An independent review of the handling of a white nationalist rally held earlier this year in Charlottesville, Virginia, has found police made several mistakes that served to exacerbate the violence and chaos of the event. In a 220-page report published Friday, former U.S. attorney in Virginia, Tim Heaphy, outlined how multiple failures by city officials and local law enforcement resulted in heightened violence, tension, and chaos during the rally.
White nationalists converged on Charlottesville on Aug. 12 for a "Unite the Right" rally that ended in deadly violence when a protester plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed in the attack. The report, commissioned by the city of Charlottesville, delved into white nationalist rallies that occurred there in May and June as well, but mostly focused on the mistakes that officials made in the deadly Aug. 12 rally.
The report found that police were not only woefully unprepared for that rally but also made several key mistakes during the event that ultimately contributed to the deadly violence. Moreover, local law enforcement "failed miserably" when it came to protecting public safety and free speech, which in turn caused public trust in police to erode.
Here are the mistakes the report said police made in regards to the Unite the Right Charlottesville protest, some of them stemming from white nationalist rallies earlier this year.
1. Failed To Respond To Community's Concerns & Criticism
Police and city officials contributed to feelings of distrust ahead of the Aug. 12 rally when they failed to engage with the community regarding concerns and criticism of how police had responded during a previous white nationalist rally on July 8.
According to the report, some counter-protesters and community members felt the police were more intent on protecting Klan members given the fact police had stationed themselves between the barricades with their backs to the Klan as if "suspicious" of the crowd of counter-protesters. Other complaints focused on the fact the police had allowed the Klan to go over the time allotted for their event and had responded to counter protesters with chemical dispersants and military equipment.
2. Inadequate Planning
According to the report, the Charlottesville Police Department did not adequately reach out to officials in other jurisdictions where clashes between alt-right protesters and counter-protesters had occurred previously for advice and insight, limiting their planning and information resources. The report notes that although other agencies experienced in handling such events were available to assist with planning, "officers declined to make the connections."
Moreover, the report notes there was no "all hands" meeting held prior to the rally with every law enforcement agency and every law enforcement officer in attendance and that planners "disregarded internal concerns about the potential for violence." According to one lieutenant interviewed in the report, Charlottesville police leadership appeared to be treating the event "like a 'concert'" and not like a potentially violent confrontation.
3. Inadequate Training
The report states efforts to train Charlottesville police officers ahead of the Unite the Right rally "were meager if not nonexistent." Officers did not test any riot gear including recently purchased helmets. No field training or joint exercises with other agencies (such as state police) were conducted in preparation for the event. Information about the operational plan for the rally was poorly communicated to officers.
An invitation from the Virginia State Police to participate in the state's mobile field force training was declined by the Charlottesville Police Department.
4. Failed To Ask For Assistance In A Timely Manner
The report argues Charlottesville waited too long in requesting planning assistance from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management's Incident Management Team, meaning they had only a limited amount of time to access and incorporate their information and help into their operational plan.
Moreover, the report also notes that the effectiveness of the Incident Management Team was limited by the lack of cooperation between all agencies involved in responding to the Unite the Right rally.
5. Failed To Implement A Ban On Dangerous Items
The report concludes that had police moved to issue a prohibition on the possession of bats, poles, shields, and other such items that could be used as weapons, "there would have been fewer and less dangerous encounters." According to the report, the police department received inaccurate information about their legal ability to restrict the possession of such items and thus they did not attempt to prohibit them.
While restricting those items likely would have required a number of challenging steps, the report notes it would have ultimately been "advantageous" as such items "increased both the quantum and seriousness of violence" at the rally.
6. Poor Coordination With State Police, Again
The report notes there was again insufficient coordination between Charlottesville police and the Virginia State Police ahead of the Aug. 12 rally. Specifically, Virginia State Police did not share their formal operational plan, which meant the Charlottesville Police Department did not know the limits of the state police's engagement. Nor did state and city police have joint radio communication during the event, resulting in law enforcement's limited effectiveness.
In essence, "the 'left hand' did not know what the 'right hand' was doing, which created danger to both officers and event attendees," the report concludes.
7. Failed To Intervene
Although it did not find any evidence that officers were directed to "stand down," the report notes that "despite clear evidence of violence, police consistently failed to intervene, de-escalate, or otherwise respond" to incidents.
"Upon review of police body camera and open source video, we saw numerous examples of police failing to act when requested to do so by citizens," the report stated. "The fact that officers made very few arrests also supports the conclusion that law enforcement failed to intervene in violent encounters between attendees of the Unite The Right event." In failing to intervene, police failed to protect public safety.
8. Poor Stationing Of Officers During Rally
Poor planning when it came to stationing officers throughout the rally was reportedly one of the reason many officers were unable to respond to violent clashes or escalating confrontations. Charlottesville Police Department "failed to deploy officers to areas where violent confrontations were likely to occur."
Rather, an excessively large number of officers were placed in zones within Emancipation Park, leaving the routes of ingress and egress to and from the park unprotected. "Focus on the park rather than surrounding areas resulted in the large majority of law enforcement personnel being some distance from the violent confrontations that occurred," the report concludes.
9. Officers Inadequately Equipped
The lack of protective gear was another reason the report noted officers did not intervene in violent encounters. According to Chief Thomas, the department had thought "soft" uniforms would avoid alienating and intimidating the crowd. However, as a result, the department's zone commanders "consistently cited the lack of protective gear as the main reason for not directing their assigned officers to deescalate or interrupt disorders."
10. Riot Gear Not Accessible When Needed
Moreover, the report noted that "riot gear was stored too far from officers who might need it to respond to unfolding events, requiring officers to leave the area just as disorder and violence most required their presence." It also found officers were slow to put their gear on largely because they were unfamiliar with it and had not been trained in its use. "As a consequence, CPD left the crowd under-policed when intervention would have been valuable," the report found.
11. Failed To Anticipate Violence
The report found that Charlottesville police repeatedly failed to anticipate violence or disorder at the white nationalist rallies organized in their town. As a result, the police were more often unable to prevent such situations from occurring or escalating.
12. Officers Pulled Back When Violence Was Most Prevalent
The report also notes that Charlottesville Police Department commanders "instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations." And "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."
13. Ineffective Efforts To Disperse Crowd
The report found that law enforcement's efforts to disperse the crowd ended up pushing protesters directly into counter-protesters, resulting in violent confrontations. "The inability to enforce separation during dispersal represents another planning failure," the report notes.
Rather than protect the points of egress in order to allow protesters an exit after declaring an unlawful assembly, police pushed the opposing groups directly in to each other; the violence that resulted was "predictable," the report notes.
14. An Officer Was Pulled From The Intersection Where Heather Heyer Was Killed
In placing unarmed civilian employees at intersections where violent confrontations were likely to arise Charlottesville police put those employees in vulnerable positions and "failed to sufficiently protect a crucial intersection, allowing a vehicle to strike a large crowd of people and cause on death and numerous injuries." A school resource officer stationed at the intersection of 4th Street NE and Market Street was reassigned after she radioed for assistance when "violent skirmishes" broke out causing her to feel unsafe.
However, the officer was not replaced and the intersection was left without a police presence. According to the report, "unknown persons" moved a sawhorse barricade set up to block traffic from moving down 4th Street, which enabled James Fields to drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heyer and injuring others.