Charlottesville was going to be bad. The police made it worse

Disorder ensued.
Disorder ensued.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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The chaos that overtook Charlottesville, Virginia during the infamous white-supremacist rally this summer was compounded by law-enforcement authorities who were unprepared—and police officers who were not proactive enough in their response to the violence that was unleashed, an independent report says.

The months-long investigation led by former federal prosecutor Tim Heaphy included interviews with 150 people and a review of more than a half-million documents. The report says the city and state failed to ensure public safety, did not allow the free expression of the counter-protesters, and did not properly facilitate the permit-holders’ offensive speech. It documents a series of missteps over several months’ time.

“This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions,” the reports says, “the protection of fundamental rights.”

What happened in Charlottesville

The Unite the Right rally on Saturday, Aug. 12 was organized by local resident Jason Kessler and white nationalist leader Richard Spencer in response to a city council vote to remove two statues of Confederate generals from public spaces. The decision had sparked three separate protests: a smaller white-nationalist protest in May, a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in July, and finally Unite the Right, which led to three deaths and at least 35 injuries.

The August rally turned Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, into a flashpoint on race, history, and the limits of free speech in America. In the days following the violence, Charlottesville police defended their response to critics who faulted officers for “standing on the sidelines” as fights broke out between the white nationalists and counter-protesters.

Now, those criticisms have been validated by the independent investigation.

The failures documented by the report

Law enforcement was caught off-guard by the May white-nationalist rally

“Police officials realized they had a gap in intelligence gathering, as they were caught unaware of the events until they took place. Many in Charlottesville began to expect future events on the horizon…The events of May 13-14 were arguably covered by the City’s special events regulation. Nonetheless, no permits were obtained for any of the individual gatherings and no effort to restrict the events took place. The nighttime events both violated the City’s open-flame ordinance, though no enforcement action was taken.”

Lack of coordination during the July Ku Klux Klan demonstration

“There was no joint training, unified operational plan, or joint radio communication between the agencies. Virginia State Police operated largely independently throughout the Klan rally, rather than in an integrated multi-agency force. Charlottesville Police Department planners failed to anticipate the counter-protesters’ desire to disrupt the event by impeding the Klan’s arrival and departure….While officers created separation between the Klan and counter-protesters, they left too little space between barricades and allowed media representatives into the buffer zone between the conflicting groups.”

Police use of military equipment at the KKK demonstration led to distrust

“The use of military-type equipment, number of arrests, and deployment of chemical dispersants generated strong opposition in the community. City leaders failed to adequately respond to that criticism. They did not provide a complete explanation of the reasons for the use of chemical irritants and other tactical decisions made on July 8…The City’s inability or unwillingness to engage with community members concerned about the July 8 event created distrust in law enforcement and City government.”

Police preparation for the Aug. 12 rally was inadequate

“CPD commanders did not reach out to officials in other jurisdictions where these groups had clashed previously to seek information and advice. CPD supervisors did not provide adequate training or information to line officers, leaving them uncertain and unprepared for a challenging enforcement environment. CPD planners waited too long to request the assistance of the state agency skilled in emergency response. CPD command staff also received inadequate legal advice and did not implement a prohibition of certain items that could be used as weapons.”

Charlottesville police devised a flawed operational plan

“Constraints on access to private property adjacent to Emancipation Park forced planners to stage particular law enforcement units far from the areas of potential need. The plan did not ensure adequate separation between conflicting groups. Officers were not stationed along routes of ingress and egress to and from Emancipation Park but rather remained behind barricades in relatively empty zones within the park and around the Command Center. Officers were inadequately equipped to respond to disorders, and tactical gear was not accessible to officers when they needed it.”

State and city police did not sufficiently coordinate

“VSP never shared its formal planning document with CPD, a crucial failure that prevented CPD from recognizing the limits of VSP’s intended engagement. CPD and VSP personnel were unable to communicate via radio, as their respective systems were not connected despite plans to ensure they were. There was no joint training or all-hands briefing on or before August 12…CPD and VSP operated largely independently on August 12, a clear failure of unified command.”

Officials were passive about the Friday-night torch-light protest at UVA

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
Image: News2Share/Alejandro Alvarez via Reuters

“University officials were aware of this event for hours before it began but took no action to enforce separation between groups or otherwise prevent violence…As more and more marchers arrived, shouting and chanting became punching and kicking…The tenor of this event set an ominous tone for the following day. So did the relative passivity of law enforcement whose failure to anticipate violence and prevent disorders would be repeated on Saturday at Emancipation Park.”

Lack of intervention caused “lawlessness and tension”

“Because of their misalignment and lack of accessible protective gear, officers failed to intervene in physical altercations that took place in areas adjacent to Emancipation Park. VSP directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts between protesters and counter-protesters. CPD commanders similarly instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations….When violence was most prevalent, CPD commanders pulled officers back to a protected area of the park, where they remained for over an hour as people in the large crowd fought on Market Street….The result was a period of lawlessness and tension that threatened the safety of the entire community.”

Police failed to protect the area where Heather Heyer was killed

“Early on August 12, CPD had placed a school-resource officer alone at the intersection…This officer feared for her safety as groups of angry Alt-Right protesters and counter-protesters streamed by her as they left Emancipation Park. The officer called for assistance and was relieved of her post. Unfortunately, CPD commanders did not replace her or make other arrangements to prevent traffic from traveling across the Downtown Mall on 4th Street. A single wooden sawhorse was all that impeded traffic…This vulnerability was exposed when James Fields drove his vehicle down the unprotected street into a large crowd of counter-protesters at the intersection of 4th Street SE and Water Street, killing Ms. Heyer.”

An accidental helicopter crash compounded the tragedy

“Several hours after the incident at 4th and Water Streets, a VSP helicopter crashed, killing two troopers inside. While the crash appears to have been an accident, the loss of the troopers is another disheartening tragedy. Their loss compounded the earlier loss of Heather Heyer and emphatically reinforced the terrible toll this event took on our community.”

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas previously defended the official response on Aug .12. The Republican Party of Virginia has criticized the city’s decision to hire Heaphy to lead the investigation, saying his political donations made to Democratic candidates (he was appointed as a US attorney by president Barack Obama) precluded him from being independent. Heaphy denied the contributions influenced the review in any way.