The Charlottesville police department lambasted some officers for “disturbing behaviors” in a city-issued press release Friday evening, following accusations of poor leadership and criticisms from a Police Benevolent Association-conducted survey. 

The 17-question survey conducted by the Central Virginia PBA indicated a loss of faith and morale within the department by many of its 64 respondents. It also aimed criticism at Chief RaShall Brackney. According to the department’s website, there are 100 sworn officers in CPD.

A day after the survey was made public on the workplace conditions within CPD, the city issued a 1,700 word rebuttal which disclosed details of misconduct or inappropriate behaviors by several officers.

According to the release, in June of this year a member of the public sent Brackney an April 2020 video of a corporal and SWAT team member using profanity, expressing dissatisfaction and a desire to “get back to some hood gangsta s**t.”

“This police corporal also participated in text message chats in which he commiserated with officers making comments about City command staff such as: “I say we kill them all and let God sort it out,” the release adds. “He participated in other text message exchanges targeting two CPD officers with whom he was angry, stating, “let’s take em both out.”

An internal affairs review of the officer and officers they were in communication with revealed what the release describes as “disturbing behavior” such as “circulating nude videos of females and themselves” and “videotaping children of SWAT members detonating explosives, and firing department-issued semiautomatic weapons at unauthorized training events.”

At least three officers have resigned or been fired and the release states that Brackney dissolved the SWAT team.

The news release from the city, which was sent at about 6 p.m. Friday, also outlined the workplace culture Brackney has sought to change. Brackney’s tasks were listed as “bridging a divide between the city’s citizens, especially African American residents, and law enforcement.”

“When Chief Brackney commenced her work, the climate and culture of CPD was embedded in traditional, procedural policing approaches that created an “us vs them” mentality — a warrior mentality — which had not embraced, trained, or espoused the concepts of 21st Century Policing demanded by the City’s diverse residents,” the release reads. 

Below the quantitative portions of the survey was a question fielding qualitative responses. It asked what the largest concerns were that the department was facing presently.

Frequently related concerns involved staff turnover, lack of morale, criticism of leadership and criticism of the political climate within the city by local government, the chief and residents.  

“The citizens themselves constantly think we are racist and are throwing it in our face. Disregard that they are being racist to us for wearing a uniform,” read one anonymous comment.

Following a series of events over the summer of 2017 that culminated in the deadly Unite the Right rally, Brackney was hired to lead a police department that at the time had been found lacking in response to the events of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. 

During Brackney’s tenure, the department severed its relationship with Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement, hired a Fourth Amendment analyst and removed School Resource Officers from Charlottesville High School following the vote of the School Board. CPD began publishing statistics regarding encounters and detentions, along with summaries of actions associated with internal affairs investigations and publishing “Response to Resistance” incidents where use of force has happened.  

Michael Wells, a detective within Albemarle County Police Department who serves as the president of PBA’s Central Virginia chapter, said the organization decided to conduct its survey earlier this summer, following complaints by officers and an unfulfilled inquiry into the results of an internal survey CPD had done last year. 

“If you have a workforce that is unhappy, they’re not giving good customer service,” Wells said.

The first of 17 questions in a survey conducted by the Central Virginia Police Benevolent Association of Charlottesville Police Department officers. Blue indicates “no” responses. Purple indicates “yes” responses. Green indicates “undecided” responses. Credit: Credit: Police Benevolent Association Credit: Credit: Police Benevolent Association

Emails forwarded to Charlottesville Tomorrow show that Wells had submitted a Freedom of Information Act request  to obtain copies of the department’s “Command Climate Survey.” The city responded with a quote of $1,800 to provide the survey responses and that portions of them would be redacted to maintain confidentiality. Wells stopped his pursuit of the survey and PBA conducted its own.

On Aug. 17, Charlottesville Tomorrow filed a FOIA request for the survey and has not yet received a response. 

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

Concurrently, Bellamy Brown, chair of the Police Civilian Review Board, had been meeting with officers in CPD to “become a better-informed member” of the PCRB. After negative feedback from officers, he too, sought the internal survey. He also spoke with Wells. 

“I didn’t know what to think of Mr. Brown when we first started talking. He told me that he had gotten some information that conditions were not favorable,” Wells said. “I began to trust him a little bit and I eased into sharing information with him — cautiously optimistic that we could work together.”

At the Aug. 12 PCRB meeting, Brown gave a statement reiterating the grievances he’d gathered from officers in the department. Calling the situation a “crisis in leadership and morale,” Brown stated that he was in possession of one of the Command Climate surveys.

According to Brown, the respondent of the survey he has stated that “[leadership] takes problems around the department personally, [leadership] is not open to evaluation and improvement, and that the survey will not be taken seriously by [leadership] and used to move the department as a whole in a positive direction.” 

The respondent also added that they are “actively seeking employment elsewhere with [leadership] and their decisions being a major factor.” 

Brown also referenced the PBA survey.

Its questions ranged from views on senior leadership within the department to the impact of national calls for police reform on officer’s abilities to do their jobs.

Other questions related to the PCRB. 

“Do you believe a well-run PCRB, working in concert with internal affairs, would improve the current administrative process?” asks one question.

71% of respondents said no.

“If you are accused of violating policy, do you believe you will receive a fair administrative process?” another question reads.

82% of respondents said no.

On the flip side, 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. 

“If there was ever a case showing why this board should be fully funded and supported, this is it, due to the fact that this is the only government entity that has been transparent with the public on this matter in bringing this to the public’s attention,” he said in his statement.  “A strong policing oversight body would also provide officers with a place to bring reports of abuses or policy violations without fear of retaliation or fear of an unfair process.”

The city’s Friday response outlines ways Brackney hopes officers can vocalize their concerns. According to the release, Brackney has created a Command Advisory Board where CPD officers can “offer information, recommendations, or suggestions for changes.”

The release also notes the nationwide calls for police oversight and policing reform, amid the disproportionate contact with and deaths of Black people — adding that the work to address reforms “cannot be done without discomfort.”

“We must continue to build on the progress made during this historically, momentous period of criminal-legal justice reform,” the release states. “It requires the leveraging of all available resources such as a professional, well-trained oversight body to support police work, and local support from community and community leaders. We must remain committed to building community partnerships, while proactively addressing conditions that cultivate crime and social disorder.”

“I believe her philosophy is flawed. As well intentioned as it may be, it’s flawed for this community,” Wells explained and pointed to the dissolution of the SWAT team and the dissociation with JADE as criticisms. 

Now, he said, whatever actions — or lack thereof — may follow, are in the hands of the city. 

“I’ve presented the facts and conditions,” Wells said. “The city can choose to react to that or not.”  

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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.