This year, Charlottesville’s local news was national news. Below, we take a look the people behind the biggest headlines of 2014 —and explain why you should be watching them in the months to come.
No. 1: Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo
If local residents weren’t able to recognize Tim Longo by sight at the beginning of this year, chances are good they can now. So can people around the country.
When murdered UVA second-year Hannah Graham’s disappearance made national news, the city police chief’s impassioned press conferences left a lasting impression. He appeared at an emergency meeting of the University’s Board of Visitors in the wake of an explosive Rolling Stone story on campus rape to describe the department’s response to allegations of gang rape. He again stood in front of cameras earlier this month to describe the “evil, senseless and brutal” murders of a mother and daughter in their Rugby Avenue home.
“It’s a tough job to be a police officer anywhere in America today,” said Longo in a recent interview in his downtown office. Tragedy, horror and the national spotlight followed on the heels of a nationwide firestorm of anger at police sparked by the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That incident has reignited frustrations over police-community relations here in the city.
Longo said he’s trying to address those frustrations as a difficult year winds down. He’s met several times with local pastors and community leaders, and they agree on several things, he said: The department needs to improve communication between police and the public, increase minority representation on the force and up capacity in order to do more foot-patrol community policing.
He insists it’s not just talk. He has asked the city for 20 new officers and two more supervisors over the next three years. He’s pledged to produce quarterly updates for public perusal on stop-and-frisk and use of force incidents, and to reform the citizen complaint process. A contract is pending for police body cameras for the entire force. And he’s working with those same pastors and others to develop a series of workshops where residents will be able to learn about —and question—police practices.
Some of the criticism directed at the chief and the department in the last year demonstrates the fine line police have to walk. As the Hannah Graham disappearance unfolded on the national news, Longo made the controversial decision to attach a name to a person of interest—Jesse Leroy Matthew, Jr.—before an arrest warrant was ever issued. Family and friends of another missing person, Dashad Sage Smith, now gone two years, blasted police for not doing enough to go after Erik McFadden, a person of interest in that case who vanished during the initial investigation.
But when it comes to an active investigation, “you don’t know what I know,” he said bluntly. “If I’m trying to get a result, the message is important. I formulate that message based on the information I have. I’m smart enough to know where that line is.”
The criticism weighs heavily on him, said Longo. He watched scores of angry residents shout demands for reform at a City Council meeting on December 15 as it was livestreamed, he said, and it didn’t feel good.
And he worries about the cumulative impact of a year of horrors on his force. Many of the patrol officers who are the first on the scene when things go wrong are very young, just starting out in their careers, and they’ve seen terrible things this year.
“We have our public face, our composed face, which is necessary when we’re going about our work at a crime scene,” he said, “but when these doors close, we’re just as human as anyone else. We cry, we get frustrated, we get angry, we ask why.”
He said he hopes people recognize the work those officers do, and that they join the conversation about policing practices that he promises will continue.
What else does he want? “I’m hoping for a better year,” he said.
Runner up: UVA Associate Dean Nicole Eramo
Nicole Eramo is beloved by the survivors she’s walked through the aftermath of sexual assault at the University of Virginia since she took the job in 2006. In April, she was honored with the Z Society’s highest award for her work. By November, following the notorious Rolling Stone article about an alleged gang rape at a fraternity, angry mobs were calling for her head—or at least her job.
Though the story has now been largely discredited, many readers’ eyes popped when they learned that 183 students had been expelled from UVA for Honor Code violations since 1998, but none had been kicked out for rape in that same period.
As chair of the Sexual Misconduct Board, Eramo already was navigating treacherous shoals with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigation of UVA for possible Title IX violations.
But that was nothing compared to the maelstrom that followed the Rolling Stone article, in which Eramo, a UVA grad herself, was portrayed as a University tool who didn’t encourage students to report their assaults to police. Within days of the story, the Cavalier Daily published an outpouring of support for Eramo from students and colleagues, including Jackie, who wrote, “I do not want to go to the University of Virginia if she is not a resource for students in need of help in the aftermath of sexual violence.”
With the federally mandated policy in the crosshairs and legislators proposing that all sexual assaults be reported to police, the future is unclear for how campus rape will be handled. While Eramo declined to be interviewed for this story, in September she told WUVA, “I am afraid if we only have a single sanction, that will hurt our reporting for cases of sexual misconduct. I think you would be surprised at the number of survivors I’ve worked with who don’t even want to file a complaint.”
In November, the Board of Visitors issued a statement condemning sexual assault and vowing to instill a culture of reporting rape. We suspect that whatever happens, Eramo will still be there.
Runner up: Residents of Nelson County
In May, one of the country’s largest energy providers announced its intent to build a 550-mile natural gas pipeline through West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. The timeline for the $5 billion project is astonishingly short: Dominion plans to have the whole thing built and online by the end of 2018.
But many Nelson County residents are doing everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen.
It’s safe to assume that not everybody in the rural county is dead set against the 42″ pipe cutting through their region. But the number who are is significant. About 70 percent of Nelson residents approached by Dominion have refused to grant access even for those preliminary surveys—significantly more than in any of the 11 other Virginia counties on the route. A handful have beat the company to the punch and sued, claiming Dominion violated legally mandated survey notification procedures.
We’ll see soon enough how loud their protests will get: Dominion has started the federal approval process for the project, and will host a series of open houses in affected communities next month.—Graelyn Brashear and Lisa Provence