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Blue Kneels Too

A Conversation with RaShall Brackney

Dr. RaShall Brackney is a recognized expert in community-police relations, procedural and restorative justice practices, and harm reduction. She currently is the Chief of Police in Charlottesville, Virginia. In this episode, Chanda and RaShall talk about how RaShall got into police work, the steps she’s taken to build community trust in her department, and her personal and professional responses to George Floyd’s murder.

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Souphak Kienitz  00:00 

Up next, we have the chief of police in Charlottesville, Virginia, Dr. RaShall Brackney. She is recognized as an expert in the areas of harm reduction, procedural and restorative justice practices, and community police relations. Dr. Brackney earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon, a PhD from Robert Morris, a graduate of the FBI, National Academy, and much, much more. As our host, Chanda puts it, she is Dr. Chief, RaShall Brackney, enjoy the show.  

Chanda Smith Baker  00:47 

Do you prefer RaShall, Doctor, PhD? You got a lot of titles. 

RaShall Brackney  00:55 

Yeah, RaShall is perfectly fine, whatever you’re comfortable with. That makes it easier as I tell people, it’s only I use the titles when I’m trying to make a point and my audience will often pay attention based on the title that I use. If I’m in academic spaces, or you know, an audience is fully scholars who are working on their research in their work. Doctor is the only way they pay attention. If I say chief, they tend to devalue, what I’m saying it’s that it doesn’t have a pedigree or credential behind it. The Commerce occurs in policing, having doctor behind it, or, and not saying Chief, they think I have no credibility because I have no street experience, I don’t understand what it means to be a police officer. So chief brings a very different connotation with it. As to whether or not I have, you know, my voice has value, and it’s interesting, as a black woman, the only way my voice has value sometimes is adding these titles in front of it, right? So before they get to the, you know, Chief Brackney, they’re often confused by the last name the surname like, hmm, doesn’t sound as ethnic as I thought for a woman who’s black, and that’s the one story behind that, but these titles really do have influence in the spaces that we both operated. 

Chanda Smith Baker  02:27 

That’s exactly right. Maybe I should call you Dr. Chief. I’m like, I think I will because like, you know, it’s really impressive, and, you know, I was looking at, and I’m like, thinking about all of the police chiefs I’ve come across and often you’ll come across like a Dr. Reverend. Dr. Reverend, the good Dr. Reverend, you know. The good Dr. Reverend King, the good doctor at record loss, right? Like, I just don’t know if I’ve come across a doctor police chief, with a doctorate? 

RaShall Brackney  03:02 

Yeah, you know, part of the reason I even pursued it, one, the work was interesting to me. But, two, it was interesting, I was, you know, known as a subject matter expert in so many areas, but people don’t pay attention, unless you have a bunch of alphabets behind your name, right? Your lived experience is not enough to be a subject matter expert. A practitioner is not enough to be a subject matter expert, you have to have all these ABCDs and things behind your name for someone to validate the things that you’re saying could possibly be true. How can that be true, unless you, you know, have gone through some sort of rigorous process. But even so the work that I was doing around violence and resiliency strategies for African American men, particularly African American, adolescent, males, in urban communities, so I knew what I was seeing, I could, you know, somehow qualify it in my head, because that’s where I grew up. But how do you quantify that, you know, young black men had these adaption and resiliency strategies in these communities that were actually pretty pro social in that community? They were just anti social once you moved outside of those spaces and boundaries, free so and what was that influence of violence, including police violence, negative encounters on how they navigated those spaces that they call home? So the PhD thing just helped me with that. 

Chanda Smith Baker  04:46 

Yeah, community expertise, lived experience and practitioners and work, do you think that that expertise is beginning to have value in a different way or do you think people are just responding to the anger and organizing that they’re seeing in community and devaluing expertise and responding to anger and organizing? 

RaShall Brackney  05:11 

So it’s probably both, you know, I don’t think these are binaries. This world we live in is never a binary. But I think there’s both but I think in this case, for the first time, there’s more weight given to that that lived experience, right? That rage, that pain, that voice, people’s authentic voices, right, that we’ve always seem to devalue, right. We were comfortable with voices that assimilated. Which is why you will never hear me use words like a diversity, equity and inclusion. Inclusion is nothing more than assimilation into a system or structure or process that you allow me into, right, you allow me into that space. But I think for the first time, we get to reshape with this whole conversation looks like. Because there are enough of us using our voices to say, this is my experience. This is not an outlier. This is the norm. This is who we are when we continue to say this isn’t who we are. Yes, it is. It’s who we are. But now that we’ve pulled back the veil, right, the scales have fallen off our eyes in some ways. Those voices now have relevance, but also they have power that they’ve never really had before. And the power that they have now is how do you back away from what we know to be our ugly history and our truth? And can you afford to be the non woke person? Can you afford to be the slumberer in this current age of accountability, of access, transparency, etc. So even if you don’t want to hear the voices, as I say, to my counterparts, who are often white males, it’s interesting that you now get to be semi woke. It’s interesting that you now have to wake up, and that you been, you know, when your mom used to shake the bed and wake you up, you know, they shake you out of your slumber, me is a, like I said, multi ethnic, who identifies as black. I’ve never had the opportunity, or the luxury, or the leisure to slumber or to nap or not to think about these issues and operationalize in my spaces. How do we address those issues, right? Naps are pretty cool. especially in Charlottesville. I mean, right, now there’s, yeah, I could take a nap right about now. 

