On August 21, 2004, a resident of Friendship Court called the police for assistance in a domestic dispute. When the officers arrived on the scene, the suspect, Kerry Cook, though unarmed, resisted arrest. The subsequent scuffle ended when one of the cops shot Cook, a 31-year-old African-American man, once in the stomach—resulting in a coma that left Cook hospitalized for three weeks.
Questions, suspicions and accusations of excessive force ensued and, as a result, last October the City Attorney’s office organized a grand jury to investigate. Over the next five months, the jury met 19 times, taking sworn testimony from 38 people about the incident.
In the end, when the grand jury released their report on March 7, they ruled the police officers who responded to the call had not, in fact, used excessive force. However, the jury went beyond a simple ruling. They also assessed police department relations with the African-American community. They said, in short, that those relations need attention and improvement, and need it stat.
The relationship between Charlottesville’s African-American community and city police has always been tenuous—the result of a long history of missteps, misunderstandings and Southern race relations. With the arrival of Police Chief Timothy Longo in early 2001, hopes for an improved situation ran high, and still do.
“Our current police chief is very different from people that have held the job in the past [in a good way],” says City Councilor Kendra Hamilton, “We’re very lucky to have what we have now.”
However, longstanding suspicions were ignited anew after the 2003 DNA dragnet (in which, as a means of catching the ever-elusive serial rapist, African-American males were asked to submit to cheek swabbings for DNA samples). The Cook shooting only made it worse.
In their report, the grand jury set forth six recommendations for ways the police department could repair relations with
the black community. Recommendations included more police training on community relations; a request that the Thomas Jefferson Area Community Criminal Justice Board (CCJB) adopt race relations as a priority for research and action; increased hiring and promotion of African-American officers, continuing support for calls concerning domestic violence; enhancing the police department’s computer system; and expanding the community policing concept.
Suggestions are all well and good, notes Hamilton, but at this point they’re just words on paper. The question now is whether something’s going to get done.
One African-American woman, a former 14-year resident of Friendship Court who requested anonymity, has no hope of improved relations between the black community and the police department.
“It’s only going to get worse,” she says. “The more the police push, the more the drug dealers push back.”
As she says this, she’s sitting with a friend enjoying the afternoon sun on a stoop a couple doors down from where the Cook shooting occurred.
The two women name particular complaints, specifically frustration at what they see as police officers patrolling the community with a preconceived notion that all the residents there are suspicious. A third resident, Michelle Burnley, joins the two women. She offers that trying to talk to the police “is like talking to the air.”
Pessimism and frustration like this are understandable and hard to debate, but Karen Waters, executive director of Quality Community Council, an advocacy and networking organization targeted at the city’s poorest neighborhoods, is optimistic.
Pointing to the closeness of Friendship Court’s community as an asset, “it’s up to [the Friendship Court community] to come up with their own ideas and it’s up to us to listen and to act,” Waters says.
Everyone seems to agree that the issue is communication. It’s no coincidence then that such is precisely what the grand jury’s recommendations address. Chief Longo, in fact, says that the police department has already acted on two of the grand jury’s recommendations and has plans to further implement others in the future.
According to Longo, the entire department just finished its first weeklong training session with officers from the Virginia Community Policing Institute. In addition, since the grand jury report, the department tweaked and improved its computer system to make it easier to identify potentially problematic behavior among officers.
With help from Waters, and other community leaders, Longo is also planning a series of meetings with the residents of Friendship Court to discuss what the problems are and how to solve them.
Citing the way talking things through and being open to criticism helped the police department weather the DNA dragnet storm, Longo says, “One of the ways you [create trust] is to open doors and windows to communication and operate in a very transparent way.
“It’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of work, and I’m committed to do that because relationships are the essence of life.”