Posted on August 15, 2022

Charlottesville Hired a Black Police Chief to Heal. Then It Fired Her.

Justin Jouvenal, Washington Post, August 11, 2022

The final meeting of the day left Charlottesville’s police chief stunned and fearing for her safety, so RaShall Brackney unholstered her gun and held it by her side as she left headquarters one night in June 2021.

The first Black woman to head the department wasn’t worried about protesters who were a frequent presence outside or street crime. The threat she perceived was uncomfortably close: a handful of officers who served under her.

A deputy had just briefed her on an internal probe of the SWAT team. It found widespread issues, including officers making crass racial remarks and one apparently showing a trainee how to hide misconduct, according to the internal report obtained by The Washington Post.

In a text, one disgruntled member wrote they should “take out” command staff, a comment Brackney took seriously but some officers felt was just blowing off steam.

Brackney had been hired in the wake of the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville and made it nationally synonymous with hate. City officials wanted her to restore public trust in a force that badly fumbled the mayhem, modernize the department and address racial inequalities in policing that many in the city felt the march unmasked.

Brackney said the revelations about the 15-member SWAT team were glaring examples of what needed to be reformed in the department’s culture, but when she moved to discipline some members it set off a chain of events that led to her firing months later.

Brackney filed a $10 million lawsuit against the city and 10 officials this summer, alleging racial and gender discrimination and that her firing was retaliation for her efforts to root out problematic policing.

Most city officials declined to comment citing the pending litigation, but Mayor Lloyd Snook said Brackney’s termination was about her lack of effective leadership, not reform efforts. He said rank-and-file officers had lost faith in her and were leaving, creating a crisis.

The dramatic episode prompted Charlottesville’s first Black female mayor to announce in September that she would not seek reelection and led to the resignation of the city manager, the fifth in just a handful of years that were beset by turmoil and infighting in government related to the rally.

It has also underscored for some that Charlottesville’s hope of becoming an example of racial reconciliation after Unite the Right remains stubbornly elusive on the fifth anniversary of the march. The city’s challenges with police reform have been mirrored nationwide.


The year before the rally, police data showed nearly 80 percent of “stop-and-frisk” stops performed by its officers were of Black residents, even though they made up less than 20 percent of the population. Anger still simmered over police sweeping up the DNA of nearly 200 Black men in the hunt for a serial rapist years earlier.

The demand for change powered the City Council campaign of an activist named Nikuyah Walker, who went on to become Charlottesville’s first Black female mayor in January 2018. It also caught the attention of Brackney, who was then police chief at George Washington University.


Brackney thought the local ferment for reform combined with the national spotlight on Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally offered an opportunity to transform the city’s police force into a national model for progressive policing. She thought her personal and professional experiences could help bridge Charlottesville’s divides.


{snip} She was one of three Black women in a department of about 115 officers. She said the force was nearly 90 percent White and overwhelmingly male.


Brackney said she set about trying to change that culture. One of her biggest — and most controversial — moves was reorganizing the department.

She withdrew officers from a regional drug task force, which she said was targeting too many low-level users instead of drug dealers. She also stopped sending resource officers into schools, a practice she said criminalized disciplinary issues. Other departments across the country have made similar moves as part of reforms.

Brackney said she was leery of special units because her research had shown they are often spots where corruption and other problems develop in departments.

Many officers saw it differently.

Nearly a dozen current and former Charlottesville police officers declined to comment for attribution or did not respond to messages, but three said they felt disbanding the special units hurt the department’s ability to fight crime and was demoralizing because the posts were desirable career moves. They also said Brackney alienated officers with her leadership style.


The SWAT probe began with a tip.

The email that landed in Brackney’s inbox in June 2021 was from a former law enforcement officer, who alleged a Charlottesville police officer was having an inappropriate relationship with a female officer who had been his trainee, the email shows.


Brackney said she tensed up. She wondered what the video would show and whether it might spark a scandal that could upend everything she had been working toward over three years as chief. She hit play.

The corporal appears on screen in his cruiser, sitting near a rifle while wearing mirrored sunglasses, the video shows.

In the clip that was sent to a SWAT team group text, he complains about the department and says the TV show “Tiger King” will lift moods: “Nothing like a guy who has tigers — most of them illegal — trying to seduce straight men into gay sex with meth.”

He ends by saying he hopes they can get back to “some f—ing ’hood gangster shit.”

Brackney said she didn’t know what the corporal meant by the “gangster” comment, but she was alarmed enough to immediately suspend him and launch an investigation. She seized his work phone and others from the SWAT team. The probe quickly exploded.

Text messages from the corporal revealed him wanting to “take out” the “top four,” according to the internal police report on the investigation. A video shows the corporal appearing to instruct a trainee on how to cover up misconduct, according to the report. The corporal, who has resigned from the department, declined to comment.

A sergeant on the SWAT team texted the corporal that the corporal’s videos making fun of a Black trainee were funny and that “his skin gets whiter everyday with u,” the report details.


Brackney began disciplinary action against six officers involved, which resulted in a handful of resignations, a firing and proceedings that are ongoing, according to Brackney. {snip}

Mike Wells, the president of the Central Virginia chapter of the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), declined to comment because he is named in Brackney’s lawsuit, but accused Brackney of overreacting in an interview with a local NPR affiliate at the time.


Two former officers who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because they feared professional consequences said they felt the punishment was part of a pattern of heavy-handed discipline by Brackney. In particular, they dismissed the talk of killing officers as idle chatter. Brackney referred some comments for criminal investigation, and the officers were cleared.


The letter delivered two months later to Walker, the mayor at the time, had an urgent message: The city’s police department was in crisis. “The men and women of the Charlottesville Police Department are hurting,” it opened.

Wells wrote in August 2021 police officers were under a microscope locally and nationally after George Floyd’s killing and they weren’t receiving the support from the chief they needed, a common complaint from police unions as reform efforts gained steam in recent years. Wells concluded: “We have lost faith in our leadership.”

He included a survey of 65 Charlottesville officers that showed overwhelming majorities said Brackney did not have the ability to lead the department in this new era of policing, that they didn’t think they could get a fair disciplinary hearing and that they had curtailed policing out of fear of being targeted by department brass.

“My first concern is that the chief is more focused on her political career and personal interests over the safety and mental health of her officers,” one officer wrote. “She will hang any officer out to dry before she admits any personal wrongdoing.”

Others said the chief was too quick to punish officers and too negative, and some lamented the loss of the special units. The PBA released the survey to the media a little over a week after sending it to city officials. Brackney said the questions were slanted to make her look bad.


City Manager Chip Boyles, who had the power to fire the police chief, announced days later on Sept. 1 that he was terminating Brackney. Boyles declined to comment because he is named in Brackney’s lawsuit, but said in public comments that he had to act quickly because top leaders in the department were planning to exit if Brackney remained. {snip}

Boyles said he based his decision, in part, on the PBA survey and another internal one.