black woman, Brackney said she took the messages seriously and feared for her family. She said she installed an alarm system on her house and told her daughter not to come home from college unannounced.

And she took to unholstering her gun every night as she left headquarters and walked to her car, which was parked in the same garage where DeAndre Harris, a Black man, was savagely beaten by white supremacists during the Unite the Right rally.

The parking garage beating lasted 10 seconds. DeAndre Harris still lives with the damage.

After the probe was complete, Brackney called a meeting of the SWAT team, which she and officers involved said was tense and emotional. One officer cried, and others walked out. Brackney said she told the SWAT team they had gone rogue.

She made a major announcement: The SWAT team was being disbanded.

The letter delivered two months later to Walker, the mayor at the time, had an urgent message: The city’s police department was in crisis. “The men and women of the Charlottesville Police Department are hurting,” it opened.

Wells wrote in August 2021 police officers were under a microscope locally and nationally after George Floyd’s killing and they weren’t receiving the support from the chief they needed, a common complaint from police unions as reform efforts gained steam in recent years. Wells concluded: “We have lost faith in our leadership.”

He included a survey of 65 Charlottesville officers that showed overwhelming majorities said Brackney did not have the ability to lead the department in this new era of policing, that they didn’t think they could get a fair disciplinary hearing and that they had curtailed policing out of fear of being targeted by department brass.

“My first concern is that the chief is more focused on her political career and personal interests over the safety and mental health of her officers,” one officer wrote. “She will hang any officer out to dry before she admits any personal wrongdoing.”

Others said the chief was too quick to punish officers and too negative, and some lamented the loss of the special units. The PBA released the survey to the media a little over a week after sending it to city officials. Brackney said the questions were slanted to make her look bad.

The city responded by issuing a news release backing the chief. It explained her efforts to reform the department and disband the SWAT team. The release said change could not come without “discomfort.”

But then came a stunning reversal.

City Manager Chip Boyles, who had the power to fire the police chief, announced days later on Sept. 1 that he was terminating Brackney. Boyles declined to comment because he is named in Brackney’s lawsuit, but said in public comments that he had to act quickly because top leaders in the department were planning to exit if Brackney remained. He said he backed her decisions on the SWAT team.

Boyles said he based his decision, in part, on the PBA survey and another internal one.

“In order to dismantle systemic racism and eliminate police violence and misconduct in Charlottesville, we need a leader who is not only knowledgeable in that work, but also is effective building collaborative relationships with the community, the department, and the team at City Hall,” Boyles wrote in a news release.

Snook agreed, saying a leader has to “attract a team to implement that vision” and Brackney “didn’t seem to have that.” He said nearly a third of positions were open in the department because so many officers had left.

Walker took to Facebook Live in the hours after Brackney’s firing to say she was blindsided by the news. Days later, she announced she would not seek reelection and that Brackney’s termination was one of the catalysts. Walker said the complaints of a largely White police force had trumped the difficult work of making policing more equitable for minorities.

Walker said in an interview she had spent years pushing for systemic reform on the council, but found again and again the city did not have the will to act on its rhetoric of healing that followed Unite the Right. Brackney’s firing was one more example.

“Charlottesville wants that change in theory,” Walker said in an interview. “The leaders in Charlottesville are not open to the level of discomfort that will actually be required to make that change.”

Walker clashed publicly with Boyles over the firing, prompting his resignation.

Then in June, Brackney stood in a blue business suit in front of the federal courthouse in Charlottesville, the same where Fields pleaded guilty to hate crimes in connection with the car-ramming attack at the rally, to announce she had filed her lawsuit. She accused city leaders of scheming to get rid of her, as well as defaming her in public comments.

White supremacists find a new platform to spread hate: A federal courtroom in Charlottesville

“The city of Charlottesville and CPD was and still is so invested in its racial paternalism, misogyny and nepotism, they would rather conspire to oust me than dismantle or confront corrupt, violent individuals in CPD and city government,” she said.

As Charlottesville marks the fifth anniversary of Unite the Right, the city is again reeling. The Robert E. Lee statue that was the focus of the Unite the Right rally is gone, but many feel the divides it exposed remain.

Brackney said she worries the moment for true police reform has passed in Charlottesville, although city leaders said they remain dedicated to it. Reform efforts have hit similar roadblocks in some cities across the country.

Snook said he thinks Charlottesville has made significant progress on racial reconciliation, pointing to new affordable housing and a plan that increases housing density, but Heaphy said apart from a few bright spots he is not so sure.

He thinks the city pinned too much hope on government to solve deep-seated social ills. Charlottesville has yet to name a new police chief, and the city manager job remains open. The discord that began with Unite the Right continues to reverberate.

“I believe real progress on issues of reconciliation must be more organic, generated by community organizations, faith groups and schools,” Heaphy said.

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