Chanda Smith Baker  07:55 

Man. I mean, we’re right in Minneapolis, right in the thick of it, but you know if we could talk about that in two seconds, but for because I think it’s important because you’re in policing, which is pretty white male dominated. From my point of view? That’s how I see it. I think that’s true. Yes. 

RaShall Brackney  08:12 

Yeah. From my point of view, too. Yes, there are 800,000 police, persons law enforcement personnel in the United States. 18,000 different policing agencies. So wrap your head around that 18,000 different policing, of which 12% are women, and 3% are women chiefs. So someone who looks like me, is probably closer to point 0.5%, but it’s ranges between 75 to 80%. white male, across the nation. 

Chanda Smith Baker  08:49 

So as you have entered into the world of police, why did you first of all, why? Why? 

RaShall Brackney  09:02 

You could come right out and say my sister, what were you thinking? What were you thinking? What happened? Let me just tell you how that happened. One, I got a black Mama, and there are rules in black Mama’s house. You either have a job, you go to school, or you get in about here. Yeah. So and my mother, long story just very short is, by the time she was 21, had four children all under the age of four, six kids. I’m one of six, has a GED. My dad had a sixth grade education. So you know, in black community, a good job, a good job was that blue collar job, right? It was that union job and I’m from Pittsburgh, which is a heavily unionized steel community. So those good jobs were police, fire, bus driver, like transit authority of some things like that postal worker. It translated to benefits and a pension and a really good living, and the story is I had just left Carnegie Mellon University and I wasn’t employed, and you know, my mother would bring him all these civil service applications, and you know, as long as you filled out applications, mom was tolerant with mama tolerant, so I’m filling out all these application. I’m just gonna get over because my mom, you know, 21 years old, I’m young, and I think I’m cute, I’ll find some job right. So the first job that caught me was the Pittsburgh Police Department. Now I’ve been nothing about policing had it been in one fight my entire life, had never picked up a weapon. I’m five foot seven, 120 pounds, I ain’t playing with these people. I’m not trying to fight nobody, right? If I’m out there talking, it better be because we date or something. I somehow sail through the policing community, the academy, and I’m doing all this stuff, and then I pick up my first like shotgun and gun, and I’m a good shot. I’m like, this is kind of cool, and then once I hit the streets, I fell in love with everything about what you could be, indeed, and then you also have the encouragement of like my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, and if you know, any of you have black grandmas, you know, when they talk about their grandbabies, lots of pride, you know, and my grandmother was say, you know, God rest her soul. That’s my granddaughter over there. She’s a police officer, you know, they hit that thing, right? Police officer, right? Look at her little tiny self out there doing this thing. So the black community was really supportive of you in and I started in 1984, almost 37 years ago, supportive of you being out in the community, because it represented somebody who had made it into a position of authority, who might have the ability to influence and to help. So I got into it in you know, I thought I was just filling out applications, but 37 years later, that just tells me God just put me in this place in space, that I had nothing to do with that, but that’s how I started and have been in love with what this profession could be. now for 37 years. 

Chanda Smith Baker  12:35 

 Right? Do you still feel like the community supports you and your role? 

RaShall Brackney  12:44 

So you know, what, I think the profession has put the community in a difficult position. We have to have some ownership of this, that the profession has forced people to be silent, when they could be supportive, right, because we’ve not lived up to the values of what policing was intended, out of Europe. We did it very differently here in the United States, you know, policing in Europe was built on the concept that this was a community philosophy in which we all self governed and policed, and that the police were the only group of people who were paid to do, what we all in society should be doing regularly, like policing ourselves, right? Governing ourselves in that way, so the harm that we have done around over policing, black codes, slave patrols, forces community to make these decisions about if I agree with what’s happening here, am I somehow betraying my community, right, because we know the origins from which policing in the United States have come, not just in the south, but in the north, right, where police were formed to break up striking union workers, to protect factory workers, you know, I went to Carnegie Mellon University, they pulled in the Pinkertons, to break up strikes and to kill, you know, folks who were striking at the steel mills of Carnegie and so I’m sorry, frick. So you brought in policing is a very divisive profession from day one. So we forced people to choose and when we’ve not allowed the community in for a co production of public safety, right, when we’ve created a criminal legal system that lacks justice, it’s hard to say I’m going to get on the side of this profession who is the first representation of governments oppression towards a specific type of person, or community. So I understand, you know, I have these conversations in my own house. My husband’s a professor who teaches on African American slavery in lynching, right, and the narratives around that this is a brother from Jackson, Mississippi can you imagine the conversations we have in our house, about, you know, the work that he does, and how that actually helps center and inform what I do. It’s that kind of work that helps me not talk about police reform, because you can’t reform a system that is inherently built on a faulty corrupt foundation. You have to demolish it, and then rebuild it on solid ground that we all agree upon, that speaks to our values of humanity and empathy and justice.  

Chanda Smith Baker  15:47 

I hear that, just to go back a little bit, because I’m looking at sort of your path to becoming a police chief, and I just want to give the audience a sense of so you started with the brochure in your house, and then the, you know, the department calls you, you get out on the street, you like it, and now you just keep moving and you’re developing these certifications and this expertise. Can you just give us a snapshot of what, those certifications and areas of expertise that you’ve gained over your 37 years? 

