The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She became mayor to reform Charlottesville. After her police chief was fired, she’s calling it quits, too.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker poses for a portrait at the Westhaven public housing complex in March. She announced on Sept. 8 that she would not be running for reelection. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article said Nikuyah Walker had been investigated for using her city credit card to buy gift cards for residents who spoke at City Council meetings. In fact, she was investigated for using the card to buy gift cards for residents who participated in city-run events and to donate to the nonprofit of an activist who presented before a City Council meeting. This article has been corrected.

Nikuyah Walker and RaShall M. Brackney rose to two of Charlottesville’s top posts within months of each other, promising to shake up the city as its first Black female mayor and police chief, respectively.

Walker, who was first elected to the City Council in 2017, pushed a racial equity platform after white supremacists had descended on the college town for the deadly “Unite the Right” rally earlier that year. Brackney, a champion of community policing, was brought on the following spring to reform the city’s department.

But just over three years later, both are leaving their posts.

Brackney, who had recently dismissed several officers accused of misconduct and been criticized by the local police union, was fired by the city manager last week with little immediate explanation. Walker said it was that incident — and the lack of answers surrounding the firing — that pushed her to a breaking point, prompting her to withdraw from her reelection campaign.

“If this is how a local government is going to operate, the work that I was elected to do isn’t even possible,” said Walker, the first independent elected in Charlottesville since the 1940s. “They fired her for doing what exactly she was hired to do, and they can’t give an answer as to why.”

The situation, she said, points to a challenge for policing changes that echoes far beyond central Virginia: Cities like hers can elect candidates with bold plans and appoint law enforcement leaders committed to sweeping change. But without the support of their staffers and fellow lawmakers, Walker noted, those officials are set up to fail.

Charlottesville mayor says graphic poem illustrates Black experience in city

A political newcomer, Walker ran on the slogan “Unmasking the Illusion,” promising to expose and fight systemic racism in Charlottesville. She openly criticized the city’s handling of the “Unite the Right” rally and rejected the idea, particularly from some White residents, that the city itself was not racist.

The five-member City Council, which chooses the city’s mayor, chose Walker twice — once shortly after she began serving on the council in January 2018 and another time two years later.

Once in office, Walker said she faced constant opposition in implementing some of her racial equity goals. She spent three years unsuccessfully pushing to create a city office that would evaluate city-funded programs run by nonprofits. A prison reentry initiative called Home to Hope drew frequent pushback from city employees, she said, because she designed it to be run by formerly incarcerated staffers.

Walker also attracted plenty of scrutiny for other matters. Local prosecutors investigated her for improper use of her city credit card, though no charges were issued. Earlier this year, she drew headlines — and some calls to resign — for tweeting out a graphic poem that compared the “beautiful-ugly” college town to a rapist.

Some of her fellow lawmakers on the council — which aside from her is composed of all White Democrats — called Walker a divisive force. They placed blame on her for an unusual amount of turnover, including the departure of two city managers.

But Walker said that her constant focus on racial equity was necessary to upend racism in Charlottesville’s policies, particularly for its Black residents.

“Some of our staff members will go home every day and bang their heads against the front door from being in meetings with me, but that doesn’t change the system,” Walker said. “I have spent time every day trying to convince people there is racism in our city government. People’s lives are not going to change as long as that is the case.”

In graphic poem, Charlottesville mayor compares her city to a rapist

Brackney, who previously led campus police at George Washington University, was appointed in 2018 and vowed to change the warrior mentality” present in the Charlottesville police agency and improve ties with Black residents. As of this month, she was the only Black woman and one of just 13 Black officers on a force of more than 100 people.

She put detailed breakdowns on detentions, use of force and other police practices online for residents and the broader public to see, and hired a Fourth Amendment analyst to regularly review body-camera footage. Most notably, she fired at least seven officers who had been accused of misconduct.

In one instance, a rookie White officer was terminated in March after he wrestled and handcuffed a Black man who had been leaving the hospital, giving him a back injury and concussion. An internal investigation later determined it was an unlawful search and arrest.

Brackney also disbanded the city’s SWAT team, firing at least one officer and prompting another to quit, after internal probes found video of the team’s members simulating sex acts, complaining about the department and letting their children fire police-issued weapons.

Her discipline measures upset the police union, which — like many of its peer groups in much bigger metro areas — has resisted some of the policing overhaul measures sweeping the country, particularly after racial-justice protests in 2020.

In an Aug. 10 letter to Walker, the local chapter of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association declared that officers had lost faith in Brackney.

“The men and women of the Charlottesville City Police Department are hurting,” wrote Mike Wells, president of the PBA’s Central Virginia chapter, adding: “I ask that you question whether you have the right Chief of Police to deliver this department through its current crisis and to repair the damage that has been caused.”

He also included data from an internal survey of 65 police employees, many of whom expressed concerns with Brackney’s leadership. A majority said that she made them feel insecure in their careers and that she didn’t have the best interests of the department in mind.

Walker, a close ally of the police chief, did not budge. But the same was not true of City Manager Chip Boyles.

On Sept. 1, Boyles announced he would be firing Brackney. He added that the city’s assistant police chief, James Mooney — who had been set to retire this month — would stay in his post and temporarily take over the department’s leadership.

And in a new release two days later, he suggested that Brackney had failed to form the positive ties necessary to undertake a culture shift on the force.

“In order to dismantle systemic racism and eliminate police violence and misconduct in Charlottesville, we need a leader who is not only knowledgeable in that work,” Boyles said, “but also is effective building collaborative relationships with the community, the department, and the team at City Hall.”

Brackney declined to comment, and Boyles did not respond to requests for an interview.

Charlottesville City Council members talked through the abrupt firing during a closed session Tuesday. When Walker moved to bring the topic up for public discussion, however, none of her colleagues seconded that motion.

The next day, Walker announced on Facebook that she would not be running for reelection in November and condemned what she said were racist actions from her fellow lawmakers. Two of them, including council member Lloyd Snook, “have been consistent advocates of white is right, white power and the power of whiteness,” she wrote.

Snook said he chose not to second Walker’s motion because he wanted to be careful about discussing personnel issues — both Brackney’s and the officers she fired — in an open forum.

“What I don’t want to have is for us to waltz into a public discussion fraught with all kinds of legal issues about what we can and cannot say,” he said.

Snook added that he would like to raise the topic in open session, noting that Brackney’s reform approach was the right one but had hit its own speed bumps.

“I applaud the direction she was trying to go in,” he said. “We just have to do it better.”