In light of five gun-related homicides in Charlottesville since 2022 and an increase in violence around Grounds, students and community members have expressed concerns over solutions to improve safety and prevent further violence. Timothy Longo, associate vice president for safety and security and University chief of police, said that while long-term initiatives are still being worked out, short-term solutions for gun-violence include increased patrols and security cameras.
Although he has faith in the short-term benefits of his proposals, Longo stressed the need for a deeper understanding of root causes and wider community change such as public investments and after-school programs. Longo said that initial findings suggest most homicides occur because of individual interpersonal conflicts, but he hopes to conduct deeper analysis into why gun-related homicides are becoming more frequent in Charlottesville.
“We put a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound, we deal with the immediate issue,” Longo said. “We make the bleeding stop, we put some proactive prophylactic measures in place to prevent it from happening in the future, but at the end of the day, we don't take the time to understand the why.”
One initiative that Longo says will focus specifically on addressing the issue of rising gun violence rates is the Community Safety Working Group, created by the President’s Council on U.Va. Partnerships — a collaborative board of University officials, experts and wider community members seeking to build stronger connections between the University surrounding areas.
According to University spokesperson Bethanie Glover, the new working group’s main goals are to understand the problem of gun violence in Charlottesville and develop actionable long-term and short-term solutions.
“The working group will identify gun violence reduction solutions beyond the immediate safety improvements that were shared in the March virtual town hall,” Glover said. “The group will also leverage existing resources and services to recommend activities that will have the greatest potential impact on reducing gun violence and enhancing community safety in the areas of mental and behavioral health, youth programming and agency coordination.”
Members of the working group will be selected by University President Jim Ryan. Glover said that members will be chosen from the University, the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, nonprofit organizations and other community-based groups.
One of the long-term solutions Longo says the University is working towards is passing a bill in the General Assembly that would make it state law to criminalize violations of a University policy that prevents firearms on Grounds. There is already a law that prohibits possession of a firearm in all state buildings except those in public colleges and universities. Because it is not qualified as a criminal offense, police cannot obtain search warrants for gun possession on-Grounds, as University policy is not criminally enforceable.
In the meantime, Longo said the University is cooperating with Charlottesville and Albemarle county police departments to pool resources and create a more constant and visible police presence. According to Longo, the University is increasing patrols for police and ambassadors both on Grounds and off-Grounds in the areas down West Main Street, into the downtown mall and around the University Medical Center.
Ambassadors are third-party contractors hired by the University to monitor areas on and off Grounds. The ambassador program was started in 2015 in hopes of providing intermediaries between law enforcement and the public and expanding safety resources. Although ambassadors are not official police officers and do not have the power to arrest or investigate crime, Longo said that they serve as witnesses and increase visibility in areas where the finite resources of the police department cannot patrol.
“My experience is that most criminals don’t want to be caught,” Longo said. “When you increase presence and visibility, it can have a deterrent effect on people’s behavior.”
According to Longo, however, the recent shooting on Elliewood Avenue — which resulted in the death of a University contractor — occured despite the presence of ambassadors and police officers. While he thinks ambassador and police presence can deter violence, Longo acknowledged that increased patrols alone will not necessarily prevent future shootings.
Some students in recent years have reported feeling less safe due to increased police presence, according to a May 2022 survey done by students in Sociology Prof. Rose Buckelew’s sociology course Race and Ethnic Relations. The study surveyed over 1,100 University students and found that 50 percent of Black women, 44 percent of Black men and 44 percent of Latinx men said that an increase in UPD officers would make them feel less safe on and around Grounds.
Second-year College student Jade Pettaway was part of Buckelew’s class and helped compile and analyze the study’s findings. Pettaway said that Black women in particular often feel unsafe around University Police due to historic and ongoing racialized police aggression.
“Historically, white women have been able to use policing as a shield,” Pettaway said. “I think that what's leading to Black women feeling unsafe, we've never had that privilege in society [where] police were there for us.”
According to Longo, police have to continually rethink their strategies to be conscious of how they impact individual rights and public trust. Longo said he could not provide specific instances of adjusted policies since he had been chief of UPD.
One of the main student groups currently working with the University Police to alleviate some of these concerns is Student Council. Andrea Gao, Student Council director of University Relations and third-year Commerce student, said that Student Council’s Police Review Board plans to begin conversations with the University this semester to advocate for students' concerns regarding UPD. The Board was established by the previous administration and will be carried out by the newly elected Council.
“Student Council’s Police Review Board has historically worked toward facilitating greater collaboration, communication and transparency between the student body, UPD and other safety and security officials at the University,” Gao said.
Beyond conversations with student leaders, Pettaway said she hopes that the dialogues and policy solutions the University considers focus on prioritizing the groups most affected by University Police, not just those who have held positions of privilege.
“I think that there could be more initiatives to make it so Black women are feeling heard at the University… [we need to] have that open dialogue so students can really voice their concerns, and so University Police understand the actual harm they're doing by increasing police presence at U.Va.” Pettaway said.
Increased police and ambassador presence off-Grounds and on the corner took effect March 31 and is expected to continue expanding in the coming year.