Between 2002 and 2004, long before Charlottesville made national news for a far-right rally in 2017, and years before the peak of stop-and-frisk in New York and other cities, the Virginia city implemented a “DNA dragnet” that swept up nearly 200 Black men.
After a serial rapist, who first struck in 1997, brutally assaulted a victim in November 2002, Charlottesville police became increasingly desperate to catch the suspect. They had his DNA but were short on leads, and physical descriptions given by victims varied; they knew only that he was a Black man. So, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo authorized a policy whereby officers could approach Black men that they felt matched the extremely broad description and request DNA samples. Over the next two years, the names of targets were kept in a running master suspect list maintained by the department.
In April 2004, the dragnet was halted after press coverage joined with community outcry over allegations of racial profiling and police harassment. The dragnet never identified the serial rapist — who was instead apprehended after being recognized in public by a victim in 2007 — and the city pledged to narrow its focus. Longo remained as Charlottesville police chief and served until 2016.
An independent review of the dragnet by The Intercept reveals that it was larger in scope than previously reported. According to interviews of current and former local officials and internal records previously filed in court by the Charlottesville Police Department and obtained by The Intercept, the Albemarle County Police Department and the University Police Department at the University of Virginia collected buccal, or cheek, swabs alongside CPD, with UPD even sharing students’ personal information in the process.
In an email to The Intercept, ACPD spokesperson Abbey Stumpf denied that the department was involved in the dragnet, though she acknowledged that buccal swabs “could have been consensually obtained” by ACPD and that “ACPD collected DNA samples during the course of investigations and compared them to the database if there was a similar MO to other cases.” UVA did not respond to questions about UPD’s role in the dragnet.
Notably, CPD records contradict Longo’s previous suggestions that the swabbing of Black men was tightly controlled. As Longo told the Washington Post, “There’s this picture out there that hundreds of people have had a Q-tip stuck in their mouths, and that ain’t it.” In one case, CPD records show that a man had been approached on two separate occasions for a swab, only for police to later note that he “does not fit the general description of the suspect. He appears to weigh at least 250 pounds with [sic] very round face and abdomen.” The Intercept’s reporting also sheds light on the limited recourse the legal system can offer for victims of alleged racial discrimination, as local resident Larry Monroe discovered after suing the city for being targeted in the dragnet. (Documents from his lawsuit provided the foundation for The Intercept’s reporting.)
The dragnet remains infamous among longtime residents of Charlottesville, a city with a history of racially biased policing as well as current issues of segregation and racially disproportionate stop-and-frisks. In 2018, Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker sharply criticized Longo when asked for her reaction to Virginia adding new categories of mandatory DNA registration for criminal convictions. Walker replied that the basis of the law is racist, pointing to Charlottesville’s dark history of DNA collection. “Charlottesville is the locality that helped fuel that,” she said. “The chief of police at the time, Chief Longo, thought that it was OK to round Black men up and take their DNA samples to see if they had been the individuals who had committed a crime.”
Many community members were concerned when the University of Virginia announced on February 13, 2020 that Longo had been formally appointed to lead its public safety services. “I was very surprised that Longo surfaced as the chief of the University Police Department,” M. Rick Turner, UVA’s former dean of African-American affairs, told The Intercept.
In response to a detailed list of questions about Longo’s hiring process and whether the university evaluated concerns related to these events and others, UVA spokesperson Brian Coy confirmed that the university examined Longo’s record, writing, “[Longo’s] service in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area and his commitment to building positive relationships with the community made him the right candidate for the post.”
Coy also referenced the recent upheaval over policing in America, stating that Longo was the right person to guide the university through it. “There are many valid viewpoints and concerns about the proper role of policing [in] our society and we have a responsibility to ensure that our approach is responsive to the needs of our community,” Coy wrote. “That is a key part of the reason the University hired Tim Longo as the Associate Vice President of Safety and Security and Chief of Police. Throughout his career, Chief Longo has demonstrated the leadership and personal character necessary to keep our community safe in a way that reflects the University’s core values of justice and equality.”
In a statement to The Intercept, Longo wrote, “As our efforts to collect DNA samples were underway, I heard from many members of the Black community in this area that the policy was overinclusive and ineffective. Through these conversations, I recognized that the policy impacted our relationship with that community in a negative way and took steps to correct our initial mistake.” Longo added, “I regret allowing it to take place as it did – it was wrong, and I am sorry. Since then, I have tried my best to listen and I have tried hard to rebuild relationships and to restore trust where it may have been lost.”
