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Charlottesville Police Chief On Nationwide Protests


We're going to stay in Charlottesville for a few more minutes. Although the protests around the country right now have a different focus than the ones in Charlottesville nearly three years ago, at the core of both are race and how law enforcement and their tactics are deeply connected to this country's history of racial inequality. But that sometimes misses how many law enforcement officers are people of color. While law enforcement officers in the U.S. remain overwhelmingly white, officers of color have taken key positions of responsibility, including places that have seen the kind of unrest taking place now.

One of those officers is RaShall Brackney, chief of the Charlottesville Police Department in Charlottesville, Va. Charlottesville, as we have discussed, was the scene of ugly clashes between white nationalist, neo-Nazis and counterdemonstrators almost three years ago. A subsequent report heavily criticized the law enforcement agencies involved for lack of preparation and an inadequate response. Chief Brackney came on the job a year after those traumatic events while the city was still recovering. And she is with us now to give us her thoughts about the present moment. Chief Brackney, thanks so much for joining us.

RASHALL BRACKNEY: Thank you for having me. I appreciate you.

MARTIN: First of all, I just wanted to ask both as a sworn officer, you've been in law enforcement for - what? - more than 30 years now and also as a woman of color, I believe you identify as African American. I just want to know what went through your mind when you saw that video of the officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck.

BRACKNEY: I was horrified as I looked at it and saw - and started to contrast what I saw more than four years ago with Colin Kaepernick kneeling and then this as we were witnessing what appeared to be a public execution in the exact same manner in which someone was publicly protesting. Kneeling is a very reflective position, but it's also a position that's not natural to us. So as I'm watching it in horror, you would almost instinctively want to stand up versus staying in a kneeling position. And then when I saw the comforting and the cavalier way in which Chauvin was doing that with his hands in his pocket in almost defiance as he looked out into the public and those persons surrounding him. It was absolute horror thinking that this could be my nephew, my husband, my brother, my family members, my cousins and my brothers with a (unintelligible) on the end of it.

MARTIN: You put out a statement condemning it, you and other city leaders in Charlottesville. Why did you feel that was important to do?

BRACKNEY: At some point, we need to start amplifying the voices of those persons, of those police leaders, of those black leaders who are in law enforcement and policing who've been pushing back against police violence. It was important for me to say that this was a bloodstain on the badge. Officers are often told never to tarnish their badge by having some sort of integrity violation or criminal violation. This is beyond a tarnishing. This is a bloodstain that would never ever be able to be washed off our collective badges. And that particular department as well as that former officer - I won't dignify him by calling him a former officer. I think we need to just call him exactly what he is, an accused defendant in a murder case.

MARTIN: Looking up the data here, there's somewhere between - it's not quite clear because there's always a lag between census data sort of in the current moment. But it's somewhere between, say, law enforcement officers - generally, it's somewhere between 64% and 77% percent of - are white. It's - by one report I read, there's - only 3% of police officers across the country are black women. So you are a minority within a minority within a minority. And I take it that you - it's not been an easy position to be in. I'll just put it that way.

BRACKNEY: You're absolutely right. It's challenging. And then I would just add that statistic even further. When there's minority women, black women who are in policing, if that's 3% - those of us who are in chief positions, the ability to influence and create policy in the implementation of the policies, not just enough to have it on paper, how that is then being socialized out and cascaded down into your - into those officers. It is extremely challenging. It is extremely difficult. And it can be lonely.

And policing is typically averaging about 77% white male. So it's not just white; it's white male. So these numbers, when you start to reflect on them, indicate that, you know, we're not reflective of the communities. But then we have this outcry that they want reflection of the communities. But then when that is attempting to occur, those communities push back, right? It's very often that we hear someone calling a police officer who's black a snitch, an Uncle Tom, a traitor. Turn your backs on them. But the only way you change a system is you disrupt it from the inside out. It is very hard to do that if you're not inside of the system.

MARTIN: I see that you've been kind of pushing back on the police-civilian review board that has been recently appointed in Charlottesville, you know? Why is that? I mean, this is one of those reforms that people think will improve things.

BRACKNEY: What I push back on is that these boards must be well-trained. They must be fair, impartial and not biased. And, unfortunately, I don't know if the foundations were properly put in place or were even - if there was a consideration of the type of input that might need to be - to set up a really robust and, really, a legitimate CRB.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Chief - and, again, this is a really deep conversation. It's more than one conversation. So, you know, I hope we'll talk again. How are things in the current moment? I mean, you're seeing these protests all across the country. There have been protests in Charlottesville. Do you think this is making a difference in some way? And if so, in what way?

BRACKNEY: So absolutely. I agree. As a matter of fact, I keep reframing that this is not protests. This is civil discourse. And when you move it from protest to civil discourse, it adds legitimacy as to why people are out here and what they want to have done, right? It also changes the way in which our officers should be engaging with them. If you use words like riot, if you use words like protest, if you use words like civil disobedience and civil unrest, it already sets the mindset of how you would engage any of our citizens who were out there. This is not civil unrest. This is not rioting in a negative way. It is very much a sea wave of individuals saying that we are no longer going to accept how we've been treated as black Americans under a policing system to police the way that they've been policing in the past.

MARTIN: That's RaShall Brackney. She's chief of the Charlottesville Police Department in Charlottesville, Va. Chief Brackney, thanks so much for talking to us today.

BRACKNEY: Thank you so much. And stay well and stay healthy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.