What Went Wrong In Charlottesville? Almost Everything, Says Report

Dec 1, 2017
Originally published on December 1, 2017 6:59 pm

Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET

An independent review of Charlottesville's handling of the white nationalist rally there in August found that law enforcement and city officials made several significant mistakes, resulting in violence and distrust.

The city commissioned the report, which was prepared by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney in Virginia. In conducting the investigation, Heaphy said his team pored through hundreds of thousands of documents, interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and reviewed countless hours of video and audio.

The resulting 220-page report is a detailed record of the chaos and conflict that unspooled in the Virginia college town. It is unsparing in identifying the errors authorities made that day and in the preceding months.

The city failed to protect either free expression or public safety, the report finds: "This represents a failure of one of government's core functions — the protection of fundamental rights. Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death. Charlottesville preserved neither of those principles on August 12, which has led to deep distrust of government within this community."

The "most tragic manifestation" of the failure to protect public safety was the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, the report says.

"Early on August 12, CPD had placed a school resource officer alone at the intersection of 4th Street NE and Market Street," the report explains. "This officer feared for her safety as groups of angry Alt-Right protesters and counter-protesters streamed by her as they left Emancipation Park. The officer called for assistance and was relieved of her post. Unfortunately, CPD commanders did not replace her or make other arrangements to prevent traffic from traveling across the Downtown Mall on 4th Street."

All that remained to impede traffic was a single wooden sawhorse.

"This vulnerability was exposed when James Fields drove his vehicle down the unprotected street into a large crowd of counter-protesters at the intersection of 4th Street SE and Water Street, killing Ms. Heyer," it says.

The report praised the city's fire department and the University of Virginia Health System for their quick response to victims of the car attack, calling it "a bright success on a day largely filled with failure."

Some of the problems identified in the report echo the criticism of law enforcement response at the time; some are new revelations. Among the mistakes:

  • Attempts in the days before the protest to move the event to a different location meant that law enforcement had to plan for two scenarios.
  • Charlottesville Police and Virginia State Police did not sufficiently coordinate their plans. On August 12, their officers could not communicate over the radio with one another because they were on different channels.
  • Police did not adequately separate conflicting groups, which led to physical altercations.
  • Police commanders instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations. They prepared to respond to violence by declaring an unlawful assembly and dispersing the crowd.
  • Once unlawful assembly was declared, police efforts to disperse the crowd generated more violence, as conflicting groups were pushed toward each other.
  • Officers remained behind barricades in relatively empty areas, rather than being stationed along crucial routes as protesters and counterprotesters shifted and clashed.
  • Tactical gear wasn't accessible when officers needed it.
  • Charlottesville Police received inaccurate information from Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman regarding the legality of restricting weapons other than firearms. Chapman told police they could not restrict other weapons, when in fact the city could have prohibited bats, poles and shields.

In a statement to NPR, Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones said that the city does "not agree with every aspect of the report's findings," but it is thankful for the work of the reviewers.

"We faced an unprecedented series of protests and demonstrations this summer, culminating with the Unite the Right Rally on August 12th," Jones said. "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. This report is one critical step in helping this community heal and move forward after suffering through this summer of hate."

Police Chief Al Thomas Jr. released a statement saying, "My hope now is that, as we move forward ... we can learn from the productive elements of this report, work together to address our shortcomings and recommit ourselves to serving the public in a way that gives our citizens the utmost confidence in their safety and wellbeing."

After documenting what went wrong, the report also had a number of recommendations for Charlottesville and other municipalities that need to prepare for similar "mass unrest events."

Among Heaphy's recommendations:

  • That cities use "the stadium approach": secure perimeters with designated points of entry and enforced separation of conflicting groups.
  • That the Virginia General Assembly "criminalize the use of a flame to intimidate" and "empower municipalities to enact reasonable restrictions on the right to carry firearms at large protest events."
  • That police recognize that "not all attendees at protest events will coordinate with law enforcement, either because they are too loosely organized to do so or because it is incompatible with their ideology." Rather than ignore such groups, agencies must plan for resistence and anticipate gaps in intelligence and planning.
  • That the Justice Department or a national police organization establish a clearinghouse to share information and plans before and after events.
  • That police officers be trained in "the role of law enforcement in facilitating free expression" and de-escalation techniques.
  • That police use a continuum of strategies during such events: adopting a "soft" approach of "wearing ordinary uniforms and avoiding militarized approaches" that can stir unrest, while preparing for disorder with clear policies on making arrests and using force.
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