The old guard of law enforcement still has sway in Charlottesville and particularly at UVA, a behemoth institution that looms large over local issues. “Longo is popular with white people in the community as a police officer,” Turner told The Intercept, adding that “Black students and Black alumni should be alarmed that a police chief from the ranks of Charlottesville is now elevated” at UVA.
When news broke of the DNA dragnet, which was first reported by the local outlet The Hook in July 2003 and nearly a year later by national outlets like the Washington Post, the program was swiftly condemned by the community. Over the course of the dragnet, according to internal records later filed in court by CPD that have not previously been reported, police swabbed 197 men. CPD meticulously tracked every swab collected, with each assigned an individual custody record, and kept note of those who refused to be swabbed. At the time, Longo rebuked allegations of racial profiling, stressing that “We weren’t approaching and accosting Black men on the street.”
The Intercept reviewed 30 cases in which individuals refused a swab, and CPD internal records from these stops tell a different story. The documents demonstrate that police often exerted minimal effort to narrowly target suspects and frequently accosted Black men on the street, contrary to Longo’s claims. In some cases, police attempted to swab men who they later found out were already in the state’s DNA database or would soon be added for separate criminal offenses; in others, men who were approached for a swab were later ruled out for not fitting the description. Some attempted swabs even came from traffic stops. Others were approached for a swab only for Charlottesville police to subsequently discover that they were in jail the day of an assault by the serial rapist.
Police stressed that all swabs were obtained on a voluntary basis. But many residents expressed that they did not feel they had much of a choice, considering several were approached at home or their places of work. CPD records also reveal several instances in which officers would repeatedly press those who refused requests for swabs on separate occasions. “Approached again,” one form notes, subsequently reading, “again declined.” According to CPD court filings, of the 30 men who initially refused to be swabbed, nine would later relent.
These internal records also raise questions about the nature of the stops CPD conducted to obtain swabs. After one resident refused a swab, a form reads that he was stopped by police once again and “arrested for [Drunk in Public],” noting, “DNA sample obtained.”
“When you see the apparent involvement of patrol-level officers in actually making contacts and collecting samples, that’s a danger signal.”
One resident arrived at the police department furious after having been asked for a swab, asserting, “I’m not the fucking rapist.” But Charlottesville police did not seem too concerned, since “He really looked like too much of a ‘crackhead’ to be the rapist.” After another man refused a request for a swab, an officer noted that “He is well spoken.” A composite sketch released by Charlottesville police claimed that the serial rapist had “unnaturally white” or “slightly bulging eyes.” This description was apparently enough to motivate one officer out on patrol to stop a man on the street and later write in a field contact card, “Suspect kept looking back as I went by,” adding, “Person [sic] eyes look big!” The man refused a swab, though he relented after being approached again.
One former Charlottesville police officer, Curtis Brandon, told The Intercept that the dragnet became a source of anxiety for many Black men in Charlottesville. “I feel like if I wasn’t an officer and I was outside jogging,” Brandon said, “they probably would have stopped me.”
Charlottesville police were also given greater leeway to swab suspects than previously known. Though previous press reports discuss that a multi-jurisdictional team was established to identify the serial rapist, the widespread involvement of CPD officers outside this task force, as well as those of other departments, in swabbing residents has not been reported. Over 40 CPD officers, including patrol officers, collected swabs at different points during the dragnet, an analysis of buccal swab custody records shows.
Dave Chapman, the commonwealth’s attorney for Charlottesville at the time of the dragnet, told The Intercept, “When you see the apparent involvement of patrol-level officers in actually making contacts and collecting samples, that’s a danger signal,” reasoning that “the methodology, the strategy that’s being followed isn’t adequately well-supervised.” Concerning the nature of the stops, he said, “It is well-known and it’s true to this very day that when an officer is approaching a citizen, there is a different power dynamic. It’s not equal. That’s a reality.”
Whereas previous reporting of the dragnet centered on Charlottesville police, records reveal that University and Albemarle County police officers swabbed residents as well. According to a list of all swabs compiled by CPD and reviewed by The Intercept, CPD swabbed 167 men, UPD swabbed 21, and ACPD swabbed nine, bringing the total number of men stopped in the dragnet to at least 218, since 21 of the 30 men who initially refused never ended up providing a swab. (Longo previously told the Washington Post in April 2004 that 197 men had been stopped in the dragnet and 10 refused a swab.)
University and Charlottesville police closely coordinated to surveil and swab Black men, particularly after attacks near UVA’s campus prompted officers to patrol the area. “Uva obtained Gatorade bottle and submitted to lab,” a CPD officer noted. “We will continue to attempt swabs.” Sometimes CPD referred an individual to UPD after trying and failing to obtain a swab. Other times CPD notified UPD to swab residents who would travel through UPD’s jurisdiction. In many cases, UPD would share information with CPD to target men for swabs.
