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New Community-Oriented Policing Squad faces criticism from Law students

An open letter from Law students calls for annulling the UPD COPS unit, boosting social and economic investment in community

<p>A group of students from the School of Law called on the University Friday to disband the Community-Oriented Policing Squad and instead reinvest in the Charlottesville community.</p>

A group of students from the School of Law called on the University Friday to disband the Community-Oriented Policing Squad and instead reinvest in the Charlottesville community.


A cohort of students from the School of Law issued a letter Oct. 6 objecting to the University Police Department’s creation of its Community Oriented Policing Squad, which is charged with monitoring the Corner and adjacent off-Grounds areas. The new UPD unit began patrols Sept. 27.

Over 120 students signed the letter, along with 12 organizations including the Black Law Students Association, the National Lawyers Guild at U.Va. Law and Student Council’s Executive Board. 

The letter demands the University rescind its decision to increase police presence and instead promote economic and social development in the Charlottesville community and improve transparency in UPD’s management of complaints and police harassment. Though the letter was originally circulated on social media, organizers sent the letter Oct. 15 to University President Jim Ryan and Timothy Longo, associate vice president for safety and security and chief of police.

UPD’s jurisdiction includes off-Grounds locations as a result of a 1995 agreement between UPD, the Charlottesville Police Department and the Albemarle Police Department. The agreement says departments may request and allocate police support across jurisdictions, with support including uniformed, plainclothes and canine officers, forensic support, special operations personnel and related equipment.

In the wake of confusion over law enforcement jurisdiction during the deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017, an informal expansion of the agreement extended UPD jurisdiction to Grounds-adjacent locations where students frequently reside, including the Corner, Rugby Road, 14th Street, Madison Avenue, 10th Street, Wertland Street and portions of Preston Avenue.

Bryant Hall, field services captain for UPD, said the unit’s creation was motivated by recent incidents of crime reported off-Grounds. 

“In response to a rise in shots fired incidents and other criminal acts in areas where students live and socialize, the University Police Department is devoting additional resources to keep students safe,” Hall said in an email statement to The Cavalier Daily. 

Since the start of the fall semester, UPD has issued 10 alerts to the University community. Five were shots fired incidents, with one involving a bystander inadvertently struck by a bullet at Boylan Heights. 

Existing University efforts to promote the safety of students include the University’s ambassador program, which was implemented by UPD in 2015. While ambassadors are not police, they patrol areas adjacent to Grounds and may assist students and alert relevant law enforcement of potential incidents — they do not hold arrest powers. 

Second-year Law student Amalia Garcia-Pretelt, a life-long Charlottesville resident, said she wrote the letter with other Law students to challenge community members’ “knee-jerk reaction” to public safety issues, which often argue there should “always be more police.” Instead of this approach, Garcia-Pretelt called for more tangible reforms, including a re-evaluation of the role of police in promoting public safety in the Charlottesville community:

“It's [UPD’s] responsibility to end race racist policing, to end harassment,” Garcia-Pretelt said.

Contrary to the perceived increase in crime within the University community, the letter provides data demonstrating there has not been an increase in reported crime in the UPD’s September 2021 crime logs compared to Sept. 2019. The letter cites crime logs from last month, which indicate there have been 9 reported assaults, 22 property crimes, 4 sex offenses, 3 instances of stalking, and 5 instances of threatening behavior. In comparison, crime logs from September 2019 include 8 reported assaults, 26 property crimes, and 2 instances of stalking. 

“These numbers do not reflect an increase in crime around the University area,” the letter reads. “The main thing that has changed is that the Community Alerts, which also document instances of crime that occur outside of the University area, are now sent to parents.”

The letter outlines concern about the potential danger of increased police presence, particularly in the context of reports from students of color of harassment and racially biased treatment from UPD.  

“Policing in this country is administered in a racially biased way,” Garcia-Pretelt said. “What are other ways that we can ensure safety that don’t involve coercion and violence that disproportionately affect people of color?” 

An ongoing anonymous survey conducted by the Student Council’s Student Police Advisory Board has so far highlighted student complaints of harassment and racial bias in interactions with UPD. Last month, a Black student leader of Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va. reported repeated unwelcome attempts by UPD officers to meet with them. 

Hall emphasized community relationships as a primary goal of the COPS program. 

“The goal of this initiative is to reduce violence by increasing visibility and building stronger relationships with the people who live, work and visit these areas,” Hall said. 

Garcia-Pretelt, however, remained concerned about the lack of input sought from community members prior to the formation of COPS.

“It doesn’t seem like [the University] had any sort of mechanisms to get student input or community input,” Garcia-Pretelt said. 

In a Sept. 4 email, University President Jim Ryan acknowledged ongoing concern regarding community alerts and crime off Grounds, adding that he asked the University’s safety and security team to meet and to bring back recommendations of any additional measures that could be taken to ensure the safety and security of the community. 

Yewande Ford, second-year Law student and president of the Black Law Student Association, echoed similar concerns to Garcia-Pretelt. Non-student community members deserve to be notified of the initiative and have input as well, Ford said. 

“If I’m going to have an increase of cops in my community I think I deserve to know and have input, to a certain extent,” Ford said.

Moving forward, the letter’s authors hope to see increased engagement with students and communities to solicit input on policing. Genesis Moore, second-year Law student and vice-president of the Black Law Student Association, suggested that a town hall could be held to show receptivity to student feedback.

“I would like to see them have conversations with the students that are raising these concerns,”  Moore said. “I think there needs to be genuine concern on behalf of the UPD to hear the concerns of students.” 

Moore also discussed the importance of including Charlottesville community members in dialogues surrounding policing initiatives in off-Grounds areas.

“It has equal ramifications on them as it could potentially have on us,” Moore said.

Moore encouraged a more intentional investment of the University in social and community programs, in addition to being a more intentional employer of the surrounding Charlottesville community. 

“Students come into the city, we take a lot of jobs, we take a lot of opportunities, so I think the University needs to be more intentional in supporting financials surrounding social programs [and] community efforts,” Moore said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated that Garcia-Pretelt, Ford and Moore are third-year Law students. The article has been updated to reflect that Garcia-Pretelt, Ford and Moore are second-year Law students.


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