Under scrutiny: Will ongoing protests finally lead to better police-community relations?

Under scrutiny: Will ongoing protests finally lead to better police-community relations?

The nation is up in arms. After the murder of George Floyd, protesters filled the streets of Charlottesville, Richmond, Washington D.C., and cities across the country, demonstrating against police brutality. As the smoke clears in coming weeks, these activists will look to translate the energy of the protests into lasting change.

“I think we’re in a similar position now, nationwide, as Charlottesville was in 2017,” says Sarah Burke, a criminal defense investigator and member of Charlottesville’s initial Police Civilian Review Board. “People are rightfully questioning a lot of police policy and action, and demanding change.”

Charlottesville residents might be familiar with the type of reforms other cities are now demanding. At the behest of protesters, a majority of Richmond City Council members have committed to the creation of that city’s own police civilian review board, which would provide oversight in a variety of different ways, including giving people a forum to lodge complaints about the police mistreatment of residents. After the Unite the Right rally in 2017, Charlottesville City Council made the same commitment, passing a resolution calling for the institution of a strong CRB.

Charlottesville’s council began by putting together an initial board, a mixture of criminal justice experts and black community leaders, tasked with researching best practices and community needs and then drafting bylaws for a permanent body. Last Monday, two and a half years after Unite the Right, the official CRB’s last member was finally appointed. The executive director position has yet to be filled, and the adoption of the board’s bylaws remains contentious.

The evolution of the CRB provides a snapshot of police-community relations in Charlottesville, and also shows what it takes to transform a dramatic, flashpoint event into lasting institutional change.

 

Trust issues

“We did this for the community,” says Gloria Beard, a long-time Charlottesville resident and member of the initial CRB. “We promised the community that they would have somebody they could go to for complaints. Most of them don’t feel good going to the police department.”

In a letter from the initial CRB to the police department this week, which Burke and Beard  signed, the board writes, “Police killings, police beatings, and militarized police presence are nothing new to many of us. This community understands those problems, because it has been in this fight for years, even decades.”

Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney says she understands where people like Beard are coming from.

“There have been recognized failures for a very long time—including those failures in 2017—to understand what race relationships look like,” Brackney says.

“We’ve been trying to build trust in this community since I arrived,” says Brackney, who took over as chief in the summer of 2018. “What are those areas that we absolutely know build trust and legitimacy in communities? One is transparency.”

Rashall Brackney. Photo: Eze Amos

The chief says the department is posting “unprecedented” amounts of internal data on its website, for all to see, including internal affairs inquiries, charging data, use of force, and “investigative detentions” (stop-and-frisks).

That might not tell the whole story, though. “Data is only as good as what you collect,” Burke says. “Right now, for example, all the stop-and-frisk data that we get is in a PowerPoint presentation, filtered through whatever lens the police department filters it through. It’s not necessarily that it’s wrong, we just don’t know.”

Another recent sticking point is the department’s budget—the police department gets around $18 million per year from a cash-strapped city government. Last week, Charlottesville resident Matthew Gillikin sent an email asking the police department for “the most detailed budget you have,” and was directed to a seven-line summary in the full city budget; when he tweeted that he hadn’t received enough information, the department’s official account responded, “It’s not clear why you would accuse us of being unhelpful.” (C-VILLE has also requested a full budget, but it was not available by press time.)

The department has recently made other unforced, trust-busting errors. Last year, the police hung cameras in the majority-black public housing neighborhood Westhaven, without notifying residents of the surveillance; then they took the cameras down and dodged questions about why they had been put up in the first place. And until December, the department’s fleet included a gray Dodge Challenger (the same make, model, and color as the car used to kill Heather Heyer), complete with Blue Lives Matter decaling.

In the last two weeks, demand for information about the police department’s practices has only increased. “I’m getting hundreds of emails right now, [asking] what are your policies, do your officers have body-worn cameras,” Brackney says. “If you looked on our website, you could see and answer those questions yourselves.”

At the end of last week, the department sent out an email in response to “numerous media and community requests” for information about its policies. The release reveals that officers receive only two hours of state-mandated “cultural diversity/bias-based policing” training every other year.

With regards to transparency, “The efforts [Brackney] has made have certainly been in the right direction,” says Burke. “I just don’t think it’s anywhere near enough.”

 

The hold up

These questions about data dissemination and trust-building could be addressed by a powerful review board. The process of instituting a CRB has been convoluted, however.

The initial CRB, appointed in the summer of 2018, spent a year researching civilian oversight and, last September, submitted a set of bylaws that had “real teeth,” says Burke. Over the next three months, City Council passed around the bylaws, rewrote portions of them, and eventually voted through a weaker set of rules than the CRB had proposed.

The initial board members argue that the new bylaws give too much power to the executive director, a full-time staff member who would be hired by the city manager. The new bylaws also remove the requirement that the police department attend community listening sessions, remove the ability for the CRB to review complaints that are sustained by the police department, and don’t give the board access to raw stop-and-frisk and use of force data.

The new bylaws were adopted 4-1, with then-vice mayor Wes Bellamy opposing.

Since then, three new members have come on council, and the initial review board members, as well as a number of community activists, have called for the new council to vote again on the original bylaws.

“The problem for me is an issue of political will,” says local activist Walt Heinecke, who has forcefully advocated for the adoption of the initial bylaws. Heinecke notes that Michael Payne, Sena Magill, and Lloyd Snook all expressed support for the initial bylaws during their council campaigns, but that Snook no longer supports revisiting the issue.

Other councilors want to let the incoming board members write their own rules, rather than impose the initial board’s deeply researched guidelines. “What we’ve said all along is that the new board members can tell us how they function best,” said Mayor Nikuyah Walker at council’s most recent meeting.

Refusing to revisit the initial bylaws is “a major abrogation of council’s responsibility to establish the strongest possible ordinance and bylaws that will protect black and brown bodies in our community,” Heinecke says.

Brackney, for her part, has been lukewarm on the CRB in the past. In a 2019 interview with C-VILLE, she said, “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.”

Now, she says, “I don’t know what the next steps are. I’m not as familiar with the individual members [of the new board] to understand collectively what their work might look like as a team. I would be remiss if I tried to get ahead of that without engaging with that board first.”

And so, two years in, the struggle to translate energy and uprising into tangible change is still ongoing. Beard says the city’s efforts at real post-2017 reform are “a work in progress.”

The rest of the nation seems poised to embark on this journey now, too. This week has galvanized change across the country, and prompted new questions here in Charlottesville. (Already, the police department and city school system have trashed their agreement that place officers in schools.) Will the national uprisings push Charlottesville’s justice reform further forward?

“I pray,” says Beard. “I pray hard. It needs to happen. And soon.”

 

 

This article was updated on 6/11/20 to correct Sarah Burke’s title and clarify the type of data released by the police department. 

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