UPD also divulged UVA students’ personal information to other departments in the process. After one man refused a swab, CPD noted that UPD “advised subject is a student and should be returning in AUG [sic] to begin his 4th year.” UPD also “reported that he did not live at [address redacted], according to their records.” The student, who had previously refused, evidently later complied with another request for a swab, since CPD remarked “DNA sample obtained.” (If this student was a fourth-year undergraduate as the document suggests, this particular stop also speaks to a lack of narrow criteria, since the serial rapist had first struck in 1997, likely before the student would have arrived in Charlottesville.)
Turner, the former UVA dean, told The Intercept that close to a dozen students approached him about being targeted by the police for a swab. Turner and other community leaders spoke out, eventually prompting a meeting in April 2004 on UVA’s campus where the tactics of the dragnet were denounced. Within days, Longo agreed to scale the dragnet back, bringing it to a halt.
During the dragnet’s operation, a university commission formed by former university President John T. Casteen was studying how to improve diversity and equity, but a UVA official with direct knowledge of the commission’s deliberations told The Intercept that its members had no formal discussion regarding the dragnet at all. Although Turner told The Intercept that he was aware UPD participated in the dragnet, other senior university officials offered little insight into their knowledge of the dragnet or UPD’s role. Casteen wrote to The Intercept, “Sad to tell, I do not remember the dragnet in which you are interested.”
It is unclear how widely known UPD’s involvement was with the department’s own officers. Michael Coleman, who served as a captain with UPD during the time of the dragnet, told The Intercept, “The University Police Department, to the best of my knowledge, did not participate in that” since “it alienated or aggravated a fair amount of the Charlottesville population.”
Blake Caravati, who served on the Charlottesville City Council between 1998 to 2006, acknowledged in an interview with The Intercept that the dragnet “was certainly racial profiling” and “not a good decision at the time,” though he offered high praise for Longo. “You can’t cancel the guy because he’s one of the best police chiefs in the country at the time,” he said, echoing many of Longo’s peers who lauded his leadership. “We’re all fallible, right?”
A single lawsuit was filed in response to the dragnet. After Charlottesville resident Larry Monroe was swabbed in March 2004, he sued CPD, Longo, and CPD detective James Mooney the following July.
Monroe’s litigation spanned several years as it made its way through state and federal courts, eventually culminating in an attempted federal class-action lawsuit that fell apart following unfavorable court rulings. Despite Monroe’s apparent lack of any shared physical characteristics with the serial rapist besides being Black, and CPD’s aggressive tactics of stopping a wide range of Black men under circumstances criticized by residents, state and federal courts dismissed Monroe’s claims.
Monroe died in 2018. Mooney, now assistant chief of CPD, told The Intercept that he knew Monroe personally before swabbing him. He said, “I never would have thought in my wildest dreams” that Monroe could be the serial rapist. Concerning the lawsuit, he added, “I think Monroe was a decent guy, I think he was a decent father, and I don’t think he deserved to go through that.”
Like many men approached for DNA samples, Monroe was asked for a swab at his home, though mere days before, he had been in police custody following an arrest for misdemeanor disorderly conduct. (Monroe’s attorney later told a court that he was exonerated of the charge.) According to Monroe’s March 2004 misdemeanor arrest record, Charlottesville police recorded his height as 5-foot-8 and weight as 290 pounds, well outside the range of descriptions of the serial rapist.
“I don’t fit the description, but just because I’m a Black man, I feel like I’m being pinpointed.”
Monroe later testified that he was nervous and scared and did not want to provide a swab, but complied because “[Mooney]’s the police,” adding that he did not feel he had a choice. “I just feel it’s messed up,” Monroe said. “I don’t fit the description, but just because I’m a Black man, I feel like I’m being pinpointed.”
Monroe’s trial commenced on January 31, 2005 in Virginia state court, where proceedings revealed that Monroe was targeted for a swab because CPD Officer William Sclafani had stopped him on the night of May 31, 2003. According to a field contact card Sclafani wrote after the encounter, Monroe “was out at Chancellor St with four black males” and told Sclafani that he was “looking for a party.” Since the area was dominated by student housing left mostly vacant for the summer, Sclafani reasoned that Monroe “may have been scoping out houses.” This fact, combined with the apparent note that Monroe was on ACPD’s “list” as well, was sufficient to designate Monroe for a swab nearly a year after Sclafani’s stop occurred.
