One year in: Police Chief RaShall Brackney talks civilian review board, sexism, style, and more

RaShall Brackney has had a challenging year as Charlottesville police chief, but says she has no regrets about taking the job.
Eze Amos RaShall Brackney has had a challenging year as Charlottesville police chief, but says she has no regrets about taking the job. Eze Amos

RaShall Brackney took the job as Charlottesville police chief a year ago, despite the notoriety the department faced following the violence of August 2017, the damning indictment of the Heaphy report, and the abrupt departure of her predecessor, Al Thomas.

Although she hasn’t flinched from the public drubbing that came with the job, could anyone really know how contentious it would be to be chief of police in a city still recovering from the trauma of 2017? At her first press conference, meant to simply introduce her to the local media, civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel showed up to protest police teargassing of protesters at the July 8, 2017, KKK rally.

The first anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally came fewer than two months after her June 18, 2018, start date, and Brackney faced more criticism for her handling of the police-heavy event, during which the Downtown Mall was put on lockdown.

Just as she was starting the job, City Council appointed a Police Civilian Review Board that had its issues with her, including a member who claimed Brackney “literally attacked” her and others who challenged her unavailability to meet with the board.

And it is hard to get on Brackney’s calendar. Despite our pleas, C-VILLE was only able to get 30 minutes for an interview (we managed to stretch it to 38). So there’s a lot we didn’t get to ask.

But Brackney, 56, who spent most of her career on the Pittsburgh police force, and had retired as chief of George Washington University police, did cover a lot of ground, including how she’s been welcomed to Charlottesville, media coverage—including C-VILLE’s—and running a department that’s seen a mass exodus of officers and is currently down 15 cops.

It’s been a busy year, and she still hasn’t had a chance to unpack.

Chief RaShall Brackney talks about her first year heading the Charlottesville Police Department. Photo Jackson Smith

C-VILLE Weekly: If you were to describe the past year in three words, what are the first that come to mind?

RaShall Brackney: Chaotic. Whirlwind, but also exciting.

What has been the best part of being chief here in Charlottesville?

Getting to know the personnel, their stories, to talk about their challenges, their hopes, their fears. They have been a very open and honest department. And what I’m finding, more and more, is oftentimes the public persona of Charlottesville Police Department, for the most part, does not match who these individuals are.

So tell me about the public persona. How would you describe that? What do your officers run into?

It varies. I would be remiss if I said there was a constant barrage of negative encounters. In fact, we get lots of letters about how well the officers do, how much they’re appreciated. There isn’t a week that goes by where some organization or person isn’t sending letters or donating food to the station to say we care about our officers, but that’s a very quiet majority.

What about the loud response that officers get?

I don’t think I have been in a single council meeting—and I attend them pretty regularly compared to my predecessors—that during community concerns, someone has not said something negative about our officers. And that goes live because everyone in the media sits there [and] they all run with every single one of those negative comments.

Has that been a problem in recruiting officers to come here?

It’s a challenge when everything that is being put out there is negative. It’s been a challenge when there’s been a disconnect between the majority of the population and this very vocal group who tends to, I can say unabashedly, bash our officers even if it’s not truthful. And no one ever corrects the record, even if it’s not true.

As a matter of fact, most reporters don’t even follow up to ask questions. They’re comfortable with a quote, and as long as it’s a quote, they’re good with that, regardless of the damage it might do to our officers, individually and the department collectively.

Is there anything you want to follow up on about the column [on police-community relations] that ran in C-VILLE Weekly? [“Unavailable: To re-establish trust, the police department, and the city, need to do better” by Molly Conger, May 8]

I would talk about the [City Notes opinion] column in C-VILLE Weekly more generically. There were some things in there to start with that were just absolutely incorrect. One of the columns said specifically, Chief Brackney has never shown an interest in the events of August of 2017 and looking at those.

