Police failed in deadly Charlottesville protests, review finds

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (USA TODAY/WVEC) -- A flawed law enforcement plan failed to maintain order and prevent injuries and death at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August that erupted in violence, according to a highly critical review of the incident released Friday.

Hundreds of counter-protesters clashed with white nationalists at the "Unite the Right" rally on Aug. 12, originally scheduled to protest the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.

Skirmishes between the two groups led to dozens of injuries as disorganized police stood on the side. A car driven by a white nationalist supporter later rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer.

“This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions — the protection of fundamental rights,” reads the 220-page report from Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney who reviewed the protest for the town's city council. “Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury and death.”

“It's very easy for us now, after the fact to look back and criticize,” Heaphy, whose team reviewed hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewed hundreds of people, said at a press conference Friday morning. “This is an event where people are bent on hurting each other and the inability to plan for that is the theme that runs through this.”

Among the report's findings:

• Charlottesville police didn’t ensure separation between counter-protesters and so called alt-right protesters upset with the city council’s decision to remove the Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.

• Officers weren’t stationed along routes to the park, but instead remained behind barricades in relatively empty zones.

• City police didn’t adequately coordinate with Virginia State Police, and authorities were unable to communicate via radio.

• State police didn’t share a formal planning document with city police, “a crucial failure.”

• Officers were inadequately equipped to respond to the clashes between the two groups, and tactical gear was not accessible to officers.

Independent Review of the Charlottesville Protests by 13News Now on Scribd

The breakdowns in planning and coordination between agencies ahead of the protests "produced disastrous results,” according to the report from Heaphy’s team at Hunton & Williams, LLP. “Neither agency deployed available field forces or other units to protect public safety at the locations where violence took place.”

The report detailed how an insufficient traffic plan left a crucial intersection on the Downtown Mall unprotected. It allowed someone to use a car as a weapon, which led to the death of Heather Heyer. 

“That's not intentional,” Heaphy explained. “No one said, ‘To hell with Fourth and Market.’ It's an inadvertent mistake, but it's a tremendous one.”

Skirmishes erupted at a Market Street parking garage, Justice Park, High Street, Water Street parking area and the Downtown Mall. Heyer's death marked “the most tragic manifestation of the failure to protect public safety," the report stated.

One bright spot in the report found that those injured were treated quickly. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad ultimately treated 40 individuals Aug. 12.

"Every person who was injured and needed hospitalization was removed from the scene and received treatment within 30 minutes, a remarkable feat given the circumstances," the report stated. 

While the report is highly critical of city police, Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said in August that he was proud of how the department handled the event, particularly in light of the constraints Albemarle County and University of Virginia police placed on resources to the city.

Thomas directed subordinates to provide Heaphy's team only with information regarding the planning for the protest events, not the events themselves, according to the report.

In interviews, investigators learned Thomas and other police command staff deleted text messages that were relevant to our review. Thomas also used a personal e-mail account to conduct some police business, then falsely denied using personal e-mail in response to a specific Freedom of Information Act request.

“Thomas and the commanders with whom we spoke denied any effort to hide information from our review team,” the report said, but investigators said they ultimately got all the information they needed.

Thomas was reviewing the report Friday morning and hasn't commented yet. He didn't reply immediately to an email seeking comment.

The report provided recommendations for future protests, including:

• Preparing better for civil disturbance, with police gathering more intelligence for comprehensive operational plans.

• Creating a secure perimeter around a potentially volatile protest, with designated points of entry and enforced separation between groups, a so-called stadium approach.

•  Having the Virginia General Assembly criminalize the use of open flame to intimidate and enact reasonable limits on carrying firearms at large protest events.

Similar white nationalists events in Charlottesville before August didn't devolve into chaos.

In May, white nationalist Jason Kessler, a local resident, and national organizer Richard Spencer convened a daytime march for about 100 people from McGuffey Park to Jackson Park and a nighttime event at Lee Park with torches.

Participants carried flags and chanted Nazi slogans, with speakers suggesting that the removal of Civil War monuments was part of broader war against white people. 

In July, a Ku Klux Klan group conducted a demonstration to protest the removal of monuments and “stop cultural genocide.” But city officials organized alternate events, and there were no arrests and only minor disturbances, according to the report.

“The city also protected the free speech of the Klan, despite its odious character,” the report said.

But authorities expected the August events, including a torch march late Aug. 11, to attract thousands of people, some who would come armed, creating “the potential for significant violence," the report found.

In response to the report, City Manager Maurice Jones put out a statement. "This police department and this City government pledge to learn from these experiences and strengthen our ability to offer the safety that our residents, visitors and business owners deserve,” he wrote. “Charlottesville is a strong, resilient City that values and celebrates our diversity." 

The recommendations for how to prevent something like this from happening again could prove important in the near future. The organizer of this summer's “Unite the Right” rally just announced he will try to hold another rally next year on the one-year anniversary of this year's chaos.

Statement by Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones by 13News Now on Scribd

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