Charlottesville Police Chief Declares War On Unitarians Over Racial Profiling Complaint
Back in October, the leadership of the Unitarian Universalist Church (not to be confused with the Unarians) in Charlottesville, Virginia, wrote a letter to the Charlottesville Police Department. Church leaders complained police harassed a member of their church, a 68-year-old Black man named Walter Huffman, after a woman reported seeing him walking on the sidewalk in front of her house.
On October 7th our church member and Chair of our Grounds Committee was walking up Rugby Road to participate in a work party to clean our playground. Just as he reached the edge of the church property, a police car pulled up and the officer asked what he was doing in the neighborhood. Within several minutes five police cars surrounded him.
A neighbor, who is a UVA student, called to say a black man was walking up the sidewalk in front of her house.
Police stated that they were concerned about recent break-ins in the neighborhood and they had a picture of a suspect. The suspect looked nothing like our church member, other than both men are black. Even after the police acknowledged that our member was not the suspect, they still demanded his Social Security number and identification. One of the officers even suggested that he walk another way to church!
The police withdrew only when another church member, a white lady, concerned there may have been a traffic accident, walked over to investigate the situation.
The church did not ask for anyone to be fired, they merely asked for an apology.
But now, following an "investigation" of the incident by the Charlottesville Police Department, the chief of police is calling for an apology from the church, or for the entire church leadership — Interim Reverend Dr. Linda Olson Peebles in particular — to be terminated. In fact, she held a 30-minute press conference not only to dispute the church's claims, but to list literally everyone on the church's board and demand that they each be "held accountable" for unfairly accusing her department of racial bias.
Via CVille Tomorrow:
Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney called for the leaders of a local church who accused officers of racial profiling in October to "apologize or to be terminated," saying their actions were "race baiting."
The call came during a news conference Thursday in which Brackney played portions of body-worn camera footage that she said refuted allegations laid by the Unitarian Universalist Church and its reverend, Linda Olson Peebles.
"The complaint highlights the power of community members here seeking to leverage their privilege and self-serving agendas," Brackney said. "Rev. Olson Peebles' [and] the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville's allegations were irresponsible and preyed upon national headlines in order to gain the spotlight. This should not be tolerated by this community."
CPD had conducted an internal affairs investigation into the complaint and determined the officers involved had done nothing wrong.
The church responded by saying that they are concerned by findings in the report, which they do not feel jive with what their church member reported.
Leaders of the congregation who have talked with our member about what happened are concerned with these findings. The CPD report has a number of discrepancies between the testimony of the police and the account of our church member. The church member's response to the police report is that it was what is to be expected. He now tells us he is not interested in addressing this any longer, and has asked us to not take any further efforts to address his particular situation. We ask everyone in our congregation to respect this congregant's wishes.
To be fair, there's a lot that is maybe not necessarily correct on both ends here. Mr. Huffman reportedly contacted the police to tell them that the church may have had some of the details wrong, and video of the incident does appear to show that is the case.
It's clear that the most wrong person here — at least initially — is the woman who called 911 claiming that Mr. Huffman was literally trying to break into her house and that he had previously robbed her neighbor's house. Which, you know, he hadn't.
In fact, the police officers speaking to Mr. Huffman said that the suspects in the case were 15 or 16 years old. Now, while Mr. Huffman could certainly pass for younger than his 68 years, he's definitely not a high school sophomore. It's clear that the caller was just thinking "Oh, a black man walking on the sidewalk, guess he's here to rob my house."
If the police officers asked for his identification and Social Security number, that is also obviously a problem. That's not shown on the bodycam footage shown, but if that occurred, that is positively bizarre. Why would police need to know anyone's Social Security number?
The most unsettling part of this, however, is that the chief of police literally listed out the names of the church leadership who signed the letter of complaint and demanding they be terminated. For complaining. About the police. That's legitimately scary, and not just in regards to this particular incident. People should be able to register complaints about the police department without having to fear that kind of retribution.
Here's the thing. Let's say the Charlottesville Police Department, in this case, didn't do anything too wrong. Let's say there was a failure to communicate. They still can't really fault people for believing they did do something wrong. In February of this year, a report on racial bias in the Charlottesville Police Department found that it was significant enough to "erode trust among Black residents regarding the justice process."
When you do a thing over and over again, people are going to be a hell of a lot less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. Because they don't trust you and have absolutely no reason to trust you.
The police, in this case, kept talking about how the resident who called the police on Huffman was scared and how the neighborhood was on edge because there had been a number of robberies in the area, and that this is why she called the cops upon seeing Huffman on the sidewalk walking to church. They were able to empathize with her and understand why she might have done that. They told Huffman not to use shortcuts during this time when the neighborhood was "on edge" about the burglaries.
Yet, somehow, they are not able to take their understanding of that situation and figure out that people are "on edge" about the Charlottesville Police Department and therefore might be less than generous with their interpretations of events involving the police and racial bias. They are not able to understand that this distrust may mean that more people may be likely to register complaints about the police department and that discouraging those complaints by publicly pillorying those who make them may not be productive.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse