The Charlottesville Police Department was ill-prepared, lacked proper training and devised a flawed plan for responding to the white supremacist rally that rocked the city in August, leading to "disastrous results," including the death of a counterprotester and many injuries, according to an independent review commissioned by the city that was released Friday.
The unsparing, 207-page report was prepared by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia whose law firm, Hunton & Williams, was hired by Charlottesville to assess the city’s response to three separate white supremacist events in the city this year. Although the police department received the bulk of the blame, the report also criticized actions by the Charlottesville City Council, attorneys from the city and state, the University of Virginia and the Virginia State Police.
Although the review also looked at how the city prepared for and handled a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8 and protests led by white nationalists Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler in mid-May, most of the report dealt with the city’s failed planning and handling of the weekend of Aug. 11-12. That is when hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and their opponents battled in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally held to oppose the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park.
The racial violence and hatred displayed in Charlottesville attracted worldwide attention that was heightened a few days later when President Trump said the white supremacists who marched there included “some very fine people.”
Almost everything that could have been mishandled was, the report concluded. The City Council pushed at the last minute to have the rally moved, even though the city’s lawyers told the council that doing so would not survive a court challenge. That decision created confusion and forced police to plan for rallies at two locations. “Their decision to take this important and difficult decision away from the arms of city government most equipped to evaluate and manage this event was a dangerous overreach with lasting consequences,” the report stated.
Other breakdowns, according to the report, included a failure by the city to keep the public informed and a misjudgment by city planners that they could not prohibit the carrying of sticks, shields and clubs by marchers and counterprotesters. It also pointed to a failure by law enforcement to ensure separation between protesters and counterprotesters, and a reluctance by police to intervene in violent incidents.
“People were injured in violent confrontations that could have been but were not prevented by police,” the report stated. “Some of the individuals who committed those violent acts escaped detection due to police inability or unwillingness to pursue them.”
Planning failures were exacerbated by the Charlottesville police and the Virginia State Police not operating under a unified command and not even operating on the same radio channel.
Officials canceled the rally before it began as opposing factions clashed on Market Street in front of the park — while police made little effort to intervene. Later that day, a Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters on Fourth Street NE, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant, and injuring 19 others.
Law enforcement came under sharp criticism in many quarters for not breaking up fights or taking a more active role to prevent them. Rally participants, including Kessler, a Charlottesville resident who organized the event, say they should have been protected by police to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak at the park. After violence broke out, rallygoers, counterprotesters and observers all said the police stood by and watched while brawls took place in front of them.
The independent review confirmed those observations.
The report notes just one instance of a Charlottesville police officer’s “leaving a barricaded safe zone to enter the crowd and de-escalate a potentially violent situation on Aug. 12.”
The passive police stance, the report said, “represents a tremendous tactical failure that has real and lasting consequences.”
At a lengthy and often contentious news conference Friday where he answered questions from reporters and community members, Heaphy said he heard from a couple of officers in the police command center that day who said Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas Jr. told officers, “Let them fight for a little. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.”
Heaphy said police were not given a “stand-down” order. Instead, they were told not to intervene except in cases of extreme violence, or when there was a risk of serious injury or worse. Virginia state troopers, Heaphy said, had orders to protect Emancipation Park but not to go beyond the park into “the mess on Market Street.”
Heaphy said he talked with more than a dozen police officers who said that they wanted to act but that the day’s plan constrained them.
“We let the community down,” Heaphy said officers told him.
Thomas did not directly reply to the report’s assertions when he delivered a brief statement after Heaphy’s news conference, but his attorney, Kevin Martingayle, said that “at no time did he ever say, ‘Let them fight.’ ”
The report alleged that Thomas and others in the command staff “deleted text messages that were relevant to our review.” Martingayle also denied that, saying, “Any allegations that he attempted to cover up or mislead anyone, he absolutely disputes.”
In the report, Heaphy called Heyer’s death “the most tragic manifestation of the failure to protect public safety after the event” and pointed to police decisions that left the section of the city where Heyer was struck abandoned by law enforcement.
“Early on Aug. 12, [Charlottesville police] had placed a school resource officer alone at the intersection of Fourth Street NE and Market Street,” the report states. “This officer feared for her safety as groups of angry alt-right protesters and counterprotesters streamed by her as they left Emancipation Park. The officer called for assistance and was relieved of her post. Unfortunately, [Charlottesville police] commanders did not replace her or make other arrangements to prevent traffic from traveling across the Downtown Mall on Fourth Street.”
The report also criticized U-Va., where 200 neo-Nazis and white supremacists staged a torchlight march through campus the night before the Unite the Right rally. The night march culminated in a violent showdown, with the marchers encircling a small group of students who had formed a ring around a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder.
According to the report, university officials knew about the plans for the march hours before it happened but did not sufficiently prepare or respond when violence broke out. “The insufficient police response on Friday night emboldened people who intended to engage in similar acts of violence on Saturday,” the report stated.
In a statement, the university acknowledged that “its response to the horrific and unprecedented events in August should have been better.” U-Va. also said it has formed a working group “to look critically at ways in which our response to the Aug. 11 torch-lit march on our grounds could have been more effective, and to institute practices that will prevent violence of this sort from happening again.”
The Charlottesville City Council will discuss the review at its meeting Monday, but many who were involved in organizing the rally and those who protested it say that the study is incomplete.
Jalane Schmidt, a U-Va. professor who is active with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, disputed the impartiality of the review because the law firm that conducted it was hired by the city.
“Activists, and indeed many Charlottesville residents, would prefer there to be a truly independent review, one that is not beholden to a ‘client’ — which is to say, the very city officials who are most to blame for this summer’s debacle,” she said in a statement.
Schmidt said a number of activists did not cooperate with the investigation because they did not trust that their remarks would remain confidential.
Kessler, the rally organizer, said in an email that the report “is only the beginning of releasing the truth about what really happened.”
“Tensions were deliberately exacerbated by city officials in order to declare an unlawful assembly and shut down the rally,” he wrote. “Charlottesville City Council used improper political pressure in encouraging police to violate the constitutional rights of pro-white groups.”
Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones said in a statement that the report delivers on the city’s promise of transparency. He also issued an apology.
“On a number of fronts, as the report acknowledges, we succeeded in protecting our city to the best of our abilities. But in other areas we, and our law enforcement partner in the Virginia State Police, undoubtedly fell short of expectations, and for that we are profoundly sorry.”