WASHINGTON — Even before the violence at last weekend’s white-nationalist protest claimed the life of a woman Saturday afternoon, there were complaints about how the Charlottesville, Virginia, police had handled the area in and around the rally.
Critics said police appeared ill-prepared; some observers, including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, said the police were outgunned by the white nationalists, Virginia being an open-carry state.
Tim Longo, the former chief of the Charlottesville Police Department, told WTOP Monday that questions about how the police handled the rally are “legitimate.”
He called it “a long day for law enforcement. And it didn’t go well.”
Two Virginia State Police officers also were killed in a helicopter crash.
Longo, who is now on the faculty of the University of Virginia’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and creating a master’s degree in public safety administration, said it would be “unfair for me to be critical of the police,” as he wasn’t part of the planning process.
“Having said that, I think the question being raised by the general public is a legitimate one.”
Longo noted that the Charlottesville police had advance warning that large groups with “divergent views” were coming to the town.
“I think the potential for violence was real and beyond speculative. I think when [the white nationalists] presented themselves Saturday morning with shields, with helmets, with weaponry, I think it was foreseeable that there would be violence.”
He said he believed the community had an expectation of a “more forceful and more immediate” reaction from the police. “Again, whether or not that was part of the planning process, it would be speculative of me to say. But I do think the question is a legitimate one.”
The presence of so many guns makes any such situation difficult to handle, Longo added.
That’s why, he said, it’s more important than ever for police departments to plan ahead for such potential problems, “to ensure that when lawlessness erupts — and it did, and it did quickly — that there is a response that’s immediate, that can knock down or at least mitigate the level of damage that will be caused by this violence.”
And the open carry laws just make it more complicated, he said.
“We know we’re balancing First Amendment rights; now we’re balancing Second Amendment rights. And where does that stop? It stops when public safety becomes at risk, and it stops when those weapons are presenting threats of imminent lawlessness or violence. And so that is a very careful balance, which requires planning and a very careful legal analysis. …
“You’re managing the right for people to come and share and communicate thoughts and ideas, as hateful as they might be, against the city’s need, and frankly, duty, to protect its citizens. I think that balance, sometimes, can be very, very challenging.”
He acknowledged that the Charlottesville police force is “a finite resource,” which just made it more important to anticipate problems.
“My fear is that we will see this again.”
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