RaShall Brackney  16:26 

So, yes, so just to be honest, and truthful, my formalized degrees were nothing more than a manifestation of my lived experiences. I mean, that is really what that is whether we, any of us, want to think about that at all. The desires to move up through the ranks, to take the classes that I took, to become a subject matter expert on things like procedure or sort of justice, it’s because that was my lived experience, and then now we got to credential it, right? We get we get to codify that and memorialize it in some sort of, you know, template, in the form of doctorates and programs in 21st Century Policing concepts, right? So they have all informed that, but the pathway there, is one that most people who have felt like an other is very similar. At every step along the way, literally moving up through every single rank in the Pittsburgh police department, taking over them as the George Washington University, and then landing here in Charlottesville as the chief of police here, the pathway for me, was probably very similar, no formal mentors. There’s nobody who looks like you in these spaces and places that you can go to and be safe with. Women don’t naturally mentor each other Why? One, we’re not taught to do that, right? There is a process of learning how to mentor and cultivate people and develop people, and if you don’t see anybody who looks like you in those spaces, how does that happen? In to, there’s nobody in the spaces that can even do that for you. There’s no one there, there might be a someone who’s in the West Coast, that you are trying to look at from afar. So what I actually did is looked at the men who were successful, and saw what some of the routes and pathways they took to get there. And then I started studying my craft and my profession, something we don’t typically do, study your own craft and profession to perfect it. I slowly would take the classes that I saw that were most relevant to the work that I thought we would be doing, but more importantly, the work that we could do, not in the moment, but where we could be, and so I started doing just that, and then I started putting myself in positions where you would have to consider me. I never eliminated myself. I made you eliminate me, and often we don’t do that women don’t take promotional exams, for a lot of reasons. familial, you know, we’re still the primary caretakers of family members. So promotions often mean night shift, weekend work, afternoon work. Our children, they don’t have caregivers, and people can call this sexist or whatever you want, but we still live in a patriarchal society, and whether we acknowledge that or not, right? And so I positioned myself and said, whatever it had to do to to grind, I was going to do that, and then I read a book by Linda Babcock, that’s called Women Don’t Ask, right? If a book basically says women say that the world should look at them, see their credential, see their skill, see their abilities, see that opening and make the natural connection, that they’re the one who were qualified. We don’t go in there and ask for it and say, you know what, I’m interested in that opening. I’m interested in that job. I’m qualified to do that we don’t advocate on our own behalf. Men will do that all the time. There’ll be a job description for the CEO of Google that says, you have to have all of these credentials, and they go this way, they just finished, you know, like community college or and there’s nothing wrong community college, or they’re just finished, like a trade school, and they’re putting in for the CEO that says, you have to have 10 years of progressive experience. They’re like, what do I have to lose? We think that they should seek us right? Because we don’t, we, you see how hard I work. You see, I’m qualified right? There, like put me in coach.  They don’t even got a ball, right? Put me in. So I started looking at how could I position myself where one I would ask, and then two, you’re gonna have to tell me, no, to my face. You can talk about me when I leave, which you probably did, but you don’t have to tell me no to my face. So I took every promotional exam, I prep for those things. I did the work, and I didn’t rely on my agency to develop me. I sought out those classes to develop myself. We currently, even in my agency now, I’ll say, hey, is there a class you’re interested in taking? If I’m not paying for that class, they’re not interested in development? You know that own, what is your responsibility to develop yourself and position yourself. And again, go into those rooms and take up some space, take up some space, I have that conversation with my husband just this morning. I’m not a permission person, I’ll get forgiveness later. We cannot afford to be the mother “May I” on these kinds of issues around policing and criminal legal reform on immigration reform, the more we asked for permission, the more people then will deny you that. So in some ways, you know, I hate to say this, particularly in policing is you’ve got to go rogue on these issues, where you’re looking for social justice reform. Unfortunately, in my profession, though, often, we’ve just gone rogue, and that has been to the detriment of the profession and where we all could be. So don’t eliminate yourself. Eliminate. I’ve been there. 

Chanda Smith Baker  22:29 

I love this story, because I think it just speaks to so many people that have seen themselves as other, that have recognize that they have to over credential, or that their expertise is not seen as equal as other expertise. So you have to do other things to be seen as equal, that’s what we’re talking about, right? 

RaShall Brackney  23:05 

That’s correct, and you know what, if for people who think that oh, silver spoon in their mouth, and that’s how, you know, there were anomalies and the book, Outliers, another really good book to read, for your audience. You know, I went back to get my, to finish my bachelor’s and master’s as a mature woman, you know. I was a single mom with my 13 year old daughter when I was getting my master’s, and I took her to classes with me in the evenings because I was wanting my 13 year old daughter sit at home by ourselves. You in class with me, and I said to the professor’s sorry. You know, when I was doing my PhD, I had women saying PhD before Mrs., and I’m like, I’m old enough to be your mom, I’m not be a teen pregnancy, right?  

Chanda Smith Baker  23:57 

we have a very similar story, except for I had three of them in class with me. Yeah, so you went to the FBI Academy and Karakol, you have? You’ve been the bomb school? I mean, you’ve, you’ve done a lot of things. And I guess what I’m saying here is that in terms of where we sit right now, in terms of reform, because you’ve said a lot of things in terms of I understand. So you’ve touched on the history of police, policing in this country. You’ve touched on the importance of representation of people that look like you both in gender and in community, like lived experience, right? it’s not enough that you just look like me.  

