In almost six years of living in Charlottesville, I’ve had two noteworthy encounters with the police.
The first time was several years ago, when I left my wallet on the curb in Woolen Mills (don’t ask). A CPD officer not only noticed it and picked it up, he found my email address online and then delivered the wallet to my front door that night. He saved me a trip to the station and both of us the hassle of paperwork, and waved away my effusive thanks.
The second time was August 12, 2017, when I watched a gang of white supremacists attack a woman standing near me on the sidewalk in front of the Methodist church, and ran to the nearest cop for help. It was 9 in the morning, and the church’s parking lot was supposed to be a safe space.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” I asked, panicked. “I’m not getting involved in that,”the female officer told me, shaking her head. “There’s guys down there,” she added, indicating the heavily-outfitted Virginia State Police massed at the end of the block. “They’ll handle it.”
They didn’t. When the young men in the white T-shirts pulled away, the woman was on the ground with blood pouring from her head. The attackers bounded off through the parking lot, practically skipping, exultant and gleeful. Nobody stopped them.
“I can see where the department or law enforcement may not have lived up to the expectations of the community,” Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney tells us about August 12.
She didn’t work here then, and she’s not to blame for what happened. But she is responsible for repairing the trust that the department lost that day. One of the most basic places to start is the Police Civilian Review Board, but Brackney says she doesn’t understand the need for the board, and her relationship with it has been contentious.
Bridging the gap between my two stories, between two very different images of the police, may be an impossible task, and the verbal abuse Brackney has suffered as the public face of the department would be hard for anyone to deal with. But until the police show real accountability for their failures and a real willingness to listen to those who have been hurt, that public anger isn’t likely to go away.