Charlottesville police chief retires after criticism over rally response

WASHINGTON — The Charlottesville, Virginia, police chief announced his immediate retirement Monday. The abrupt departure comes amid criticism of the police response to the violent white nationalist rally over the summer.

Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas’ retirement was effective immediately, according to a release from the department. Although the reason for his immediate retirement is not clear, Thomas had come under fire following the August white nationalist rally.

A recent investigation by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy found the law enforcement response to the rally was marred by a series of major failures that put citizens’ lives at risk. Heapy said Thomas took a “misguidedly passive” approach to quelling the violence that erupted on Charlottesville streets both before and after police declared the “United the Right” rally at Emancipation Park unlawful and ordered the crowds dispersed.

As the first signs of open violence broke out on Charlottesville’s Market Street, the police chief reportedly said, “Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly,’” according to the report.

Thomas said he did not recall making the statement.

The report also said Thomas deleted relevant text messages and made officers fearful of retaliation for speaking with investigators.

Kevin Martingayle, an attorney for Thomas, has said the chief disputes that he deleted text messages. Martingayle didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.

A woman was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of people who were peacefully protesting the white nationalists

Thomas was appointed to police chief in April 2016 and began his service a month later. He served in law enforcement for 27 years.

Before joining the Charlottesville Police Department, Thomas had served as the police chief in Lexington, Virginia, since 2010. Prior to that, he spent 20 years with the Lynchburg Police Department.

City Manager Maurice Jones will formally appoint an interim police chief within the next week. Deputy Chief Gary Pleasants will guide the department until the interim chief is selected.

The search for a new chief will begin immediately, the department said in a news release.

Thomas had not publicly discussed plans to step down or retire.

“I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to protect and serve a community I love so dearly,” Thomas said in a Monday news release. “It truly has been an unparalleled privilege to work alongside such a dedicated and professional team of public servants. I wish them and the citizens of Charlottesville the very best.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sarah Beth Hensley

Sarah Beth Hensley is the Digital News Director at WTOP. She has worked several different roles since she began with WTOP in 2013 and has contributed to award-winning stories and coverage on the website.

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