I’ve been on record since before I arrived here to say, I can see where the department or law enforcement may not have lived up to the expectations of the community. But literally I would have no authority to investigate [the Heaphy report]. I wasn’t even hired at that point and would not have access to all the information because there were so many things in place prior to my arrival.

So I think when we talk about being responsible, if I have to be a responsible leader in my field and take responsibility and accountability for the policing profession, even though I may not have been personally affiliated with it, then the media has to do the same thing.

I’m not disagreeing with you. While we’re talking about unpleasant things, you said you personally get the same treatment that your officers do. What’s a specific instance you’re thinking about.

It actually started before I even arrived. If anyone watches a single council meeting, I’m sitting there, just arriving. They’re going to vote on my appointment. I’m being yelled at. I’m being screamed at. I’m being told I am responsible for all the events that occurred here and what am I going to do about it.

Literally the first week I’m here, I’m walking from the Paramount from a meet and greet. I’m being screamed at, told that “cops and Klan go hand in hand.” That I need to resign.

I believe there’s a tweet that says, we don’t hate Chief Brackney because she’s a black woman. We hate her because she’s a cop. And if I were to pull that tweet up, I believe it also belongs to one of your persons that work for the C-VILLE Weekly now.*

I literally will be in council and someone will walk past me and call me a lying bitch. I’m constantly being called a liar at every community concern. I’ve even been attacked and told I should be more sympathetic, referring to my race and being biracial. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to my predecessors by their race and their gender.

If you recall my first day here, saying, ‘“It’s disappointing here in 2018, my race and gender are part of the conversation.” That it wasn’t that I had 33 years in law enforcement. That I had risen up through the ranks. That I held a Ph.D. I can honestly say there’s probably not a print media outlet, including C-VILLE Weekly, who has been very neutral or generous.

I would suggest even when I looked at your questions [Chief Brackney required written questions in advance of the interview], to ask me about dresses or uniforms. Have you ever asked Tim Longo about his outfits? Or did you ever ask Thomas about his outfits?

Brackney holds a press conference about stop-and-frisk data outside the police station. photo Samantha Baars

That is one of my favorite things about your style. How do you decide? Today I’m wearing…

I’m glad it’s a style issue. I’m very intentional about what I wear. Extremely intentional. But this city in general seems to be obsessed [with] when I’m not in uniform. And even recently, I threw the ball out at the game. Someone tweets, “It’s about time she’s in uniform.” Are you kidding me? Do you know how often I’m in uniform?

But I’m intentional about it. So for instance, if I’m in uniform, I’m attempting to make a statement about something and I need you to pay a little bit more attention about whatever it is that’s going on.

But it’s also situational. When I’m reading at the school with the elementary students, I’m in uniform because they need to be able to make that connection between the law enforcement community and our service that we give. When I’m on college campuses, I tend to be softer dressed because students do not react as well to officers in uniform. When I’m with an older crowd, I also have to be careful, because most of your older seniors will defer immediately to your authority and won’t necessarily speak up. Depending on the group and what I’m doing is whether I’m in uniform or not. Almost every ceremonial promotion, I’m in uniform.

And if you notice, more and more, I’m at council in uniform, and that’s intentional as well, because there needs to be at least the visible presence of some sort of order in council. I’ve replaced my officers being there because I will not subject my officers to that. So I sit up, I take the brunt, and they at least get to not get beat up on every day.

I’ve even had one reporter tweet, “Chief Brackney is in the back of the room and that’s not unusual. What is unusual is that she’s in uniform.” Like, are you kidding me? You would ask at least, is she competent versus does she look a certain way. So I appreciate your candor that it’s a style issue.

I think it’s cool. I love dresses.

I love dresses. As I say, I have no problem carrying a gun in a Kate Spade bag.

Have you had any regrets about taking this job?

There have been some challenges, not necessarily regrets. There’s a challenge in that my husband commutes to Fairfax to teach at George Mason University twice a week. That is a challenge we didn’t have before.

