Editor’s Note: The original version of the story included data collected from the Charlottesville Police Department’s Climate Command Survey that was incorrect. The story has been corrected to show accurate data, including the percentage of survey responses that were overall negative, and the number of officers who are actively seeking employment, feel unsupported by command staff, don’t believe command staff is open to evaluation, and were critical of local and/or national calls for police reform.

The results of the two recent surveys of Charlottesville’s police officers were a factor in City Manager Chip Boyle’s decision to fire the city’s chief of police, Boyles said at a recent city council meeting.

The termination occurred shortly after the Central Virginia Police Benevolent Association publically released its externally-conducted survey of officers and Boyles learned that the Charlottesville Police Department conducted its own internal survey late last year.

Both surveys indicated that officers did not support the department’s leadership, Boyles said.

His decision was apparently made quickly. Following the release of the PBA survey, the city had issued an Aug. 20 news release that was supportive of the chief’s work at the helm of the department. Emails obtained by Charlottesville Tomorrow indicate the unsigned release was a collaborative effort between then-Police Chief Rashall Brackney, then-Assistant Chief James Mooney, City Attorney Lisa Robertson and Boyles. 

In the 11 days between that release, which indicated support for Brackney at the helm of the department, and Sep. 1, Boyles said he examined both surveys, spoke with area stakeholders and six police officers, then chose to terminate her. 

Brackney could not be reached for comment.

The surveys

Considering the role the two surveys played in the chief’s firing, Charlottesville Tomorrow examined both to see what officers were saying about their leader and the department.

Some of the main takeaways from the CPD’s climate command survey are that:

  • Around 55% of the surveys were overall negative toward the department 
  • Nearly 40% of officers are actively seeking employment elsewhere
  • Nearly 55% of officers said they do not feel supported by command staff 
  • More than half do not believe command staff is “open to evaluation and improvement”
  • More than 20% of officers critiqued local and/or national calls for police reform

Command staff in the survey is defined as ranking captain or above.

Pay also surfaced as something many respondents would like to see more of.

When asked to name what they consider the most specific and pressing issues, response was peppered with critiques of the community, the Police Civilian Review Board and local government.

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“Our officers aren’t respected by our citizens. The CRB is a pressing threat,” one officer wrote. The city redacted officers names before releasing the survey. “Lack of meaningful training and really any other training aside from the knee-jerk reaction ‘de-escalation’ and ‘implicit-bias’ training that the department is willing to pay for. The continued lack of experience that I work with because retention is so low. Lack of support from city council and the city manager.”

Also in the command climate survey, a handful of officers accused command staff of being more concerned with politics than being supportive of their officers.

Qualitative portions of the survey include positive and negative references to captains whose names were redacted.

“I feel like since captain [name redacted] left, there has been a large dip in morale,” wrote one of the respondents who also indicated he or she is seeking employment elsewhere. “Patrol does not feel supported by this current [captain] and feel that he is making things more difficult and uncomfortable. I feel this is largely what is driving current officers to look for employment elsewhere.”

Other refrains included a desire to see Brackney more often and that she and other command staff should thank and show support to officers more often. 

The PBA survey was different than the department’s internal survey. It included questions that intersected with those posed in the climate command survey — but it also asked about the political climate and national calls for police reform along with questions related specifically to Brackney. 

“Do you believe the Chief of Police has the best interests of CPD in mind?” one question asked and was met with 83% of the 64 respondents saying “no.”

“Has the Chief of Police, in her role as leader, helped to make you feel more or less secure in your future at CPD?” another asked, to which 80% of respondents said they felt less secure. 

A question that received the most yes responses — at 90% of respondents — asked if the “current political climate in the city” has caused officers to reduce their normal policing activities (like traffic stops and arrests) for fear of being targeted by community groups. 

In the written responses within the PBA survey, several officers indicated they feel fear around doing their jobs.

“Officers sit in parking lots around the city and complain to each other until they receive calls,” one respondent wrote. “And when they do respond to calls they are effectively walking on eggshells and scared to act because they are in fear of getting in trouble, fired, or arrested.”

The person added that they feel command staff and supervisors do not encourage proactive policing practices.

“Instead of asking officers how to improve morale, this reactive behavior is encouraged and officers do not receive the necessary training to be proactive or how to act appropriately on calls because supervisors are also scared to have their officers act and be proactive,” one wrote. 

Lack of training and accusations that command staff and/or the chief were using the department for political purposes and to forward their own careers were also common statements throughout the PBA survey. 

‘A reckoning’

Though officer retention is perhaps one of the most prominent revelations in both the climate command and PBA surveys, Randy Shrewsberry, the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, says that training reforms could also be playing a role — for better and for worse. 

“A big part of this is ‘you trained me to do this, you have policies around this,’” Shrewsberry explained. “And everyone now is, to put it not so eloquently, sh- – -ing all over them for doing exactly that.”

He added that many officers may feel like they are facing turning points in their careers.

“So, they are at a point of this kind of reckoning and I foresee that morale is going to continue to be bad and that there’s going to be issues with recruitment until they change who they are,” Shrewsberry said.  

On outside associations and unions serving as a voice for officers’ concerns, Shrewsberry said he is not surprised if some of them are critical of the national attempts at reforms. 

“These unions and associations and such, they don’t want it, so they’re kicking and screaming this whole way,” he said.

Michael Wells, a detective with the Albemarle County Police Department and president of the Central Virginia PBA, previously told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the recent survey is not a new practice for the organization and was in response to outreach about poor conditions within CPD.

“We have done surveys in other jurisdictions — sometimes when things are great and we are figuring out how things are going,” Wells explained on Aug. 20 following the city’s response to the survey release.  “This one was done because there was a lot of information we received that conditions were poor within the Charlottesville Police Department.”

Additionally, Wells takes issue with Brackney’s policing philosophy and actions. He said he is concerned about the growing violence in the area in recent months and that he also disapproves of Brackney’s decision to dissolve the SWAT team following disciplinary actions with some of its members over the summer. 

“I believe her philosophy is flawed. As well intentioned as it may be, it’s flawed for this community,” he told Charlottesville Tomorrow. 

On releasing the PBA survey results, Wells said he had tried to arrange a meeting with command staff to go over the findings. He ultimately ended up meeting with Boyles.

“The city manager when I met with him was not even aware of the [department] survey. Frankly, people are scared of [Brackney] because— and I believe [Boyles] is scared of her because he’ll be called a racist because that’s her [modus operandi] because she’s a Black female and she makes it known on certain terms that if you don’t agree with her, you’re racist.”

Boyles has remained fairly closed-lipped about his decision to fire Brackney. In public statements, he’s said simply that he believes the department needs new leadership in order to continue “progress towards building a new climate and culture.” 

“That was my rationale,” Boyles told City Council on Monday. “It was also as I have stated before that I knew that there would be expected changes within the department that should be remedied — and it was my position that the only way to remedy that would be a change in the chief. It was that direction. It was no fault. There were no particulars but that that direction needed to change to preserve the department so that it could continue to provide the safety and protection that our citizens deserve.”

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Charlotte Rene Woods

I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.