“He came to their attention because he was Black in public,” Monroe’s attorney, Deborah Wyatt, told The Intercept. “The college kids had left, said Sclafani, so he might have been casing the place. It was racist from the inception.”
Mooney told the court that Monroe had signed a consent form, which the department claimed was standard for all swabs, but Monroe testified that he did not recall signing one. In any event, the swabs and consent forms had been destroyed after the department pledged in April 2004 to eliminate all samples that were ruled out.
Monroe lost the case and filed an appeal in state court. He then decided to nonsuit the lawsuit — drop with a chance to refile — and filed a new case in federal court in the Western District of Virginia, claiming he was racially profiled.
Monroe was also seeking class-action certification, meaning that more Black men who felt wrongly targeted by the dragnet could potentially join the lawsuit if the certification was approved. Wyatt told The Intercept that probably close to a dozen dragnet victims had expressed interest in suing, and one, Granville Boggs, told The Hook that he had separately contacted Wyatt about suing in the fall of 2003 and explicitly indicated that he was interested in joining a class-action suit. (Boggs could not be reached for comment. The Intercept unsuccessfully attempted to contact other victims of the dragnet, but many could not be reached because they had died, their identities were never publicly disclosed besides those who spoke with reporters, they have moved away from Charlottesville, or they were still wary of speaking to the press.)
In 2007, attorneys for the city moved to dismiss Monroe’s claims as well as his class-action certification. At a subsequent hearing on the certification issue, Monroe’s attorneys told The Intercept that they were troubled by an affidavit submitted by Sclafani, whose 2003 field contact card led to Monroe being swabbed.
Sclafani alleged that while on patrol, he encountered Monroe on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall. According to Sclafani, Monroe told him that the federal lawsuit had been filed in his name without his knowledge, that he was not interested in pursuing claims against Mooney, and that the lawsuit was making him “look bad” and he “does not know what is going on.”
“My recollection is we were surprised” by the affidavit, remarked Neal Walters, who represented Monroe with Wyatt for the federal lawsuit, in an interview with The Intercept. “I remember being in that courtroom and having the feeling afterwards of ‘holy four-letter word, how do we deal with that?’” Wyatt did not hesitate to characterize the affidavit, which contradicts Monroe’s deposition, as false. “It’s not true,” she told The Intercept. Both lawyers acknowledged that since the affidavit was filed with the court system, it could have escaped their notice before the hearing, catching them off guard. “Sometimes we can both drop the ball,” Wyatt said.
Reached for comment by phone, Sclafani confirmed submitting the affidavit but did not answer any other questions.
“A reasonable person would have felt free to decline Mooney’s requests or to otherwise terminate the encounter,”Moon wrote, acknowledging Monroe’s claims of fraught relations between police officers and the Black community but ultimately disregarding them.
John Raphling, a senior researcher on criminal justice at Human Rights Watch, told The Intercept that, generally speaking, the testimony of police officers is infrequently challenged by courts. “Police officers are given an incredible amount of deference, to the point where judges often accept their word at face value and don’t interrogate whether what they are saying is truthful,” Raphling said. “Police are not judged by the same standard as everybody else is.”
Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed most of Monroe’s lawsuit and denied his class-action certification, relying heavily on Sclafani’s affidavit in the process. “I am convinced that … a reasonable person would have felt free to decline Mooney’s requests or to otherwise terminate the encounter,” Moon wrote, acknowledging Monroe’s claims of fraught relations between police officers and the Black community but ultimately disregarding them. An attempt to appeal also failed, citing precedents that grant wide latitude to law enforcement activities influenced by racial criteria.
The appeal decision in Monroe v. City of Charlottesville has since served as legal precedent in other cases involving allegations of racially discriminatory policing. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson in North Carolina for conducting what federal attorneys alleged was an “egregious pattern of racial profiling.” In 2015, a federal judge cited precedents like the Monroe decision and ruled in favor of Johnson.
In his remaining years as chief, Longo worked to repair the damage the dragnet created and helped implement new initiatives such as crisis intervention training for officers, which he also participated in. Longo also cooperated with efforts to improve local criminal justice outcomes. “As a participant in community collaborations that have been undertaken to make our criminal justice system and our community better, I think he’s been a very important player,” James Hingeley, Albemarle’s progressive commonwealth’s attorney, told The Intercept.
A leading example began in 2010, when law enforcement and other community representatives in the Charlottesville area embarked on a pilot program of the National Institute of Corrections called Evidence-Based Decision Making, in which officials like Longo played an important role. Throughout his career as chief, Longo’s hands-on approach and close relations with community members were praised by many local leaders, who pointed to efforts like greater collaboration with churches, schools, youth programs, and human services.
