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A Showdown for Charlottesville Police and the City

In the past 10 months, 18 of the city’s 100 officers left the force prompting a survey to find out why. The Central Virginia Police Benevolent Association or PBA submitted a formal request for survey results.

“And I was told it would cost $1,800 to see those," recalls PBA Chapter President Mike Wells – a detective with the Albemarle County Police. Rather than pay, he decided to do his own survey of city cops. He asked, "Do you believe the chief of police (an African-American woman named RaShall Brackney) has the best interests of the Charlottesville Police Department in Mind?”

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Eighty-four percent said no.

“One of the issues that kept coming up was if you disagree with the chief, if you cause any trouble, that she will retaliate against you," Wells adds.

When he went public with his survey, the city issued a statement saying the police department was in the middle of a difficult reorganization – working to bridge the divide between citizens – especially African American residents – and law enforcement. The goal was to dismantle old policing practices and to create a more just system of public safety.

Noting police officers are under more scrutiny than ever before, the city said one member of the SWAT team made and circulated a video filled with profanity and complaints about the department. Facing possible disciplinary action, the officer resigned. PBA President Mike Wells thought the city over-reacted.

“I’ve seen that particular video, and it’s much to do about nothing in my opinion. 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.”

An internal review of this same officer uncovered videos of nude women and other officers on the SWAT team simulating sex acts, children of team members detonating explosives and officers firing semi-automatic weapons.

Claiming it had developed a disturbing sub-culture, the chief of police decided to disband the SWAT team and notified two other officers that they might be disciplined. One quit. The other was fired. Again, Wells argues the chief of police over-reacted to inappropriate behavior.

“I labelled it as being silly. It was stupid, but they’re looking at city officers’ cell phones. They were told they could use those phones for personal use, so she’s using that as a springboard to show that, ‘See this is what I’m dealing with for officers. Clearly I’m trying to clean this place up.’ Let’s take a look at her cell phone if she’s trying to be completely transparent, because I’m sure everyone has some embarrassing moments on their cellular phone, and if you look hard enough you’ll probably find them on anyone’s.”

And he says new guidance for officers is vague, making it difficult for them to do their jobs.

“There’s no better time to be a criminal in the city of Charlottesville except right now," Wells contends. "Friday night the students are back, shootings all over the place, zero arrests in the city. These guys and girls are afraid to do their job.”

Faced with the results of the PBA survey, Bellamy Brown, who chairs the Civilian Review Board assigned to advocate for citizens with complaints against police, was surprised to find himself advocating for the cops.

“The problems with police morale and unresponsive and inflexible management have been known for some time," he said at a recent meeting of the board. "No action has been taken to date. It is my recommendation that community members e-mail and call all members of city council and the city manager every day until action is taken on behalf of the community.”

In its unsigned statement, the city pledged to dismantle systemic racism, police violence and misconduct, adding this cannot be done without discomfort, and city officials undertaking this work “will not be popular among the individuals whose behavior is being required to change.”