A Tough Cop’s Soft Heart
In his two-decade-long law enforcement career in Baltimore, Timothy Longo Sr., J.D. ’93, busted more than his fair share of crooks. He was the scourge of gang-bangers, drug dealers, sexual predators, violent felons—even a few crooked cops. But the mayhem that played out in Baltimore’s most troubled corners in the ’80s and ’90s took a toll on him. So when the opportunity arose to become the Charlottesville, Virginia, police chief in 2001, Longo jumped on it. What father of four wouldn’t want to raise his children in sleepy, charming Charlottesville, home to celebrities like John Grisham and Jessica Lange, not to mention Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia?
No one could have predicted what idyllic Charlottesville—population 43,475—had in store for Longo. A serial rapist case that took years to crack. The tragic death of UVA student and Baltimore native Yeardley Love at the hands of fellow UVA student and lacrosse player George Huguely V in 2010. A frantic, headline-grabbing, 35-day search in 2014 for UVA student Hannah Graham and her abductor. Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” story that shocked the nation earlier this year. The violent apprehension of UVA student Martese Johnson by Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control agents that sparked protest marches and national media attention in March.
“None of this stuff was in the brochure, I can promise you that,” says Longo, 52.
Longo’s interest in police work started with a bad dog. The stray had bitten a few people in his family’s Ten Hills, Baltimore, neighborhood, and 10-year-old Tim was impressed by the officers who responded to the call. Eight years later, Longo walked into the Baltimore police headquarters to fill out a job application. Within a few months, he was hired as a police cadet.
Timothy Longo—who has served as the chief of police in Charlottesville, Virginia, since 2001—is a bit of an anomaly. “Fourteen years is a long time to be a police chief,” says Jeffrey Ian Ross, professor in UB’s School of Criminal Justice, citing the stress, the long hours leading to burnout and the burden on one’s family that often encourage a chief to remain in the position for just two to four years.
The role can take a toll on the chief’s health due to habits surrounding sleeping, eating and general unwinding, Ross says—and particularly for Longo, who has become emotionally invested in high-profile cases over the past few years, it can be tough. “He genuinely does care [about the victims]; that can be both a blessing and a curse,” Ross explains.
The Baltimore native worked his way through college while on the job, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a concentration in law enforcement from then-Towson State University in 1985. It was the same year he met Robin Mills, who worked at the hospital where he had his finger X-rayed. He broke off an engagement to another woman less than 24 hours after his first date with Mills, knowing that he’d met the love of his life. Six years and two children later, Longo decided that to really know the law, he’d have to study it. He wanted to go to the UB School of Law because the program was focused not just on theory but also on the practice of law.
Ed Pfister, a Baltimore County detective sergeant who was the only other cop in Longo’s UB law class, remembers how difficult it was to balance their jobs with the rigors of law school.
Pfister also remembers that Longo’s work ethic and his intellect made a big impression. And so did his hair.
“He [had] this big wave—like a pompadour of Italian black hair,” Pfister says. “Women loved it! They wanted to touch it just to see if there was a plastic framework or something holding it up.”
Longo, too, remembers the hard work and elaborate hairstyles of his UB days.
“I had like a Ricky Ricardo ’do going on,” he recalls. “If you touched it, it kind of crunched because I had so many products in it. If I had saved all the money I spent on quality hair-care products over the years, I’d have a much healthier pension.”
Longo’s passion for hair—he now favors a flattop, with a touch of gel only when he needs it—has deep roots. His grandfather on his dad’s side, Dominic Longo, was a Sicilian immigrant who ran Longo’s Barbershop in Baltimore for decades.
Longo chose a different path, and his star rose rapidly in the Baltimore Police Department. In 1996, while leading the communications division, Longo implemented the nation’s first three-digit nonemergency number, 311—an idea that has since been deployed across the country. This and other innovations Longo spearheaded helped him advance rapidly from cadet all the way to colonel.
When Longo took the reins of Charlottesville’s nearly 120-officer-strong force at age 38, there was no honeymoon. He was under pressure to solve a cold case he’d inherited—a serial rapist who had claimed at least six victims, terrorizing the city. Longo’s team was accused of racial profiling and harassment after asking at least 200 black men who resembled the composite sketch of the rapist to submit mouth swabs for DNA testing.
“The degree to which he moved the public in this case was amazing. I was with him in public at the time, and people would walk up to him crying, just wanting to touch him.”
—Rachel Harmon, UVA law professor, on the Graham case
Longo rescinded the practice a week later and mended ties with the city’s black community. But while that case stirred passions locally, a host of violent incidents involving UVA students in the years to come would propel quaint Charlottesville—which has had just 12 homicides in the last decade—into the national news.
“There was no way anyone could have predicted that we’d find ourselves on the international stage here in Charlottesville,” Longo says. “But in retrospect, when you have one of the world’s leading universities ... the potential is there. When things happen here, people tend to look.”