RaShall Brackney  24:43 

It’s not. it’s that just make people off the hook? Right? It’s like, oh, woman, oh, multi ethnic, degreed, check, check, check. They’re like cool. We then met the trifecta.  Another part that is so much more relevant It is it is.  

Chanda Smith Baker  25:01 

And that when you come into those roles, representing a community with lived experience, the sense of connection pride is very different, and having that sort of representation allows for changes to happen and ways, right? You get different information, you’re able to shape different perspectives, right. You’re able to understand the problem from within community because that same mama and grandma, and other mother siblings. 

RaShall Brackney  25:35 

Thats my window, I don’t know if you can hear and now right, go ahead. I’m sorry. 

Chanda Smith Baker  25:40 

Yeah. But I mean, you know, all of you, you have a number of stories about police interactions that shape you, that extend beyond your professional relationships and so one of the things that really caught me in the conversation that I listened to you in, and I swear, I don’t even remember what you said, I remember what it was about, and I remember I liked it, and I’ve thought about it since then went like no, no context, right, other than you reframed the language of use of force policy. Can you share how you’ve done that? 

RaShall Brackney  26:21 

Absolutely, and we even just debut even more things. So there’s language and forms, the way you behave, right? If you think about language, and how powerful language is, I started looking at the the ways in which we engage in our communities, right, and everyone was talking about this use of force wheel right, this force continuum that everyone would have. So if you started out with force using the word force, that means you’ve already thought about the fact that you’re going to have to do something, right? some of those systems that you have around your waist, to engage with someone. It also doesn’t allow you to stop, pause and think about what you’re doing. it becomes this muscle memory response to things. So we started when I arrived here looking at that concept of not calling it use of force, but what is our response to resistance. So response to resistance means I have to then look at something, see what it is occurring, process it and how then I respond to it. That may be with force options, but once I get to be able to analyze it, often, your response is so very different than your reaction, forces, often a reaction and not a response. Framing the language has been extremely important to this, and this kind of segues into what’s occurring in Minneapolis and, you know, the Derek Chauvin case. Here in Charlottesville during the entire summer, I was clear, we did not call this civil unrest, riots or protest. Civil unrest, riot, looting all of that language already positions me to say we bout to have a fight, right? How do you how do you deal with you know, riots, that’s a clash that’s going to occur. From the very beginning. I framed this, we are having rallies, we are having demonstrations, and we are having marches in which people are exercising their first amendment rights to say we are dissatisfied with government, and that first form of government we are dissatisfied with is policing. When you reframe that, then you say who wouldn’t want somebody to be able to support their constitutional rights, to assemble and to demonstrate as a result of that kind of perspective, and coupling with a responding to resistance, right. We didn’t have a single incident here in Charlottesville, all summer long. No windows were broken. No cars were turned, nothing was burned. No officers got hurt. People did not, we didn’t use tasers, deploy OC, pepper ball sprays. There were no riot gear nothing. We had none of that Why? We gave people the places face to be heard and valued. Valued. What that expression was. A dear friend of mine once said and he’s a professor shout out to Professor Jonathan White at Penn State University. Some shout now another brother he once had discussion with my husband and I. He said, think about protest. Protest is the most powerful expression of powerlessness, and when you think about people feeling that they have no power to even over their own humanity and lives, how can you not allow a venue in space for people’s voices to be elevated and heard? So we just pulled back, we created venues for people to have their freedom, and first expressions of first amendment rights. We didn’t have our police cars surrounding when the rallies were occurring, or the marches. I use my public words dump trucks, right, so that if somebody tried to do something, you can take out a dump truck, the police cars were close by, but they’re also not threatening either. When people are surrounded by police vehicles, the likelihood that you have a confrontation, or the temperatures get elevated lights and sirens do something to your body. Why even put anybody in that place? They just allowed it. The only damage was done was twice to my police station, they graffitied it ACA 12, like everybody else, but they didn’t break any windows, they didn’t burn anything down. I’m like, okay, power wash it off. That didn’t always go well with my officers, but power wash it off. Send a summons later to the people who did it. Call it a day. 

Chanda Smith Baker  31:34 

 Do you remember? I know you remember this? I don’t even know why I’m asking the question this way, when you saw the Floyd video. How did you personally react, and then was that different than how you professionally responded? 

