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Charlottesville Police Department refutes claims of racial profiling in incident with Black church member

CPD presented body camera footage, radio transmissions and 911 call audio as evidence against racial profiling at a press conference Thursday

<p>An internal affairs investigation headed by Lt. Michael Gore began Oct. 20 — one day after receiving the &nbsp;Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville Church's official complaint Oct. 19 — and its findings were delivered to the UUC Monday.</p>

An internal affairs investigation headed by Lt. Michael Gore began Oct. 20 — one day after receiving the  Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville Church's official complaint Oct. 19 — and its findings were delivered to the UUC Monday.

Charlottesville Chief of Police Dr. RaShall Brackney presented audiovisual evidence refuting claims of racial profiling during a press conference Thursday. The press conference came after a two-month long internal review prompted by an alleged incident Oct. 7 involving several Charlottesville Police Department officers and a Black member of the Unitarian Universalists of Charlottesville Church on Rugby Road.

Following the alleged incident, Rev. Dr. Linda Olsen Peebles and board members of the church wrote in an open letter to CPD Oct. 14 that a Black man was surrounded by five police cars and asked to present his social security number during his walk to clean the church playground because he matched the description of a burglary suspect. The letter alleges that the police officers were dispatched following a 911 call from a University student, though CPD announced Thursday that these claims were all false.

An internal affairs investigation led by Lt. Michael Gore, which began Oct. 20, found that charges in the categories of bias based policing, harassment and unconstitutional search were all unfounded, according to an internal letter from Peebles.

At the press conference Thursday, Brackney said that the 911 call, radio transmissions, body camera footage and witness accounts gathered by the investigation disproved the UUC letter as “inflammatory and baseless allegations.”

“The Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Charlottesville allegations were irresponsible and preyed upon national headlines in order to gain the spotlight,” Brackney said. “This should not be tolerated by this community.”

Contrary to the allegations that a University student called the police on the church member, Brackney said that neither the 911 caller nor the responder noted any affiliation between the caller and the University. Audio of the call, which was edited to maintain anonymity, was played during the press conference and revealed that the caller reported that they thought a Black man who was a suspect in a recent string of robberies was loitering on their private property and had cut through their private sidewalk and driveway to get to the street.

Radio transmission audio and body camera footage showed that the police were actually called over by the church member himself, who thought the police were looking for him after he saw another individual run inside and lock the door as he walked by.

Brackney also pointed out the police cars parked on the street and a clip of the church member walking away as evidence that he was not “surrounded” by police officers, as the UUC letter states. Instead, a police officer was circling the block looking for the church member when he was called over by the church member himself. Eventually, the police officer was joined by an additional police officer and three detectives.

“He asked us to encounter him,” Brackney said. “We wouldn't have known any of these things had occurred, unless [the church member] engaged us — we were driving around.”

In the body camera footage, one police officer can be heard asking the church member to take another route to church, which the UUC letter also recounted. The police officer said that would be best for the caller who was “freaked out” by the church member walking on the private sidewalk in front of their house. 

“[The church member]’s route to the church included walking through private property, private backyards and sidewalks,” Brackney said. “Advising him, suggesting that that was not the way to walk, would be appropriate.”

The full body camera footage shows the church member questioning if his race factored into the situation. One of the police officers insisted to him that that was not the case — which the detectives later reiterated — and told the man that the fear behind the recent string of larcenies was the primary consideration, the suspect being a Black male. The UUC letter asserts that the church member bore no resemblances to the suspect besides race.

Regarding the presence of a white woman who dispelled the situation, according to the UUC letter, Brackney referred to the video footage again as proof that there was no white woman present. Gore later clarified that another UUC member came onto the scene, but only after the conversation with the police officers.

Brackney said that the affected church member sent a letter to her and Gore Dec. 3 and said that the accounts from the UUC’s letter and interviews in The Cavalier Daily and other media outlets were incorrect and “do not represent” him. She said that the letter’s main message was to leave him alone.

“I am disappointed that this community has been led down this path, and then done so by an institution that should have high standing in this community, like a church, its boards, and even some of the newspapers and the groups that have reported on incident without verifying any information other than what they had seen on social media, or a post,” Brackney said.

In a letter to the UUC yesterday, Peebles asked that congregants respect the church member’s wish to stop addressing this event.

Brackney also criticized a letter to the editor published by The Cavalier Daily from the Defund Cville PD Campaign calling for the firing of the officers involved. She called that letter, and the responses from other social justice campaigns and social media posts, “smear campaigns.”

In response to the press conference, Peebles clarified that the UUC’s initial letter was not involved with the request for the officer resignations, and that it was concerned with the safety of members of color as they walk on the streets. She also stated that the letter was approved by the church member beforehand.

“I am disappointed that the Police Chief of Charlottesville made unfair accusations in a press conference Dec. 10 about our church and about the people trying simply to bring a matter of concern to the police department,” Peebles said in a statement. “How sad that a public official would malign people of faith.”

When asked about rebuilding trust between the police and minority communities, Brackney framed the process as looking for a “new relationship.” She cited increases in publicly available information on police interactions and on uses of force where the gender and race of all involved parties were included.

“Black men have suffered at the hands of law enforcement for decades, for centuries — why would we want to create even more wedge issues when it doesn't actually exist?” Brackney said.

Peebles said that members of the UUC congregation are concerned with CPD’s findings, but emphasized the need for community members to work together to stop racial profiling in the future.

“As members of a faith community believing in the worth and dignity of all people, and wanting to work for justice in human relations, this all is unsettling and disturbing,” Peebles said. “The work of anti-racism and reconciliation in Charlottesville continues to be needed by all who side with love. We resolve to work together and with interfaith partners on this larger, systemic community concern.”