The murder of Yeardley Love at the hands of George Huguely V, her ex-boyfriend and a fellow lacrosse player also just weeks from graduation, captured the nation’s attention. Details emerged related to substance abuse, stalking and domestic abuse. Huguely was charged with murder less than 24 hours after Love was found dead in her apartment and was sentenced to 23 years in prison after being convicted of second-degree murder in 2012.
What Longo has dubbed his greatest investigative challenge would come less than four years later when 18-year-old UVA student Hannah Graham vanished last September. Longo has called the ensuing search for Graham—the largest of its kind in the state’s history—the most difficult 35 days of his 34-year career.
The emotionally charged press conferences Longo led during the hunt inspired hundreds to join the search efforts. He spoke passionately, sometimes choking up, habitually jabbing his right finger in the air while challenging members of the public to come forward with tips.
“I made her parents a promise; I told them I’d find their daughter,” Longo says. “Some would say I put myself out there on a limb. But here’s the deal: I have four kids. If I were in [the parents’] position, I would want to know that the person ultimately responsible for overseeing the case is going to do everything in their power to find my child.”
Those who know Longo well understood that the passion on display was real, but others critiqued him for being too theatrical, too emotional. These criticisms and the accusation that he hadn’t pursued other criminal cases as vigorously as he had the Graham investigation stung his wife, Robin Longo.
“For people to criticize whether he’s being genuine and honest is the hardest thing for me,” she says. “You can’t take the passion he has for life out of his job. If they knew his intentions and his heart, they would know that every case is just as important and relevant to him.”
Rachel Harmon, a UVA law professor who has known Longo for eight years, says his passionate appeals worked.
“The degree to which he moved the public in this case was amazing,“ she says. “I was with him in public at the time, and people would walk up to him crying, just wanting to touch him.”
Graham’s body was found in a wooded area outside Charlottesville on Oct. 18. Her parents released a statement, thanking Longo for fulfilling his promise and lauding his “tenacity and determination” to bring her home. Jesse Matthew Jr., a Charlottesville man who worked as a hospital orderly, has since been charged with Graham’s abduction.
Weeks later, Rolling Stone published a now-retracted article detailing the story of Jackie, an anonymous UVA student who claimed to have been gang-raped at the university’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house in 2012. Longo was moved by the claim but also sensed that something in the narrative didn’t add up.
“My first reaction after reading the story was it’s hard to imagine how that level of violence could occur in the presence of others and nobody said anything,” he says. “Anyone who witnesses something like that has an obligation as a human being to intervene.”
Longo’s team conducted an investigation at the request of UVA’s president and concluded on March 23 that there was no evidence a rape took place on the evening in question at the Phi Kappa Psi house or at any other fraternity house in Charlottesville. (Although the case has been suspended, it remains open should new information arise; Longo hasn’t ruled out the possibility that something bad may have happened to the victim—who declined to participate in the investigation—that night.)
“[Cops] tend to be more cynical than the average person. We see the worst of society. But ... even in bad times, you can bring comfort to people by doing your job well.”
The release of these findings might have been the talk of Charlottesville if the city hadn’t been jolted by a St. Patrick’s Day incident in which Martese Johnson, a 20-year-old, black UVA student, sustained injuries while being apprehended by Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control agents after being denied entrance to a bar. Students held large demonstrations, holding up signs reading “Black Lives Matter.”
Suddenly, the same police brutality discussion that had made headlines in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; and a host of other places—including, eventually, Baltimore—had arrived in Charlottesville.
UVA law professor Rachel Harmon says that if anyone can improve police-community relations—not just in Charlottesville but around the country—it’s Longo. “He has helped me imagine what policing and good police leadership can be,” she says. “He is deeply committed to building community trust, and he is amazingly progressive in looking for ways to encourage people to see the police as partners rather than as invaders.”
Now, when police-community relations may be strained more than ever, Longo reflects on the positive role that law enforcement plays. “[Cops] tend to be more cynical than the average person,” he says. “We see the worst of society. But ... even in bad times, you can bring comfort to people by doing your job well.”
Longo acknowledges that the misconduct of officers in some parts of the country threatens the legitimacy of police departments everywhere. He says it’s a tough time to be a cop anywhere in America and that he is heartbroken over the volatile situation in Baltimore in late April following Freddie Gray’s death from injuries sustained while in police custody.
Longo also admits that the tough cases in his own career—the years of waking up before 4 a.m. because he can’t turn his brain off—have him pondering his future. He would like to retire in Charlottesville but is open to other professional opportunities. “More so in my career than ever before, I’m thinking, ‘How much longer can I maintain this?’ Not just physically but emotionally,” he says.
“I’m at a point ... where I think I can be helpful ... not just in this community but at a broader level, as a consultant or at a law school, perhaps,” he continues. “That might be the next step. Whether that’s tomorrow or not—it depends on what tomorrow deals me.”