RaShall Brackney  31:54 

No, they were the same. They were the same. They were the same, and the and I’m right now like, oh, oh, in the space like, oh, I immediately came out and said, Who, the lack of humanity, right? Do you know how hard it is, and I gave a talk on this to be on your knees and kneel on somebody kneeling is not a natural space for any of us to be in, and I’m low, so my knees are right when I’m getting up and down, kneeling is not natural. That is an intentional act to say to keep my body in this space, intentionally. With the arrogance, and the lack of emotion, that you have somebody down there that means to me, you have been in that kind of position before where you have discarded somebody’s humanity. Somebody cries for help, because you didn’t think they deserved. They didn’t deserve treatment of just dignity and respect, right? So personally, I did that. Then I then I wrote this op ed that I never published just to kind of get it out talking about even my counterparts, who are now kneeling for the first time. When with people who are demonstrating right, and now this is viral photo op. Let me check your Facebook. Three years ago when Colin Kaepernick was kneeling? What was your response then? Not when the media is here now and you’ve got your Black Lives Matter, sign up now. What was your response? Then? What was your response in Milwaukee, in LA, in New York, in Chicago, and Detroit, in Orlando. What was your response, then? Let me tell you what my response was in 2018, 2019, maybe even one I took a knee in full uniform in front of the prior administration leader in chief with 5000 other people around me in who were all in uniform to is a black woman kneeling down saying I will not stand for this, blue kneels too that is a quiet silent protest. I didn’t need lights, camera, action. You don’t get to know I’m glad people are waking up to it. You don’t get to, now claim we’re behind these issues when the spotlight is on. You know what determines whether you believe this and I teach my recruits this, it is quiet, singular, heroic courage that gets the job done. Not the here’s the mic in your face, now we’re all understanding and outraged. Where were your outraged with all the other cases? Not just because the light is glaring at you now, and you better be on the right side of history. The true tale is where were you on that side of history? When your job wasn’t when your job wasn’t on the line? When you put your job on the line? When I went to do that, I’m like, I was still on probation here. I’m like, oh, what if I get fired? Oh, well? Oh, well, you know, so there is so my reaction was visceral, but also I came right out and publicly condemned it. With my mayor and my city manager, like we need to call the homicide of George Floyd, what it is the public execution, what it is, we don’t get to just say the death of George Floyd, right? My grandma died. The death of my grandmother is very different. Somebody dying in their sleep, that call it the homicide, call it the murder, what he is charged with, call it the public execution that we all witnessed. 

Chanda Smith Baker  36:26 

And then what about the angry in air quotes, or was the the people observing his execution angry and hostile? 

RaShall Brackney  36:39 

So here’s the thing, it depends on who’s your definition of angry? Right? Yeah, lucky, they were just angry, and not outraged and not proactive, because there are laws that actually say that you’re allowed to interfere with an officer who is using deadly or excessive force that protects you from doing that. 

Chanda Smith Baker  37:03 

So, but you know, what was sad to me, Dr. Chief, what was sad to me when I watched them was that they were using or they were expressing, there was more, it was horror, and they were trying to intervene in his murder, to the extent in which they could, knowing that they were powerless, because they had been conditioned, and they knew if they did more, they too would be in harm’s way. There is a conditioning that happened that prevented them from even stepping off that sidewalk. All Officer Thao had to do was step towards them. 

RaShall Brackney  37:52 

Remember what happened? They spoke, but you can see the cameras of their phones pulling back when that does a car, right? But so you’re right, we are conditioned, and then often what happens is, when you go to do something, the next thing you know, you’re being charged with interfering, assaulting an officer, and it is hard to come out from underneath those heaps of coal that occur. 

Chanda Smith Baker  38:20 

So with your officers, did you all unpack this scenario at all? Like have you been betting it into training? Are you embedding it into conversations with your sergeants or your lieutenants or your inspectors? 

RaShall Brackney  38:36 

They’re giving more feedback for me. I’m just had two cases, two,  and I’ll be careful because it’s always legal, that I’m careful with my language. I have two officers that are recently separated from my agency for force issues. So you can figure out how they got separated, but they separated? Right. And I did press conferences on it, saying their behavior violated the trust that this community has in that, and here’s the ironic part about it, I have to say, I’m sorry to the community. You want to talk about trauma? Here I am, is a black woman having to say I’m sorry, to the black community for what a two white males did. I’m the one that has to own that. Hmm. So what do we do? We unpack every one of those videos, and say, you tell me what part at what point the officer was legitimate and right. Let’s walk through this because I need to understand your perspective and your lens by which you’re looking at these things. Is it a training issue? I’ve already had the entire visit, you know, the anti defamation league did training for my entire department, civilians and all on implicit bias, but I also said to them, can you please swear ith explicit bias, quit acting like this is all implicit. 

Chanda Smith Baker  40:04 

One more time, can you say that one more time, because I’m not sure everybody listening either caught that or understands the difference, 

RaShall Brackney  40:15 

Right? So we keep settling on that this is all implicit because it makes us feel comfortable, right? To think that maybe we are subconsciously or aren’t aware of our biases. I’ve said to the Anti Defamation League, I don’t want you just to talk about implicit bias, I need you to talk about explicit biases, right? We have them, and I’ve framed it in a way, because as soon as you say implicit bias, people say racist, and then they don’t want to hear your training. They don’t want to hear that this is something that you need to have that you need to be aware of. Right? They’re like, then it becomes no, this isn’t me. So I actually reframe that and said, let me talk to you about how we do this in academia. The first thing that makes any of my scholarship rigorous, is I identify my biases, how they might influence my research, and then I bracket them. That means I am doing rigorous research because I can now see where my blind spots might technically be, or where I might be influenced, subconsciously, right? In the work that I did around resiliency for, you know, the young men in my dissertation, I had to bracket that, you know, when I’m from home communities, literally where I did my work, I’m from I grew up in, I understand how that might look, I might be biased towards it. You know, I understand what that felt like, you know, I grew up on food stamps, I have no shame. The ones with the book, you pull the coupons out, not the ones where you add any semi dignity with a card. I grew up in barber shops, where you still, you know, my brother, when you stuff, pull up the trunk, and you bought Christmas out of somebody’s trunk, including me, I grew up in that community. I understand what it feels like to create underground economies because you don’t have access to mainstream economies, right? So I know what those those lens in which people would look at me through, explicitly. I know because I am the child of a white father, who is Italian and German, whose grandmother paternal grandmother felt comfortable calling us half breeds muds, the N words and everything else, right? Who was, so I have know what that looks like, for people to have explicit biases. So why don’t we just come right on, say it, own it, and then work on it, and if you’re not, so as I tell them here, you can have your implicit biases, but they show up here as an explicit bias. This is a place you won’t find yourself comfortable working at, and slowly we’ve seen that attrition here, where people are like, I’m going to another department, and then we have another finger with that, but.. 