The challenge of distance—my family in Pittsburgh is now five hours [away] and a bit more difficult to get to. There have been challenges trying to understand the nuances of this community and managing—or even understanding—their expectations. Because that seems to be a bit more nebulous and slippery.

There have been challenges about trying to understand the political landscape as an outsider, someone who is not or hasn’t been a resident in Charlottesville for a very long time.

There are challenges around building up the department—and the morale—and continuing to try to get the public to see its worth and its value.

How is that going? Do you have any feeling about how morale is here?

Much like any agency and business and organization, it’s going to ebb and flow based on where we are. I’m sure it’s a little bit challenging now because we are so down. Five last week. Two individuals are retiring, but three­—one is going into another profession altogether. One is moving to be closer to his family. And the other one is going to another agency. We’ll lose another detective in another week or two. We are significantly down. So to continue to keep the morale up is a challenge.

To address that, I had to make sure that everyone knew every one of us were all in. I have a directive now that sergeants and below, everyone is in uniform twice a month to work calls with the officers. Then lieutenants, captains, and the chief—myself included—has to work four hours a month in uniform out there on the street with them answering calls. We just put our uniforms on and answer calls with them so they all know we’re all in this together.

We had our first all-hands meeting where we brought every single officer into a space to hear what their concerns are and to get out information about where we’re headed as a division.

We came up together recently with a motto for our department: “Service beyond the call.”

I just wanted to touch on the civilian review board. Is that necessary? Any thoughts on that?

I think the challenge for me is, I’ve never been able to understand or get a clear answer as to why there was the development of a civilian review board here. Every time you ask a different person you get a different answer. I‘ve seen the letters recently where the civilian review board says it’s because there’s a systemic issue with policing, but interestingly enough, all their comments up to this date have been because of the events of August 2017. So I think that’s the challenge.

And also this civilian review board, the way it was put into existence, is very different from what typically occurs across the nation. There’s only about 200 out of 18,000 policing agencies in the nation. This civilian review board—our agency would be one of the smallest to ever have one.

Typically, they come into place one of two ways. Either by statute—not ordinance —statute. Somebody puts a referendum on the ballot to say they want this, that they believe this community needs this. The second way is typically through Department of Justice consent decree, in which they say, there’s such a pattern of corruption going on that there needs to be some additional oversight and then a judge gives them some authority that is typically backed by state statute as well.

So far to date, I’ve been picking through the civilian review board’s recommendations. They don’t think complaints are being resolved in a timely manner. So the possibility of creating a board that costs the taxpayers well in excess of $200,000 or $300,000 a year—because it’s not $180,000 [which is what the CRB requested], I don’t care what anybody says. Or 1 percent [of the police department’s budget]. There’s still staff equity and labor you’re putting into this. There’s printing costs, there’s research costs. There’s meeting time with everyone.

So, this board could really be an expensive board and I’m asking, to solve what problem? If you tell me what problem we’re attempting to solve, I think we could have come to some agreement about it. And the timing—it was formed almost literally after I just arrived, so could there have been some opportunity to say, here’s what we’re interested [in] with the new chief, let’s look at closing the gap between those concerns we have and where we could be.

And if it’s [that] complaints aren’t closed, I can say right now, with 100 percent authority, all 2017 complaints have now been closed and investigated. All 2018 complaints have been closed and investigated. And all of 2019 with the exception of the last one to come in have been closed and investigated. I will be posting all of those on our website.

If you’re looking for transparency, if that was the issue, again, I’m the only one that’s been posting investigative detentions [aka stop and frisks] since September of 2018. I didn’t arrive here until June of 2018.

We are now posting all of our charging data on our website and have been doing so for months now. All of our use of force for the last year are posted on our website and everything surrounding that.

We’ve added and are posting a position for another part-time internal affairs investigator, so there would be someone from outside the agency. Again this leaves more credibility to the investigation if you hire someone from outside. So there’s so much work that’s being done here, I’m just still confused as to the current necessity or what the impetus was behind [the civilian review board].

