Charlottesville public safety plan knits lessons learned from deadly rally

WASHINGTON — It’s been nearly a year since the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and city officials have been working for the past five months with local and regional partners to prevent the same thing from happening this year.

Brian Wheeler, City of Charlottesville spokesperson, said that so far no permits have been granted for the city’s downtown parks on Aug. 11 and 12.

In December, the city denied a permit to allow last year’s Unite the Right organizer, Jason Kessler, to stage an anniversary event.

Kessler sued the city and on Tuesday, a federal judge is expected to decide whether Kessler can stage the event, after all, Wheeler said.

But the improved public safety plan the city has been working on with police and fire departments, Virginia State Police, Albemarle County, the University of Virginia and other partners is meant to be flexible.

“So really, independent of what permitted activity happens, we’re expecting a large crowd and a lot of media to want to be in Charlottesville for that anniversary weekend. So we’ve got a comprehensive and unified plan that’s in place and it will work regardless of what permit is approved,” Wheeler said.

That plan includes some marked changes from last year including improvements for pedestrian safety.

“Obviously for pretty much every event since last summer, we’ve had harder barriers on some of these cross streets downtown,” Wheeler said.

“That’s one of the lessons learned out of last year’s events. Whenever you have what we expect to be 1,000 people in downtown Charlottesville, we need to be very cautious about where people and vehicles can come into contact. So a big change this year, given the amount of planning time we’ve had, is to let the community know we’re going to restrict parking and access to an area of downtown that’s almost 30 blocks in size.”

Wheeler said another change includes restrictions on what any potential participants can bring to an event.

“Last year, we saw the problem when people were able to carry flagpoles and shields and masks and some of those things that we think led to more violence. So now, we’ve got new local rules in effect which will allow law enforcement to restrict what can be brought in,” he said.

A scathing report on last year’s rally found that when opposing sides started clashing, police were passive in tamping down the violence.

Wheeler said there’s been more police training during the past year.

“That’s something that we want the public to know. That we have learned some lessons and we’re not going to make those same mistakes.”

Agencies training together on crowd de-escalation and dispersion “have all been a key part of our work over the past year, and we know we have to deliver on that promise to earn the trust and confidence of our community,” Wheeler said.

But the most important thing is “we have one unified plan this year,” Wheeler said.

A report on last year’s rally found City and State police weren’t able to communicate by radio during the unrest because they didn’t properly coordinate ahead of time.

“We’ve integrated our communications systems with the Virginia State Police and we’ve learned some real lessons about how to secure our downtown and especially what is now called Market Street Park.”

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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