A report prepared by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia whose law firm, Hunton & Williams, was hired by Charlottesville to assess the city’s response to Unite the Right rally held to oppose the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from Emancipation Park, concluded that the Charlottesville Police Department was “ill-prepared, lacked proper training and devised a flawed plan for responding to the rally in August. These factors lead to “disastrous results,” including the death of a counterprotester and many injuries. The report also criticized actions by the Charlottesville City Council, attorneys from the city and state, the University of Virginia and the Virginia State Police.
While this level of incompetence is something most Virginians are familiar with, on this day, almost everything that could have been mishandled was, the report concluded.
According to the text, Charlottesville City Council totally failed when it attempted to have the rally moved, even as the city’s lawyers told the council that the move would not survive a court challenge. This forced police to plan for rallies at two locations. “Their decision to take this important and difficult decision away from the arms of city government most equipped to evaluate and manage this event was a dangerous overreach with lasting consequences,” the report stated.
Other breakdowns, according to the report, included a failure by the city to keep the public informed and a misjudgment by city planners that they could not prohibit the carrying of sticks, shields and clubs by marchers and counterprotesters. It also pointed to a failure by law enforcement to ensure separation between protesters and counterprotesters, and a reluctance by police to intervene in violent incidents.
“People were injured in violent confrontations that could have been but were not prevented by police,” the report stated. “Some of the individuals who committed those violent acts escaped detection due to police inability or unwillingness to pursue them.”
Worse, the Charlottesville police and the Virginia State Police were not operating under a unified command and not using the same radio channel.
The report notes that police did nothing to stop or break up fights. Rally participants, including Kessler, a Charlottesville resident who organized the event, say they should have been protected by police to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights to speak at the park. After violence broke out, rallygoers, counterprotesters and observers all said the police stood by and watched while brawls took place in front of them.
“Early on Aug. 12, [Charlottesville police] had placed a school resource officer alone at the intersection of Fourth Street NE and Market Street,” the report states. “This officer feared for her safety as groups of angry alt-right protesters and counterprotesters streamed by her as they left Emancipation Park. The officer called for assistance and was relieved of her post. Unfortunately, [Charlottesville police] commanders did not replace her or make other arrangements to prevent traffic from traveling across the Downtown Mall on Fourth Street.”
The report also criticized U-Va., where a torchlight march through campus the night before the Unite the Right rally ended in violence, with the marchers encircling a small group of students who had formed a ring around a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
The independent review confirmed those observations.
The passive police stance, the report said, “represents a tremendous tactical failure that has real and lasting consequences.”
Heaphy also noted that officers in the police command center that day said Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas Jr. told officers, “Let them fight for a little. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” The report alleged that Thomas and others in the command staff “deleted text messages that were relevant to our review.” However, Thomas’ attorney denies those claims.
Charlottesville Police Chief Alfred Thomas resigned Monday, 17 days after the release of the report.