The city of Charlottesville,Virginia is reviewing a 207-page report on what went wrong when white supremacists clashed with counter-protesters there last summer. The author – a former U.S. Attorney – outlined more than a dozen mistakes before, during and after that deadly event and faulted the University of Virginia for its handling of a tiki-torch rally on campus the night before.
As hundreds of white supremacists rallied in a downtown park on August 12th, more than a thousand counter protesters gathered along the perimeter. Charlottesville’s police force – 128 sworn officers – were given no specialized training for the event according to former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy.
“A lot of them had never even tried on the ballistic helmet or used the shield that they were given for that day,” he said at a news conference Friday.
Heaphy also thought the city’s police chief and high-level officers were overconfident in the days leading up to the “Unite the Right” rally.
“There was a sense of ‘We got this,'" he recalled. "The police department believed that they could handle this. We were told by the command staff at the police department, ‘We’ve had major events in the past. We’ve had dignitary visits. We have the Wertland Street block party. This was a fundamentally different kind of event on August 12th than anything that had happened here before.”
Six hundred state police were on hand, but Heaphy said there was little coordination between the two forces. In fact, he found they could not even talk directly with one another.
“They had to relay everything through their respective chains of command, and verbal communications either in the command center or down on the ground. Horribly inefficient to have separate communications.”
What’s more, state and local police were following different orders. Charlottesville officers were told not to intervene in fights unless people were at risk for serious injuries or death, while state forces said they were only there to police the park. On the morning of the rally their commander expressed concerns for the safety of his officers and vowed they would not go into what he called “that mess on Market Street.” And as fights broke out, Heaphy added, Charlottesville’s police chief may have issued a surprising order.
“We had evidence from a couple of people in the command center that the chief actually said, ‘Let them fight for a little while. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.’”
He also blamed lawyers for telling the city it could not ban sticks, poles clubs and shields. Heaphy said that was incorrect, and the presence of those makeshift weapons elevated the threat to public safety.
Officers who cleared the park made matters worse as they forced white supremacists into crowds of counter protesters.
“And that’s where you have more clashes. You have a gunshot fired. You have a flame thrower, you have punches. Easy for us to say, but the lack of separation was a huge problem.”
And, finally, he faulted the decision to assign laymen to keep traffic out of the protest area.
“You had an animal control officer at Second and High. You have a lab tech who was at Third and High. They were told, if it gets dangerous, it if gets violent, go inside your car and lock the door, and that’s what they did.”
That mistake allowed a man to drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.
The chief of police has denied that he allowed fighting to continue on August 12th and said this was no time for finger-pointing. He told reporters Charlottesville is still a community in crisis. In a statement, the city manager disagreed with some aspects of the report but conceded authorities fell short of expectations, and for that, he said, the city was profoundly sorry.