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Opinion/Editorial: State police use of cars draws ire

Opinion/Editorial: State police use of cars draws ire

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How ironic that a Charlottesville march in support of “defunding” the police should, in fact, be partly policed by state troopers decked out in riot gear — seemingly illustrating one of critics’ general complaints about overpolicing.

And how embarrassing for some of Charlottesville’s top officials not to know anything about those troopers’ use of city vehicles.

Now, let’s not be overly alarmist. Coordination among local police departments, which was in effect for the June 13 march, is not uncommon. Indeed, the ability for Charlottesville, Albemarle County and University of Virginia police to cooperate smoothly and seamlessly is of benefit to residents in this three-jurisdiction area that operates as one community.

Nor is it unusual to call in the Virginia State Police for big events. The June 13 march could have been seen as just such an affair — or at least as something that might grow into an event needing extra policing.

That’s apparently what UVa Chief Tim Longo thought, anyway. Mr. Longo — a former chief of police for Charlottesville — was leader of the three-department unified command, and he contacted state police, a city press release indicated several days later. A unified command requires each department to confirm its involvement. It also automatically involves state police, Mayor Nikuyah Walker explained.

The protest started on university property but was expected to move into the city, which it did.

Protesters blocked a major intersection for some two hours, but the march did not escalate into violence.

That might have been the end of it had not a city planning commissioner challenged City Council during its June 15 virtual meeting to explain why state troopers were driving city vehicles, staging their activities at Vinegar Hill, and “[preparing] to disrupt the protest.”

Vinegar Hill is the site of a former Black community that was razed in the 1960s for urban renewal. The loss of homes and businesses has generated a legitimate sense of betrayal among many in the African American community.

The City Yard, where city vehicles are stored and maintenance buildings are situated, is located on that hill.

Using it as a police staging area could have exacerbated resentment of the police.

However, there is no indication that state police were intending to disrupt the protest, as long as it remained peaceful.

When the question of VSP’s use of city vehicles first was brought up, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said: “I don’t have any knowledge of any state troopers driving city cars. They didn’t have our vehicles and don’t have our vehicles.”

The first part of that statement was true; the second turned out not to be.

Photos supplied by Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg clearly show state police officers in city vehicles remarked for the purpose.

The City Council, City Manager Tarron Richardson and Police Chief Brackney released a joint statement on June 18 confirming that.

Use of the vehicles was approved by “a Charlottesville police department officer responsible for transportation and logistics.”

Sounds as if the officer was authorized by his position to make that decision. Under other circumstances, this might have been a routine matter, not even worth reporting up the chain of command — much less getting permission.

But these are exceptional times, in which new demands are being made and old precedents no longer serve. This very circumstance, though, can make it difficult to determine right action and predict results.

However, government agencies — including police departments — must attempt to anticipate such problems by broadening their vision about the nature of their service to their communities.

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