Historic hire: Al Thomas is Charlottesville’s first black police chief

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A big Wahoo fan, new Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, left, says he wanted to make sure the community’s values were compatible with his own before moving here. With Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy.
Staff photo A big Wahoo fan, new Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, left, says he wanted to make sure the community’s values were compatible with his own before moving here. With Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy. Staff photo

City Manager Maurice Jones announced Lexington Police Chief Al Thomas as his pick to head the Charlottesville Police Department, and City Council approved Thomas, who is the city’s first black police chief, April 18.

Thomas was one of 63 applicants, says Jones, in a search that was “deep” and involved three rounds of interviews.

And while Thomas said he’s often been the first as an African-American, Mayor Mike Signer said Thomas told him, “I don’t want to be the first, I want to be the best.”

A Lynchburg native, Thomas was named chief of the 25-member Lexington Police Department in 2010. Before that, he was a captain with the Lynchburg Police Department, where he worked for 20 years, most recently as public information officer.

Thomas made national news in 2012 when one of his officers arrested Congressman Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, for public intoxication. Ryan was in Lexington that August for a wedding, and called the charge, which was dismissed in December, “garbage,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

There’s a perception among some, including Ryan, that Lexington Police target people for drunk in public charges. “We are a college town,” said Rockbridge and Lexington Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert “Bucky” Joyce. “The cops are always out prowling,” he told the Cleveland paper.

Thomas disputed the contention that his officers seek out alcohol violations because it is a college town, and said the stops are based on a suspect’s behavior and the observations of the officer, the Plain Dealer reported.  “We enforce laws and look for probable cause,” said Thomas.

Charlottesville’s new chief got into hot water in November when he described VMI cadets as “trained killers” to a Washington and Lee journalism class, and said the cadets are “not normal,” the W&L student paper, the Ring-tum Phi, reported.

At a press conference April 18, Thomas said he’s been drawn to communities with a college presence, and the town and gown relationship will be one of his priorities. He also is an adherent of building relationships in the community. “We do that by talking and listening,” he said.

Local civil rights legend Eugene Williams hailed the hiring of an African-American police chief. “I’m elated,” says Williams, who has bemoaned the lack of black supervisors on the police force.

In February, Chief Tim Longo promoted three African-Americans—two lieutenants and one sergeant—and says he’s promoted five black officers to supervisory positions during his 15-year tenure, which ends May 1.

On April 18, the same day City Council voted to approve the hiring of Thomas, Albemarle-Charlottesville NAACP President Rick Turner criticized Albemarle County for not including any African-Americans among its four final candidates to succeed Chief Steve Sellers, whose last day in office is May 31.

All five city councilors were present at the press conference for Thomas. Kristin Szakos noted that of all the groups of citizens, police and senior city staff evaluating candidates, “What was striking was in every group, he was the one who rose to the top.”

Longo said he was “particularly proud” of Thomas, a friend he’s known for a dozen years and who starts the new job May 23. Said Longo, “I’m still going to be a resident of Charlottesville, and I expect the best.”

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