Unavailable: To re-establish trust, the police department, and the city, need to do better

Police Chief RaShall Brackney says a police department derives its moral authority from the people it serves. Photo: Eze Amos Police Chief RaShall Brackney says a police department derives its moral authority from the people it serves. Photo: Eze Amos

On May 3, I joined a small crowd at City Hall to see 11 Charlottesville police officers receive their promotions. But only 10 were there.

Officer Logan Woodzell, whose promotion to sergeant had been announced in the city’s press release the previous day, was not present and was not mentioned. A city official shared that Woodzell did receive his promotion but did not elaborate on his absence from the ceremony.*

Within hours of the original announcement, a photo of Woodzell from August 11, 2017, had resurfaced online. It showed the Charlottesville police officer posing with James Napier of the neo-Confederate group the Hiwaymen and Tammy Lee of American Freedom Keepers (one of the militia groups sued by the city for its involvement in Unite the Right).

The photo wasn’t new. It was posted on Facebook within days of the deadly rally. Nor was it news that Woodzell had gone out of his way to offer to escort members of the New York Light Foot Militia, another militia group later sued by the city, into Emancipation Park on the morning of the 12th—this accepted fact can be found on page 71 of the Heaphy report.

A thorough review, both within the department and using outside assessors, was conducted in determining which officers would be promoted. Did the review overlook these facts or did it conclude they didn’t matter?

These actions show not only poor judgment, but a disregard for the concerns of a community that had alerted police months before the rally and shared background on the hate groups planning to attend. The department’s desire to simply paper over its past mistakes, shutting out the community, is its standard operating procedure.

Early in her tenure as police chief, RaShall Brackney made it clear she had no interest in investigating the incidents of August 12. She inherited a difficult situation, but failing to address and begin to repair the damage to public trust caused by the department that day is a fatal error. In her remarks during the promotion ceremony, Brackney said a police department derives its moral authority from the people it serves. If that’s the case, why has the Charlottesville Police Department consistently tried to evade even a modicum of accountability?

At a meeting with City Councilors Kathy Galvin and Mike Signer, Police Civilian Review Board member Sarah Burke told them one thing the board found in its research is that cities form these boards after something terrible happens. In our case, it was the entire department standing idly by while residents were beaten in the streets by neo-Nazis before the day culminated in a hate-crime murder that permanently tied our city’s name to white supremacist violence. It’s hard to imagine anyone would be opposed to having some measure of transparency and accountability when it comes to policing.

Why, then, is the city doing everything in its power to kill the nascent board? The city’s recent pair of bizarre press releases castigating the Police Civilian Review Board are deeply troubling. Based solely on its own misreading of a Daily Progress article about a CRB meeting that was not attended by any member of city staff, the city lashed out against the board, attacking the integrity of its members and announcing that their near-expired terms would not be extended.

At that meeting, board member Josh Bowers read aloud, verbatim, emails he had exchanged with Brackney and the chief’s scheduler, Jessica Downey. He and others on the board expressed dismay at the difficulty they were having in scheduling a public meeting with the chief.

In response, instead of acknowledging the difficulty and promising a public meeting, the city blamed the board.

The most generous reading of the situation up to this point is simply that government works slowly. People lose track of emails, wait too long to follow up, schedules fill up, and the gears of bureaucracy grind on. If that is the case, what good is done by further slowing, even halting, the process of this board’s formation by allowing the body to dissolve without coming to a point where it can be handed off to a newly selected board?

Unless council’s intention is to let this board die, there’s no rational reason not to give it a little more time. Members of this volunteer board have already expressed a willingness to freely give a few more weeks of their time to ensure their charge is successfully completed. It costs nothing to keep the current board in place until the bylaws have been finalized. City councilors have a choice to make—will they support the work of the board they appointed or will they strangle it with red tape?

* Update, 9/12/19: We understand that some readers inferred from our reporting that public comments from Mayor Walker and others about police officer Logan Woodzell’s appearance in an August 2017 photograph with Unite the Right rally-goers, and the reference to him in the Heaphy Report, had led the city to exclude Woodzell from a recent promotion ceremony in which he was elevated to the position of sergeant. In fact, further reporting revealed that Woodzell missed the event due to a previously scheduled surgical procedure. Police Chief RaShall Brackney herself stated: “Law enforcement officials are frequently asked to pose with members of the public and these requests are accommodated here and throughout the world. The circumstances of this photo were explored, the promotion process was carefully vetted, and the Charlottesville Police Department is confident that Sergeant Woodzell will provide excellent service to the citizens of Charlottesville.” We regret any misimpression we may have left about Sergeant Woodzell.

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