When scenes of white nationalists storming the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., with lit tiki torches, clenched teeth and furrowed brows flashed on screens across the nation, RaShall M. Brackney was in Barbados with her husband.
Brackney watched the fighting and chanting of racist phrases with misty eyes. She says it was impossible not to have a visceral reaction to what was happening in a city just two hours south from where she was living at the time.
“I couldn’t help but feel that the nation overall was in a place where we really needed to take a look at ourselves and decide what it is we really represent and stand for,” Brackney says.
By the end of 2017, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas abruptly resigned following the release of a report that was highly critical of the police department’s handling of the rally.
And by June, Brackney was being sworn in as the first black woman to serve as Charlottesville’s chief of police.
Brackney knew the journey she was about to embark on was not going to be easy, but she was — and still is — confident that she’s the right woman for the job. She spent 35 years holding various positions within the Pittsburgh Police Department; served as chief of police at George Washington University and has successfully completed courses with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service.
When she started the job in June , her first order of business was to build trust in the community, and that meant acknowledging the city’s difficult history.
To longtime residents of Charlottesville, it was only a matter of time until the events that unfolded at the Unite the Right Rally took place.
The fight over what to do with statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson began in 2015 when high school student and activist Zyahna Bryant started a petition to get rid of the statues. In her letter to the Charlottesville City Council, she wrote, “When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery. Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind. As a teenager in Charlottesville that identifies as black, I am offended every time I pass it. I am reminded over and over again of the pain of my ancestors and all of the fighting that they had to go through for us to be where we are now. Quite frankly I am disgusted with the selective display of history in this city. There is more to Charlottesville than just the memories of Confederate fighters. There is more to this city that makes it great.”
After numerous town halls and a commission vote, the statues stayed put. The argument was the statues were part of Charlottesville’s history and that history deserved to be told. Resident Don Gathers agrees with the logic, but believes where the statues currently sit — near government buildings and downtown businesses — sends a message that not all are welcome in the city.
Charlottesville has a history that residents say wasn’t talked about for a long time. Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, which only recently added exhibits “confronting the monumental clash of ideas at the heart of our nation’s founding,” is just 20 minutes from the city.
The effects of the Jim Crow era have been long-lasting in the city, impacting the school system and other everyday aspects of life like public parks and the statues that became a rallying point in 2017.
Multiple cross burnings — an action tied to the Ku Klux Klan — took place in the 1950s outside the homes of civil rights leaders and in black neighborhoods.
And in 1965, Vinegar Hill, an African American neighborhood, was seized by the city for an urban renewal project after the city council passed a law allowing “unsanitary and unsafe” properties to be taken over by the housing authority, causing the displacement of people in 130 homes and 30 black-owned businesses.
Local activist Tanesha Hudson says that moments like these in Charlottesville’s history are why the Unite the Right Rally, which ended in the death of one protester and two state troopers, did not come as a shock. Hudson was born and raised in the area, as were many of her family members. She says people of color have always been treated differently there, especially by police.
“A cop’s job is to protect and serve; I haven’t felt that at all in the years I’ve lived here,” she says. “They take away our neighborhoods and push us into ones with living conditions that aren’t even suitable for a dog.”
Brackney acknowledges the shortcomings of the force in the past.
“I’ve owned any of those times when the city or agency prior failed the expectations of the community,” she says. “I’m clear that we don’t always get this right and when we don’t we have to acknowledge when we haven’t lived up to that expectation.”
Hudson, who has grown skeptical of the Charlottesville police, says she is determined to give Brackney a chance.
Brackney has taken to being hyper present in the community. Since her first day, she has spent some part of each day out in the city.
“That is the only way in which you can recover as an agency and as a city. You have to get out there and say ‘I hear you, I hear that you’re hurting,’” Brackney says.
So she says she takes time to walk through the city and attend local events every single day. Gathers says he appreciates her willingness to dive right into the happenings of the community.
“She has been engaging and very visible in the public, which is a marvelous thing,” he says. “We asked her to institute neighborhood policing; to have the police walk the streets and sit on the porch with neighbors to understand what’s going on because when police get to know people in the area that they serve it not only deescalates, but eliminates problems that could arise. If the first interaction you have with a police officer is when they’re coming to arrest you, it’s not going to go well.”
Brackney doesn’t just want to establish a strong culture of trust with the community, she wants it to exist within her agency as well.
“This is a department that is resilient; they’ve taken a lot of criticism over the last year for every policing action that took place in 2017,” she says. “If I don’t build trust with these officers and they don’t feel valued, why would they value the community they serve?”
Moving forward, Brackney says she would like to see conversations about the Unite the Right Rally woven into conversations about racism, bias and discriminatory policing.