Two years ago, City Manager Maurice Jones announced the hiring of Al Thomas, Charlottesville’s first African-American police chief, who abruptly resigned 20 months later on December 18 following a scathing independent review of the handling of the violent events of August 11-12.
Today, Jones introduced his latest police chief pick: former George Washington University chief and Pittsburgh police commander RaShall Brackney. And with a petit protest by civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel in City Council chambers, Brackney got a small taste of the activities that have dominated much of local government over the past two years.
Brackney was chosen, says Jones, out of 169 applicants—more than twice the number the last time the job was open. And while City Council will confirm her appointment at its May 21 meeting, all the councilors were on hand to welcome the new chief.
Mayor Nikuyah Walker, who has criticized police profiling and mass incarceration, says she had difficulty “getting on the same page” as the rest of City Council when looking for a new chief, and was concerned about who would want the job after what happened last summer. She describes her interview with Brackney as “refreshing,” and says she’s “hopeful.”
Councilor Wes Bellamy notes that when he talked with Brackney, she said, “Community policing is somewhat of a buzzword,” and that she wants a “transformational style of policing.” He points out that Brackney will be the city’s first African-American female chief—although when talking to reporters afterward, she says she’s “multi-ethnic” and that she doesn’t think race or gender were reasons for her hiring, which “professionalism transcends.”
The need for a new style of police leadership was apparent from other councilors’ remarks. Kathy Galvin found “a marked difference” in Brackney’s delivery and wants to get back to “a feeling you can trust police.”
And Mike Signer says there are “increased demands for a new kind of policing” and protection of free speech in the face of the “dangers of extremism” that present challenges from “those who would terrorize us.”
Brackney stressed the “importance of setting a vision and tone for the community.” And she says she’d gotten tough questions from the community and from the police rank and file, who were “not shy” about saying what they wanted from a new chief. “Law enforcement is at a crossroads right now,” she says, and can “reshape the narrative on how we engage the community.”
The new chief currently lives in Arlington and asked for neighborhood recommendations from the attendees at her debut. She retired from GWU in January after fewer than three years heading the force, which, when she was hired, was “reeling from complaints of a hostile work environment after several former officers filed discrimination lawsuits against the department,” according to the GW Hatchet. She bought a fleet of Segways to encourage officers’ interaction with the community.
And she was named in a federal lawsuit by a former student, who alleged Brackney violated Title IX policies when the university rescinded the student’s enrollment after a domestic dispute with her boyfriend at an Elliott School of International Affairs welcome event in 2016, according to the Hatchet.
Brackney nearly rolled her eyes when asked about the suit, and said that had nothing to do with her decision to leave George Washington.
She also faced an investigation in Pittsburgh in 2007 when she picked up a friend who had plowed into three parked cars. According to the Post-Gazette, officers investigating the crash were disturbed by Brackney’s intervention. The district attorney called the incident “troubling,” but said he lacked evidence to file criminal charges.
The new chief was not deterred from taking the job after Charlottesville’s national notoriety following the deadly August 12 Unite the Right rally, and says she is more concerned that the city be able to tell its own story and “have its own conversations about the upcoming anniversary in ways it might not have been able to before.”
And while she’s read all 250-plus pages of the Heaphy report, the city-commissioned independent review of its handling of last summer’s hate rallys, she declined to judge the actions of her predecessor. “We have to make sure we embrace the recommendations,” she said.
Brackney says her first priority would be to get to know the community. “If the first time I’m giving you my business card is during a crisis, then I’ve already failed.”
When she starts June 18, Brackney, 55, will earn $140,000. The salary of former chief Thomas was $134,509.
With more than 30 years of law enforcement experience, she sounds ready to tackle the new job. “I have stamina and grit. And I found the local organic juice bar.”
Fogel took the opportunity before the press conference to berate new city spokesperson Brian Wheeler for not providing notice that the special meeting was a press conference—”I sent out a notice this morning,” said Wheeler—and stood holding signs criticizing current police leadership.
“Fire Gary ‘Damn right I gassed them’ Pleasants,” read one of Fogel’s signs, referring to Deputy Chief Pleasants’ order to fire tear gas at the July 8 KKK rally. “If he wouldn’t follow the leader then, why would he follow the leader now?” asked Fogel.
At another Fogel interjection, Bellamy put his fingers to his lips to shush the attorney.
Updated May 16 with Brackney’s age and salary, and Al Thomas’ salary.
Updated May 21 with the Pittsburgh investigation.