However, other events during Longo’s tenure strained CPD’s relationship with the community. After Sage Smith, a Black transgender woman, vanished in 2012, Charlottesville police mounted a lackluster response. Smith has never been found, though CPD is still investigating. Don Gathers, a community leader who was forced to suspend his run for City Council in large part due to white supremacist threats against his life, told The Intercept, “When young Black children would come up missing, the same efforts didn’t seem to be put forth, and that’s still very much a point of contention in the Black community,” emphasizing that “Sage Smith is still missing.”
Longo had risen through the ranks of the Baltimore Police Department before becoming chief in Charlottesville, and after the death of Freddie Gray fueled intensifying Black Lives Matter protests, he sat down with the local news outlet C-VILLE Weekly in May 2015 to discuss a range of recent controversies. He said that events like those in Ferguson and Baltimore underscore “that race relations are a significant part of our history and they continue to influence relationships we have today” and noted specifically concerning the Gray case, “I don’t know about the investigation except for what I’ve read in the newspaper. I haven’t talked to anyone from Baltimore about it.”
Seven months later, in December 2015, Longo gave expert testimony on behalf of Officer William Porter, who was indicted for his role in Gray’s death in police custody. Longo reportedly told the jury that “I believe [Porter’s] actions were objectively reasonable under the circumstances he was confronted with.” The jury deadlocked and prosecutors later dropped all charges in the Gray case.
Longo announced his retirement as CPD chief in November 2015 and was then recruited by UVA to lead a master’s program in public safety that was slated to launch in 2019. In 2017, he started teaching a short course at UVA’s law school called “Understanding Police Use of Force: Investigation & Litigation Concepts,” which he has taught for several semesters since.
Longo’s February 2020 appointment as UVA’s security chief effectively consolidated all public safety administration at the university under his purview — reversing the creation of separate positions for chief of police and associate vice president for safety and security that stemmed from new security recommendations that followed the 2017 white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally — and occurred shortly before a national reckoning over police violence and racial discrimination.
In July 2020, UVA’s Student Council passed a resolution demanding that the University Police Department’s budget be decreased and its funds reallocated to the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services. In an interview discussing the Student Council’s vote, Longo pointed to a pin he wore signaling UPD’s commitment to “peace and justice,” emphasizing that “our job is to prove that they’re more than just symbols, through our actions.”
Many students have since spoken out against the university, with some claiming that they have felt targeted by UVA for their protests. When fourth-year student Hira Azher, a resident of UVA’s historic Lawn, posted a sign on the door of her residence denouncing UVA in September 2020, a UPD officer visited her room hours later in response to someone being “offended.”
Other Lawn room residents posted similar signs in solidarity and were then subjected to constant threats and harassment by community members. Azher and another Lawn resident, Hannah Hiscott, told The Intercept that their property and that of other students was repeatedly vandalized, people would bang on and throw things at their doors throughout the night, strangers spied on them, and nothing was done to stop it. “I don’t feel safe at all here,” Hiscott said.
After being inundated with alumni complaints about Azher’s sign, UVA President James Ryan responded with a post deriding it as “offensive” and “deeply disappointing,” which was followed by the university unveiling new regulations limiting Lawn residents’ ability to post signs on their doors.
This past February, UPD announced the appointment of its first manager of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but some student activists say recent changes do not go far enough. Longo’s appointment as chief was a “slap in the face” to the community, said Sarandon Elliott, a member of the student activist organization UVA Beyond Policing, in an interview with The Intercept. Hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer “doesn’t improve policing,” Elliott added, remarking that it instead funnels “more money into this violent institution.” Citing Longo’s record, including the DNA dragnet, UVA Beyond Policing is calling for his removal.
As UVA’s police chief, Longo will have to continue to confront the lasting impact of the dragnet. Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney wrote to The Intercept that she would “absolutely not” consider a similar policy of DNA collection and that “the legacy of the program continues to impact CPD’s relationship with the Black community, particularly Black men.” She noted that repercussions of programs like the dragnet are “not confined to Charlottesville,” since “the cumulative effects associated with these types of practice[s] undermine the legitimacy of policing agencies across the nation.”
And though considerable time has passed, the dragnet remains a painful memory for longtime local residents like Raymond Mason, who described it as an “all-time low” for Charlottesville. “Those were trying times because everybody was afraid, Black men were afraid that they were gonna get pulled over, roughed up, or whatever,” Mason told The Intercept. “Anybody was subject to be stopped and harassed. Anyone.”