Abrupt exit: Chief’s retirement, Pleasants’ fill-in raises questions

Former chief Al Thomas will be succeeded temporarily by Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants until an interim chief is named.
Eze Amos Former chief Al Thomas will be succeeded temporarily by Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants until an interim chief is named. Eze Amos

After initially refusing to confirm reports that Charlottesville police Chief Al Thomas had resigned and was packing his office on Monday and would be out of the building by 5pm, the city issued a release Monday afternoon that said Thomas would be retiring, effective immediately.

The hasty departure raised questions at the December 18 City Council meeting about whether Thomas was forced out following Tim Heaphy’s critical independent review about the lack of police intervention August 12 when protesters brawled in the streets and an unattended mall crossing allowed a neo-Nazi from Ohio to plow into a crowd on Fourth Street, killing Heather Heyer.

City Manager Maurice Jones denied that Thomas’ resignation was involuntary.

“You can’t be left with the feeling he voluntarily resigned when it’s effective immediately,” said civil rights lawyer Jeff Fogel.

Thomas, who previously was police chief in Lexington, was the first African-American hired to head Charlottesville’s police department, and he’s spent 27 years in law enforcement since he started in Lynchburg.

Some of the allegations in the report—that Thomas deleted texts, that he used a personal email to skirt FOIA and that he said to let protesters fight to make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly—he denied through his attorney, Kevin Martingayle.

The report also alleged that officers feared retribution for criticism, another claim Martingayle disputed.

And some had a different interpretation of the report. Said Fogel, “It’s clear Thomas is being undermined by his own staff.” Fogel and others have challenged the notion of blaming the handling of white nationalists on two black men—Thomas and Jones.

“Nothing in my career has brought me more pride than serving as the police chief for the City of Charlottesville,” said Thomas in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to protect and serve a community I love so dearly.“

Martingayle says Thomas has no immediate plans and is looking forward to some time off.

“I think it’s very important that he confide in us what happened August 12 if he loves us so much,” said Fogel.

Jones praised Thomas in a statement: “Chief Thomas has served his country and three communities here in Virginia with distinction and honor. He is a man of integrity who has provided critical leadership for our department since his arrival.”

Jones’ choice of Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants as acting chief until an interim one is named drew complaints at City Council. Pleasants ordered the use of tear gas at the July 8 KKK rally without Thomas’ approval, and when asked about it, replied, “You are damn right I gassed them, it needed to be done,” according to the Heaphy report.

Speakers at council blasted the decision. “I think this is unacceptable,” said councilor-elect Nikuyah Walker. “There is no trust here.”

“You can’t hire that man,” said former local NAACP chapter head Rick Turner. “It would be the biggest farce. He’s the worst.”

The search for a new chief begins immediately.