Chanda Smith Baker  43:16 

Exactly, because we need peace officers. So how are you working with your union? How is that going? 

RaShall Brackney  43:26 

Isn’t that kind of nice? I’m happy union here in Virginia. Okay, so that helps. That does help, but they do still have a Police Benevolent Association, right, who can advocate on their behalf for their grievance processes and things of that nature, and but it’s interesting, because I have a very strong union in Pittsburgh. They’re like when the post unionized police departments in the nation, like they unionized in like, 1901, like arbitrary strong unions, and then I did the same things there. 

Chanda Smith Baker  44:02 

So it wasn’t it wasn’t a hindrance from you, to moving and creating the culture you needed to create? 

RaShall Brackney  44:09 

That’s right, because you still have management’s right to manage. You, you know, and here’s the other thing I say too, don’t just blame it on the unions. There is some Mayor or city manager or elected official, who’s on the other side of that negotiating. A union doesn’t get a contract on its own. Some elected official has said, I am willing to let the police, police your community under these conditions and with this contract. So talk to your mayor who signed that and said, Yep, this is the rights we won’t give them. Yep, this is what we’re going to do. Yep, this is how we’re going to allow them to treat our communities. So when you talk about the real power go after who’s the other signatories on those contracts, not just the union president Was it your city manager? Was it your mayor? who signed the other half? Go after them? If you want those contracts changed?  

Chanda Smith Baker  45:08 

And, what about the arbitration process? Do you think that needs any reforming? 

RaShall Brackney  45:13 

Oh, yeah, I mean, it absolutely does need reform around arbitration. I mean, the reason it needs reform is, it’s like any other person, you know, so think about, you know, the work that you do, you may have a contract, um, but it’s not binding, you know, I’ve got a contract, you know, what is not binding with some neutral person then decides, yes. I’m gonna have to get an attorney who hopefully specializes in employment law, and I got a few in case that does happen to me, but, there’s a whole lot of process there. There are protections there that are not afforded anybody else. You know, as I talked to my husband about the words, even tenure, like, you know, what tenure just means. You have a contract, doesn’t mean it’s binding. Lack of tenure means you work in like everybody else, you know, at the will of your employer. There are lots of reasons that unions exist, and I am pro union, right? There are people who work in deplorable conditions, and we need to hold, you know, that capitalist community accountable for how they exploit labor, at the exact same times. There are these type of professions. Were the protections that are being afforded to them are higher than the protections that we are granting the people we serve. 

Chanda Smith Baker  46:40 

Yeah, one of the other things that we, that you touched on was this issue of, of training, but I hear a lot about like, does officer training and officer preparation need to be different? And, you know, do we need to have different policies and procedures in place, and I often think that the, the things that we often see on video are not officers, following the policies, and the procedures that are in place. So that’s number one. And then number two is this idea of creating culture is about what I heard you say what I believe, but part of it is looking at it incident, reviewing it, discussing it, talking about where it could have been different understand how they’re seeing it, providing coaching or advisement because you guys use coaching in different ways than I do. So not coaching scratch, scratch that from the record, but providing feedback, right, yeah, but providing feedback on it, so that you get a sense of how they are seeing the incident. So you know, where you can provide intervention if needed or guidance, right? So that is ongoing, you’re creating a culture of when you are, when you are providing feedback, it’s not in a punitive way. It’s in a way that advances community policing. 

RaShall Brackney  48:08 

So right, so I think of that process, and so again, from Pittsburgh, huge Steeler fan, right? But it was somewhat athletes. You know, what athletes do all the time. They watch tape. They study films, they watch those days, they watch those tapes, their business process, it’s part of their service delivery model, right? It says, We want to win by putting more I’m not a basketball player, my daughter was, but I’m not. But we want more of those baskets, balls in that hoop, right? How is that going to happen? I need to study what I did well, in the previous game, where I may have had some didn’t perform to perfection, or whatever it was I was looking for. But I also looked at the other teams and how they were performing, and then what happens out of that, we create a business process that then informs the culture rate. We hear over and over about people like Jordan or LeBron, they would just sit there at that, that free throw line and just boom, all day long. What they were perfecting, was their business process, and it informed the culture in which they operated, right. So that’s what I’m doing here. I’m creating a culture where you’re looking at your business practices to perfect your business. Our business, whether we like it or not, is not a bottom line if dollars and cents, and then it can be under the conversations of defund and abolish, but our bottom line is, do the communities we serve, do they believe we are legitimate, are they still willing to give us moral and formal authority to police over them and when they’re willing to take that away from us? My bottom line is eroded very quickly. Have you create a culture in which you’re reviewing your performance in a coaching environment in a safe environment to do that. Now, this is one of the places where you don’t want on the job training, to see outcomes. So use what you currently have. We do nothing but body worn camera all day, every day, all day, every day. So pull that, bring the person in and say, hey, and make that so much part of the routine that people aren’t afraid, they just got called into the principal’s office. This is what we do. So when you say, hey, let’s review some tapes, let’s walk through these things. Let’s do this. How could we have improved? And then not only the person who was involved, eventually, what is the whole that shift look like? Let’s all look at this. Because we then start to have dynamics that occur within shifts within units, etc, so that we can get to coaching in the same way that you’re using it, but also in these formalized ways that coaches do on the field or on the court or wherever else that they are. 

