Virginia’s Brackney embraces challenge of new role
By Dan Campana
Two months into her work as police chief in Charlottesville, Virginia, RaShall Brackney sees opportunity where others might believe all to be lost.
Mindful of the national and international scrutiny beset on her department since the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally turned into a flashpoint for conflict in the community of approximately 47,000, Brackney stepped into her new role on June 18 with three decades of law enforcement, and life, experience to take on the challenge of rebuilding the relationship between police and residents.
“There isn’t a single person who hasn’t asked me, ‘Why Charlottesville? Couldn’t you find a nice cushy job somewhere else?’” Brackney said. “Not a day goes by in which some media outlet does not reference Charlottesville and the events of last summer. If you enter Charlottesville into a search engine the city is immediately associated with the Unite the Right rally, violent images, racism, white nationalist, hate and the death of Heather Heyer.
“Protestors chant, ‘Cops and Klan go hand and hand,’ while others hold up signs at city council meetings accusing officers of police brutality and racism. At first glance, all appears lost, but here I see an opportunity. And so do our officers. We have the opportunity to redirect the conversation and reshape the national narrative about Charlottesville and its resiliency,” Brackney explained.
This – law enforcement – isn’t where, in her formative years, Brackney would expect to find herself. She envisioned being a prosecutor or a judge or in academia. She didn’t know any police officers or never even had contact with one. Her only perspectives on the police world came through TV shows such as Barney Miller, Hill Street Blues, Charlie’s Angels and The Rookies.
“When my mother brought home an application for (the) Pittsburgh (police department), I laughed. As I filled out the application, my goal was to be employed and to get my mother off my back,” Brackney recalled.
She spent 30 years with Pittsburgh police, a span that included two instances of turbulence related to police brutality lawsuits. Those cases rank among moments she believes defined her career and exemplified her as a person who holds herself to the highest standards no matter the criticism.
“In each case, the City of Pittsburgh, based on policing practices, was identified as a defendant. In both cases, I was called to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs,” she explained. “The community indicated that regardless of my position as a police commander, and my pride in my profession, I would be completely transparent holding myself and the department to the highest standards.
“I indicated to our department, if we do not perform to excellence then we need to ‘own it’ and do what is right. Owning when we do not perform to excellence is imperative to restoring police legitimacy,” Brackney offered.
Leadership qualities have always been important to Brackney, but advancing through the ranks wasn’t something she gave much thought to because the majority of the supervisors she encountered weren’t role models worth emulating, she said. Two mentors helped uncover her leadership potential.
“What was so interesting is both were males, and both were white. One of them was James LaPaglia, now deceased, who was the former Chief of Police at Carnegie-Mellon University, my alma mater,” Brackney said. “Chief LaPaglia pushed me to be a better person and a better leader. It was through his mentorship I discovered my leadership style and potential. Jim pushed me to be a better communicator, instructor, leader and human being.”
Brackney retired from Pittsburgh and, in 2015, became chief at George Washington University, where she served until taking the helm in Charlottesville. With a glowing resume filled with academic degrees, law enforcement awards and contributions to the community which go well beyond the badge, the question of why Charlottesville persists.
“I believe we were led here. My husband is a professor at George Mason University with a focus on slavery. My dissertation focused on adaptation strategies for African-American adolescents in violent communities, and I have been advocate of criminal justice reform for decades,” Brackney said. “Charlottesville provided the perfect opportunity to really do the work I love … combining law enforcement best practices and genuine, community engagement.”
How that happens isn’t complicated, nor is the road map to success for her department.
“My message has been simple: we strive for excellence and professionalism. We police behaviors, not ideology. And we do not violate the community’s trust, period!” Brackney offers. “Based on my approach, officers will either adopt the philosophy or decide this is not a place that aligns with their beliefs about policing.”
Through it all, wearing the badge remains an honor. She recognizes how it – and the work it involves – represents her personally and professionally.
“I cannot fail this profession or those who look to me as a role model,” Brackney said.
With so much time invested in her career, Brackney playfully scoffs at a question about the imprint she hopes to leave behind when she retires.
“Time to retire, what’s that? I retired once and here I am again,” she replied. “I hope my legacy is one that championed value and voice to vulnerable populations. I also want to be known as a professional who refused to institute practices that contributed harm to the communities I served.”
Read the entire 50 Badges series here.