Police Chief and Civil Rights Lawyer Clash Over Claims of "Stop and Frisk"

Jan 9, 2019

It’s been six months since RaShall Brackney took over as Charlottesville’s chief of police, and while she pledged to improve relations between the city’s black residents and its cops, critics say racial profiling remains a problem. 

Police Chief Rashall Brackney is at the center of a controversy over warrantless stops by police.
Credit City of Charlottesville

For five years Charlottesville’s police department kept a count of how many times officers stopped and searched suspects but made no arrest.  The most recent data for 2017 showed 123 stops – 73% involving African-Americans.  The collective numbers prompted criticism from civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel.

“These statistics were so gross, and they were so consistent!" he said. "Every single year for five years approximately 75% of the people being stopped were black, and every single year for five years it was white people who were more likely to be found with illegal substances or otherwise doing illegal work. That's enough to lay it on the table as a prima facia case of race discrimination.”

Fogel asked the city to do something about that and to provide statistics for 2018, but Police Chief Brackney held a news conference outside headquarters to say she could not provide those numbers, because the city, county and emergency communications center or ECC had switched to new software. 

"They used to be able to pull data out in a certain format.  That does not exist," she told reporters. "As a matter of fact, we are in conversations with the software providers as to why they’re not meeting our requests in the RFPs. Those things are being addressed by the ECC Board, including which I am now currently a member of." 

Brackney said she had a temporary, part-time employee going through the records manually, reviewing the context of each stop. 

"It’s not just who did we stop, and what was their race?  Were the encounters that we had 911 initiated or were they officer initiated?  Was there legal justification for performing that search? Are they only being performed by certain officers on certain shifts?  Are we encountering the same individuals, or are they different?" she explained.

To do this right, she added, the city should also be checking dashboard and bodycam video. Fogel, who stood on the sidewalk with reporters, was not convinced, and an angry exchange ensued. 

“Okay, so I will  not debate you about numbers which neither of us has," Brackney said, and she would not use the term "stop and frisk," which she contended was what national media and the New York Times called a "warrantless search."

Fogel interrupted, explaining the U.S. Supreme Court had referred to the practice of stopping and searching suspects in this way as "stop and frisk."

Brackney told  Fogel she could provide the statistics he wanted, but there would be a cost involved -- a charge allowed under Virginia's Freedom of Information Act. 

The attorney didn’t see why he should shell out for information he said should be of interest to the police department and city leaders.

“People here don’t like the numbers," Fogel concluded. "It doesn’t look like this is a community that's a world class city for all of our citizens as they like to BS about,  but it’s the truth, and if we are not going to work on the basis of truth with respect to race relations,  we will never solve any issues about race relations here.  I think what we're going to get in the end here is a whitewashed version of what we got in the past, which were accurate statistics."

The police department recently posted three months of data showing that in a city of nearly 50,000 people – where only 20% are African-American, more than 40% of those being stopped were black. Officers initiated those stops more than a third of the time, with the rest sparked by public complaints. Chief Brackney has asked the Center for Equity in Policing – a think-tank based at NYU – to study the stats and advise Charlottesville.  The Center said it would likely begin work this month.