Chanda Smith Baker  51:12 

Yeah, the other thing, before we wrap is earlier, you said you can’t reform we have to demolish and rebuild. Can you give us your point of view on that? Because there’s so much around language? And we really set it off here in Minneapolis, in all the ways, all the ways and the deep bond, but can you talk about what you mean about demolish, and how would you rebuild? 

RaShall Brackney  51:38 

Absolutely. So, you know, I don’t use language like, reimagine or reform, right. So when you reimagine you often tap back into or tap back into what you know, and then try and reform it. Right. 

Chanda Smith Baker  51:53 

Okay. So I use the word reimagine. 

RaShall Brackney  51:55 

Yeah, we don’t want to do that, because it always gives us back to the familiar. It’s the imagining, that allows us to create from a very different space. 

Chanda Smith Baker  52:07 

Versus if I dropped the re I’d be in a better place? 

RaShall Brackney  52:10 

We’d be in a better place. How’s that? Here’s how I think about this, as we do this, and this is great, because we just announced this is infrastructure week, for real for real, right? 2.2 million trillion dollars towards infrastructure. How are we going to redo the infrastructure? Well, you can’t just demolish every bridge, and tear it all down, then start from the beginning. Here’s how you do it. You know, Carnegie Mellon is an engineering school. So it influenced me even though I’m a social and decision science person. Think about the roads in Minneapolis, four lane highway, all of us have been subjected to construction, where they put out those orange cones and slowly move us over to another lane, so that we can travel on to why they’re ripping up the other two. That’s what we need to do in the criminal legal system. We need to slowly put the cones up and start ripping away as we’re traveling, because there still has to be some sort of a justice system. I’m hoping that to get us there, and as we start ripping away, what does that look like? That has been what is bail reform look like in terms of rethinking bail’s original intent? We move bail from, hey, will you appear to how can I punish? Right? So ripping away, stripping away those parts of policing that have not served us ie the legalization or the war on drugs, the zero tolerance, the broken windows theories, comstat, all of these things that Bratton is known for and is hailed is, you know, that Stevens is known for in LA. We’ve been talking about what’s coming out of LA right now, but we, we just want to talk about, just no longer holding those things up, and when you have someone who’s saying let’s reimagine this, let’s put the justice in the criminal justice system or the criminal legal system. How do I do it here when I’m already tearing down policies that influence how the officers were operating? If you go on our website right now, you will find stuff that you will not find in any other department. I post every single complaint on there. Oh, you’ll hear people say oh, we can post it. We post here’s the number of complaints received the type of. The day it came in, a summary of the complaint where the allegations were, the day we closed it, every allegation they were accused of, what the finding was, the race and gender of the officer, the race and gender of the person who filed the complaint. And this year, I’m adding corrective action. What was the corrective action we took in relationship to that complaint? That is not heard of, our response to resistance. Every time we use resistance or you know our responses, it’s on our website right now, a summary of that the highest level of force we used in response to resistance, the race and gender of the subject of that, the officer and the highest level, I’ve put them out there. You can see it. Every investigative stuff we do people call stop and frisk, I break it down, officer initiated, non officer, if the officer initiated we go even further. What does that look like? What was the legal outcomes? Why did they stop them? The race and gender of them? There’s so much data on there that my officers like, why are we doing this? I had a community person who was advocating for a Civilian Review Board said she’s only doing this so we won’t have any work. Yay, we sustained 37% of allegations against our officers here. That is huge. The average is somewhere in like 5% that they sustain, and we put it out there to be transparent. We put our charging data out there anything that we can do to make this a system in which you imagine where we get our moral authority from? And that’s how I do it, where do I get it, where I imagine where that comes from? I get it from this community, so they deserve access and transparency to a system in which they are buying in and entrusting me to be a part of. 

Chanda Smith Baker  56:40 

How have, you’ve been there for three years?  

RaShall Brackney  56:43 

It’ll be three years in June. 

Chanda Smith Baker  56:46 

How have they responded to you? Are they starting to understand the benefit of this. 

RaShall Brackney  56:52 

So if you haven’t figured this out, my joke is no break before I’ve been. But you know, let’s just put it this way I’m a black woman in Charlottesville, Virginia. There isn’t a week when I don’t get some email calling me some B word, some C word some N word, but here’s the thing. I am seeing light, because in three years, my hiring practices have changed. So as I introduce people into this community in this culture, here’s what’s acceptable, we put it straight out there, this is the type of agency we are, and if that ain’t working for you, find another agency. You don’t even consider our agency, right? But I think I am hitting some nerves the other day, I was on a call, and it was all of the police leaders who are part of our training academy, and they do this roll call, and as they do, it’s like oh, Charlottesville evermore or whatever. Your chief practice here because we have to count to make sure you have a quorum, right, and, I think two, one of two females, right, but they called another agency that starts with Charlottesville, and you know, folks forget they all have a hot mic, and the person said, I can’t stand her, right? 

