A former federal prosecutor says the law enforcement response to a white nationalist rally this summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, that erupted in violence was a series of failures
WASHINGTON — The law enforcement response to the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer was marred by a series of major failures that put citizens’ lives at risk, according to an extensive new review.
The findings of former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy’s monthslong investigation were unveiled Friday. City officials asked him to conduct the review after facing scathing criticism over the Aug. 12 rally.
Several people were injured in the melee surrounding the rally, and 32-year-old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer was killed when a man drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.
“I talked to no police officers from the chief on down who feels good about what happened or wanted there to be violence in the streets,” Heaphy said in a news conference unveiling the 220-page report. “There were a lot of well-intentioned people, ethical people, who feel bad about this. Nonetheless, they didn’t protect public safety.”
The blistering report criticizes police planning as “inadequate and disconnected.” Charlottesville police supervisors failed to provide adequate training to line officers and police planners waited too long to request assistance from state emergency response officials, the report said.
In another blunder, city and state police failed to properly coordinate before Aug. 12 and were unable to communicate that day by radio because their respective systems were not connected, the report found.
“The planning and coordination breakdowns … produced disastrous results,” the report stated.
The report revealed that a school resource officer, posted in the area where the car plowed into counterprotesters, had been removed over concerns about safety and not replaced.
The officer had been stationed at the intersection of 4th Street and Market Street earlier in the day. But when the officer called for backup amid a stream of angry alt-right protesters and counter-protesters, she was relieved of her post, the report found.
“A single wooden saw horse was all that impeded traffic down 4th Street as large groups of people continued to roam the streets,” the report stated.
Just over an hour later, a 20-year-old Ohio man, James Fields, allegedly sped past that barrier, crashing into the crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer. Woods has been charged with second-degree murder in Heyer’s death.
Heaphy said Charlottesville Police Chief Al 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 does not recall making that statement.
“Regardless of what he said, Chief Thomas’ slow-footed response to violence put the safety of all at risk and created indelible images of this chaotic event,” the report concluded.
Overall, the report said law enforcement’s passive approach amounted to a “tremendous tactical failure.”
As clashes between so-called “alt-right” protesters and counter-protesters broke out, police were directed to stay behind barricades or were too far away to intervene, leading to a “period of lawlessness and tension that threatened the safety of the entire community,” the report stated.
Officers with both the Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police were generally directed to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to physical altercations between protesters and counterprotesters, in part because officers were inadequately equipped, the report found.
“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 report stated.
The review also casts blame on Charlottesville City Council members who, just days before the rally was set to take place, sought to move it from downtown Emancipation Park to the much larger McIntire Park.
The last-minute changes hamstrung police planning, led to confusion about the rally’s location and frustrated members of the public, the report said.
Charlottesville City Manager Maruice Jones responded to the report in a statement.
“Although we do not agree with every aspect of the report’s findings we do appreciate the efforts of the reviewers to talk to people from all walks of life about their experiences from this summer,” Jones said.
Jones acknowledged that city officials and law enforcement “undoubtedly fell short of expectations, and for that we are profoundly sorry.” He called Heaphy’s report a “critical step in helping this community heal and move forward after suffering through this summer of hate.”
Jones said city officials are developing an action plan that will be unveiled next week to lay out a series of new policies in the wake of the report.
The Associated Press and WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.