The man who successfully sued Charlottesville over a panhandling law has now filed suit on behalf of the Public Housing Association of Residents and the local branch of the NAACP. Attorney Jeff Fogel said at a May 21 press conference that Charlottesville police denied his Freedom of Information Act request to see narratives of stops and frisks collected since June 2012 to determine whether racial profiling is involved in such stops, which police call temporary detentions.
Fogel said he asked for copies of the narratives with the names of police officers and those stopped redacted in June 2014, and said he was told it would cost around $350 to redact the records. A serious illness prevented him from following through with the request, and when he asked again in February 2015, his request was denied under FOIA’s “criminal investigative files” exemption, according to the suit.
“That exemption is only for current investigations, not for closed cases and not when arrests were never made,” said Fogel.
Rick Turner, head of the local NAACP chapter, said lawsuits are usually a last resort, but in this case should have been filed years ago “to address this historic and unconstitutional pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause.”
Said Turner, “The African-American community of Charlottesville simply wants to know why they represent 70 percent of those who are being stopped and frisked when they make up only 19 percent of the city’s population. We feel that this is happening because of the color of our skin.”
According to the lawsuit, Police Chief Tim Longo reported to City Council in May 2014 that of several hundred stops in the previous 18 months, 70 percent were African-Americans and criminal activity was revealed in only a very small percentage of the stops.
Longo did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but he told C-VILLE May 15, before the suit was filed, that a police commander reviewed the narratives quarterly, and he’d reached out to the department’s Citizen Advisory Committee and the Human Rights Commission to ask them independently to review redacted narratives as well. He said he would put the raw data on the department’s website.
City Attorney Craig Brown said he had not read the lawsuit and “is not in a position to say anything.”
Fogel said it’s taken too long.
PHAR staffer Brandon Collins called for more police transparency. He said police interactions are a frequent topic at resident meetings. “A common thing we hear is when police are in the neighborhood, they are extremely disrespectful and many residents feel like they’re being targeted when they haven’t done anything.”
That African-Americans are involved in 70 percent of police stops is “alarming,” said Collins, and no one will know whether it’s racial profiling until the records are released. “We think it’s of value to PHAR and to the people of Charlottesville who we hope care about eliminating institutional racism,” he said.
Rosia Parker, who has lived in Westhaven for 10 years and is on the PHAR board of directors, said, “I myself have been harassed by police,” as have friends and family members. “I’ve even seen children harassed,” she said.
During the time she’s lived in Westhaven, she estimates 50 people she knows have been charged with trespassing at the public housing facility, which means they’re not allowed to visit again and that creates a hardship on families.
“If you’re black and more than one is on the corner, it’s a gang,” she said. “Why can’t we just be a neighborhood?”