Do you feel like you’re supported by the city manager, by City Council?

The primary person I’ve engaged with has been Mike Murphy, when he was the interim city manager, and who I still report to as of this time. And Mr. Murphy, I have to say, is very supportive. It’s always going to be a challenge as to whether his voice can be heard as well.

As for City Council, I can say that [it] depends on the issue, what the support looks like. I think there have been certain members of City Council who I would probably have asked to have more engagement with, because there have been times when I thought council could have been more vocal in support, not just of me, but this agency, when they knew there were things that were not correct and were not brought to the forefront.

In February, demonstrators demanded that Brackney be held accountable for an alleged verbal attack on Katrina Turner, a member of the Civilian Review Board. eze amos

Or when there were challenges, when we had members of the Civilian Review Board who were not behaving in a manner that was best representative of any board that had been appointed by City Council. Did they take any steps to address that? And I would have to say that as a council, they did not.

Are there any misperceptions you’d like to have cleared up about you or the police department in general?

The biggest misperception about this police department that ultimately falls on me, as well, is that this department is filled with these individuals who despise minorities and are part of some white nationalist or alt-right kind of group.

It’s interesting the way that this data that we’re putting out, as transparent as we’re being, is being used against us, not even in a way that would be genuine and reflective.

I put out all of the data on all of the stuff the officers are initiating, as well as all of the calls. And it’s interesting how the data that is being reported overall is how African American men are arrested or stopped disproportionately. And that’s the tagline.

But it’s not just the officers who are initiating this. This is the 911 calls that they must respond to. Or a warrant that has to be served. Actually it’s captured under officer initiated, but it’s vetted by some judge. Or you as an individual can swear out one and we have to serve it. But somehow we’re holding all the responsibility for an entire system.

And I think you really should look at the number of engagements that the officers do at such a low staffing level: the community engagements, the community contacts they make that have nothing to do with the law enforcement portion of policing. So there’s often a conflation of policing and law enforcement. Law enforcement is one component of our policing duty.

When she was sworn in a little more than a year ago, Brackney became the first woman to lead the Charlottesville Police Department. Eze Amos

What do you like to do in Charlottesville for fun?

[Laughs.] I don’t have any fun. It’s so horrible. My self-care has completely deteriorated since I’ve been here. My poor husband. We haven’t visited a single winery. I keep hearing there are amazing wineries here. We’re very limited even in the number of restaurants we’ve been able to get to. We’ve been trying to get to Lampo, which we hear is amazing and have a gift certificate for.  We still have not been able to get there.

I would like to get back to the things that I loved doing prior to arriving here. I was a runner. I’ve not been running. Love to read. Not been able to really do that. Cooking. My husband likes to cook. Well, I do the cooking and he kind of watches because I’m real possessive about my kitchen. We love to do those kinds of things.

For recreation, it’s been a real challenge to do the nonworking things because unfortunately, I’m always working. A misperception about my calendar—there’s a big to-do about my calendar—when you look at the number of hours and events, I’m [always] somewhere—including nights and weekends.

It’s a challenge to have some personal time. There’s also the assumption I’m not supposed to have any personal time. Ever. Or my officers. I would challenge anyone in their eight- to 10-hour day to say they don’t have any personal time. Our team and our personnel are expected to never have that.

Why did you decide to get into law enforcement?

That was not a decision. I kind of fell into it. I literally fell into law enforcement and policing at the age of 21, not believing this is something I should be doing. But it was a full-time job with benefits. And my mom was very clear that everyone worked in the house if you were living at home.

Now, as a more mature woman, I understand you don’t fall into anything. You are literally led to where you’re supposed to be in life.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

*On December 18, 2018, Molly Conger, who later began writing a freelance opinion column for C-VILLE, tweeted, “chief brackney says people in charlottesville feel ‘empowered to confront black women in power.’

she says she’s never been disrespected the way she has been since coming to charlottesville. (i don’t doubt there is a race & gender element, but people hate you because you’re a cop)”

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