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RUSSO: Improve communication between police

Dialogue goes a long way in creating meaningful change

On Friday afternoon, students gathered in Newcomb Theater to address representatives of various law enforcement branches. The panel members represented various aspects of law enforcement with power in Charlottesville, a visibly unified force. However, their responses were disjointed. Throughout the event, several representatives claimed, “this wasn’t us” in reference to the violent arrest of third-year student Martese Johnson, the implication being that they have a minor role in the conversation about the arrest and its aftermath. Issues of racial profiling and police brutality must be systematically eliminated. In order to do so, communication between branches of law enforcement is essential.

Last week, Viewpoint writer Ben Rudgley published a column in which he asserted: “Policy is more powerful than dialogue.” I think many of the points made by Rudgley were well-put, but his main argument was in favor of four specific policy proposals. Facing the daunting issue of police brutality in the United States, the steps to take are not initially obvious.

Several times throughout Friday’s dialogue, various representatives emphasized their openness to hear feedback about training and enforcement. A constructive change law enforcement in Charlottesville can make to end discriminatory policing of any kind is to create formal systems of communication and information-sharing between branches, which will in turn increase accountability.

To absolve the Charlottesville Police Department, or the University Police for that matter, of any responsibility in the arrest of Martese Johnson is to treat this event as a singular happening. As was expressed by representatives of the Black Student Alliance at the panel, black residents of Charlottesville have experienced racial profiling continuously. The disappearance of Sage Smith received adequate resources only when prompted. It is clear that this issue involves law enforcement as a whole, so why isn’t it being treated as such?

In order to move forward, those responsible (first off, the ABC officers in question) should acknowledge their inadequacies. Next, each branch of law enforcement should reevaluate training and protocol. At one point during the panel discussion, the ABC policy advisor appointed by the governor claimed, “Many of our officers go through the same academies as local law enforcement.” If the officers who arrested Martese were trained the same way Charlottesville police officers are trained, then every branch of law enforcement is equally implicated.

This idea is not novel, but rather was brought up by students at the event. Brian Moran, Virginia secretary of public safety and homeland security, responded to this suggestion, “The concept of ABC communicating with Charlottesville and University Police is a great idea, and it is my understanding that we do that.” Perhaps some communication does occur. Even so, it is clearly not happening enough, as evidenced by the disjointed and confused responses of the officials to the questions raised at the panel. In reference to the legality of ABC officers detaining an individual, Police Chief Tim Longo said, “I don’t know what the policy of the Virginia State Police or the ABC are on this matter,” essentially absolving himself of all accountability on an issue that is wide reaching, and about which he should be informed.

Consolidation of information, training and protocol will heighten accountability. I strongly hope that what happened to Martese will never happen again in Charlottesville, or anywhere else for that matter, but the unfortunate truth is that police brutality is a reality in the United States. When something horrific happens, it is disappointing to hear law enforcement officials not only fail to fully acknowledge responsibility, but also generally be uninformed about what the law enforcement mechanisms in their own communities are.

It is tempting to let the harrowing events of the past seven months fade into memories. As an advocate for dialogue, I am inclined to see it as a potential solution to the cracks dividing our community that have come to light. While dialogue is often criticized for being ineffective, any attempt to address an issue such as racial profiling and police brutality without giving all involved parties a seat at the table will only lead to disconnected initiatives. Establishing official communication mechanisms between law enforcement groups is not an adequate solution to these very real concerns. However, dialogue provides a stable foundation upon which we can begin to dismantle complex systems of oppression and inequality.

Mary Russo is a Senior Associate Editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at


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