Chanda Smith Baker  58:21 

When are people going to learn with microphones? 

RaShall Brackney  58:25 

That’s okay, right? 

Chanda Smith Baker  58:27 

Tell me why. It’s okay. Tell me why. 

RaShall Brackney  58:29 

The voicemail winning. Okay. So I called him I left a voicemail right and said, Hey, this is Chief Brackney from Charlottesville. Why don’t you give me a call, so we can chat about what just happened on this this call? Oh, you can’t stand me. I can’t stand her. Did he call you? I’m gonna let you sit on that marinate on that wall for a minute. Right? So when I say it’s okay, because sometimes you need to know exactly what you’re facing. As I tell people, if you are an MSNBC person, turn on Fox. Occasionally turn on Fox, if you’re a Fox person, occasionally turn on CNN. If you are CNN person, turn on public access, because you really do need to know the enemy that you’re fighting. You need to understand what they’re thinking. So that’s why it’s okay, not what he said, but I’m like hot mic all day long boo, and I just hear back from him and won’t hear back from me, right and you are chief of police as my grandma would have said. 

Chanda Smith Baker  59:43 

So police does responsible for accountability. That is something right there, but I think that where you just said is I think the importance of what, what we are attempting to do and I think our role is as the Community Foundation is even in this big conversation we’re having around policing in our city, that we find people that are on the abolitionist side, to people that are in reform, to people that are fighting this someone, I can’t say we’re fighting people, that kind of stuff. There’s no one that I know that it’s kind of status quo. Everyone’s on board with some change, right? So there’s sort of a continuum of things, but we think it’s important to have sort of these public debates and discussion, and to have people understand it from all the sides. But it’s challenging to get people to be at the table with people that are on the side different than theirs. 

RaShall Brackney  1:00:41 

Right. So you know, and to that I say, all the time, then if they won’t come to the table, we either take the table to them, or we build a new table, and start all over with what it could what it could, imagining what it really could be like, to have a conversation. So I’m glad that this space is being opened up, because there is room for somebody like me, and it isn’t a you know, it’s not a dichotomy. You know, when we say Black Lives Matter, that is who I am, right, and my black life matters, in this space wearing this uniform. but so does all my sisters and my brothers with an A on the end of it, and my cousins and my husband, and you know, I don’t want to have to scream at the top of my lungs, that their black life matters, and even bringing it back to your space. All of those witnesses to the murder of George Floyd was screaming, his black life mattered. The problem is, until we are proactive, and taking a stance, it’s going to fall on deaf ears. It is just going to fall on deaf ears, and it requires all of us elevating those voices, who are trying to do the work. I’m not gonna get this right every day and trust and believe. I’m not going to get this right every day, and making this system bend to the will of the people. That’s what it’s supposed to be when we talk about bending to the arc of justice. That’s what this is supposed to be about, and I’m just glad you were willing to have me on, for the short moments of time that we’ve been able to spend together. 

Chanda Smith Baker  1:02:46 

I appreciate you I started out saying that I appreciate you even more after spending time with you. I am encouraged by you, because I think that there is a level of boldness that people are expressing a desire to go, but they don’t have the articulation of it, and I think there’s so much cautiousness of like, not wanting to do the wrong thing that people just aren’t ready to do the right thing, and we’ve got to get out of this gridlock, and you know, I’m really super impressed and inspired by, by what you’re leading into how you’re communicating the boldness, the boldness, and you know, I’m here for all of it, and I am going to make my way there at some point and I’ll be all over your website and sharing it. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us, and I hope you have a fantastic weekend, Easter weekend. 

RaShall Brackney  1:03:45 

Thank you, thank you so much, and I need to come out there as well. So I look forward to when there’s an opportunity for us to be in space together, and until that time be well keep me this community in prayer and uplifted and I will do the same for your communities. 

Souphak Kienitz  1:04:05 

That’s Dr. RaShall Brackney and our host Chanda Smith Baker, and stay tuned to our upcoming special mini series on racial justice in the month of May, featuring Jelani Cobb, an award winning writer for The New Yorker, Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, a senior pastor of Trinity Church of Christ in Chicago, Deborah Archer from ACLU and the family of George Floyd, Angela Harrelson and Paris Stevens. Thank you to Sarah Gillund for making her artwork and copy for this episode, and thank you to Darlynn Benjamin for coordinating and making this conversation happen. If you like this episode, you can tweet Chanda @ChandaSBaker and let her know, and if you really want to say thank you, please leave us a review and follow us wherever you get your podcast. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis foundation. Thanks for listening. 

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About Our Guest

RaShall Brackney

Prior to her appointment as the Chief of Police in Charlottesville, Virginia, Dr. RaShall M. Brackney retired after 30 years with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. Additionally, she served as the Chief of Police for the George Washington University.

Dr. Brackney is a recognized expert in the areas of harm reduction, procedural and restorative justice practices, and community-police relations. Additionally, as a result of her work in social and racial justice, Dr. Brackney was granted a fellowship to Carnegie-Mellon University’s, Institute for Politics and Strategy where she specializes in the influence of race on politics and policy.

Dr. Brackney earned Bachelors and Masters Degrees from Carnegie-Mellon University and a Ph.D. from Robert Morris University. Dr. Brackney is a graduate of the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, the United States Secret Service Dignitary Protection course in Washington, D.C., and Leadership Pittsburgh XIX