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Former site of Robert E. Lee statue at center of new controversy

At the end of September, a dozen small tents had popped up in what was once called Lee Park.
At the end of September, a dozen small tents had popped up in what was once called Lee Park.

Market Street Park now contains a dozen tents where people have been living, and the neighbors don’t like it. They’ve reported disorderly conduct, drug use and fights – including one stabbing in the area. This month local police have enforced a curfew requiring people to leave after 11 pm, and on September 18th some residents showed up at city council to make what Police Chief Michael Kochis called disgusting and disturbing claims.

“One of the allegations that was made during the meeting was that our officers have been 'targeting Black, unhoused individuals with violence.'" he told reporters. "Another allegation was that a Charlottesville police officer assaulted an unhoused individual by 'kicking him like a football.'”

Bodycam video showed patient and professional officers explaining that the park was about to close and giving people time to pack up. One man – who sounded angry – refused to go and was arrested. The local commonwealth’s attorney, Joe Platania, found no evidence of inappropriate police conduct.

 "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 did not rise to the level of battery."

And Kochis insists race was never a factor in asking campers to leave the park.

“These individuals were white, black and Latino. Officers approached each of them and made them aware of the park being closed and that they would need to be given some time to collect their belongings and leave the park.”

Kochis said officers would be given additional training on how to deal with people living in public places, but he claimed local police were already compassionate and frustrated by the situation.

“The officers spoke of the frustration of having to send people on their way with nowhere to go. Our officers are human beings, just like the folks in that park, and their frustration with the systems and programs that continue to fail these communities was palpable, and I share their frustration.”

He concluded his news conference with a plea of sorts to city council.

“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. Both had a 24-hour shelter with wraparound services, and I’ve never been in a jurisdiction that hasn’t had either.”

Charlottesville’s main shelter does not permit overnight stays, and a facility operated by the Salvation Army is often full. For now, the city’s manager has lifted the curfew so campers can stay.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief