UPD chief defends law enforcement response to Aug. 11 and 12 anniversary at UJC meeting

University Police Chief Tommye Sutton said police did not exercise excessive force during the anniversary weekend

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“I truly believe that some of those people who say we had too many cops, would be the same people who say we didn’t have enough if somebody got hurt,” Sutton said. “It’s finding the balance of really pleasing the community — giving them what they want, but also being responsible.”

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

During the University Judiciary Committee general body meeting Sunday night, University Police Department Chief Tommye Sutton defended the strong law enforcement presence during this year’s anniversary weekend marking one year since the white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017. Sutton said that law enforcement’s previous failure to prevent violence at the 2017 rallies was paramount to this year’s preparations in terms of reducing conflict among demonstrators. 

Sutton began his tenure as chief of UPD Aug. 1, replacing Michael Gibson, who announced his retirement in May.

UPD has faced criticism from students and community members within the past year for its lack of response to the white supremacist demonstration near the Rotunda of Aug. 11, 2017, as documented in an independent review by Tim Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney and current University Counsel

UPD was also criticized by community members this past August for a large massing of police personnel near the Academical Village during a U.Va. Students United rally at Brooks Hall, after demonstrators broke away from the designated area for the event on the North side of the Rotunda. The University spent approximately $422,000 in preparation for the weekend and housed several hundred Virginia State Troopers on Grounds amid the presence of more than 1,000 public safety officials on the region. 

Sutton told UJC members that he hopes to increase police transparency, engage with students on Grounds and include students in the hiring process for future UPD officers.

Sutton also gave a similar presentation to Student Council Oct. 23 in which he announced that a new education requirement will be introduced prior to the next hiring cycle for UPD officers — requiring either a bachelor’s degree or at least four years of military service. Previously, only a high school education was required for applicants. 

He also announced that the department is looking to completely overhaul its outreach and engagement efforts within the University community to include more diverse segments of the student body, among other initiatives.

Following his presentation Sunday, Sutton fielded several questions from UJC members about the UPD response to the anniversary weekend this past August.

Sutton said he acknowledged the criticisms of a large law enforcement response during the U.Va. Students United rally, but added that law enforcement officials had strong intelligence in the lead up to the anniversary weekend showing that “there were people out there coming to absolutely hurt large masses of minorities.” 

“I truly believe that some of those people who say we had too many cops, would be the same people who say we didn’t have enough if somebody got hurt,” Sutton said. “It’s finding the balance of really pleasing the community — giving them what they want, but also being responsible.”

Sutton said he believed the police response on Grounds was successful as there were no arrests or injuries as a result of the demonstrations. 

He also said that UPD officers were instructed to only engage students and community members if violence was being carried out among demonstrators, adding that law enforcement personnel didn’t want opposition to the police to become the major focal point of the demonstrations or future rallies during the anniversary weekend. 

However, Sutton added that the presence of anti-fascist activists on Grounds — who participated in a variety of other demonstrations throughout the anniversary weekend in Charlottesville — during the rally destabilized the situation and resulted in an increased law enforcement presence on Grounds.

“Antifa showed up, the energy immediately changed so at that point we had to be staffed in a way that we could be responsible and make sure that we could look parents in the face on Monday morning — or any students that were on Grounds — and make sure that they would be proud of the effort we made,” Sutton said.

In response to criticisms expressed by students this past August regarding the hundreds of Virginia State Troopers who were stationed at Lambeth dorms in the lead up to and during the anniversary weekend, Sutton said the University never attempted to hide, conceal or delude students about the law enforcement presence there. 

While he said that UPD could have better communicated with students about its preparations for the weekend, he added that the housing of the troopers was tactically and strategically necessary given the long shifts of officers during the weekend. 

“As much as we want to be transparent, if you’re being tactical in all honesty, you can’t say, ‘I’ve got 300 police officers at Lambeth, go check them out,’” Sutton said. “It’s a balance of keeping the community informed but also not saying officers are at Lambeth because we know when people have demonstrations a lot of times what they do is they set police cars on fire.” 

During his presentation, Sutton also announced a number of initiatives which UPD is working to implement to improve the relationship between the police department and students.

More specifically, Sutton said UPD is working with the University’s Ambassador program to create new, static ambassador posts — based on feedback from current ambassadors — along areas where students often walk as shortcuts on and off Grounds. Previously, Sutton said many ambassadors were tasked with bicycle patrol routes, which he said have been mostly eliminated in favor of well-defined posts for individual ambassadors. 

The Ambassador program was implemented in 2015 to enhance safety near the Corner, 14th Street, Jefferson Park Avenue and other popular off-Grounds residential areas. Ambassadors also patrol certain areas on Grounds as well, such as the Rotunda and Lawn area and first-year dorms. 

He added that the hours of operation for many ambassadors has also been extended to include patrols from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. rather than the previous timeframe, which he said didn't have some ambassadors beginning patrols until 11 p.m. in certain locations. 

Sutton also said he hopes to foster strong connections between UPD officers and the University community going forward though events such as pizza meals with students and community softball and basketball games where police officers play students.

Kevin Warshaw, a fourth-year Engineering student and UJC chair, said the committee has a strong relationship with the UPD that its members would like to continue to strengthen in the future. In the past, UPD has filed cases with UJC and would be willing to provide camera footage of an incident as video evidence if needed.

"I think that especially recently, ever since the events of August 11th and 12th and even before that, students in general have just a desire to hear from police — again like [Sutton] was saying, they want to know why, in the past, policing has been very opaque and Chief Sutton wants to be more transparent so I feel that bringing him in and giving the students the opportunity to ask him questions would really help to build a sense of trust in the police within our organization [that] will hopefully permeate within the wider community," Warshaw said. 

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to include a full quote from Kevin Warshaw about Tommye Sutton's appearance at the UJC meeting.

The article also previously misquoted Warshaw as saying "students in general have just no desire to hear from police" due to a transcription error, but has been corrected to "students in general have just a desire to hear from police." 

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