Charlottesville response to white supremacist rally sharply criticized in new report

Washington Post
Friday, December 01, 2017

The Charlottesville Police Department was ill-prepared, lacked proper training and devised a flawed plan for responding to the white supremacist rally that rocked the city in August, leading to “disastrous results,” including the death of a counterprotester and many injuries, according to an independent review commissioned by the city that was released Friday.

The unsparing, 207-page report was 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 three separate white supremacist events in the city this year. Although the police department received the bulk of the blame, the report also criticized actions by the Charlottesville City Council, attorneys for the city and state, the University of Virginia and the Virginia State Police.

Although the review also looked at how the city prepared for and handled a Ku Klux Klan rally on July 8 and protests led by white nationalists Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler in mid-May, most of the report dealt with the city’s failed planning and handling of the weekend of Aug. 11-12. That is when hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and their opponents battled in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally held to oppose the planned removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

The racial violence and hatred displayed in Charlottesville attracted worldwide attention that was heightened a few days later when President Donald Trump said the white supremacists who marched there included “some very fine people.”

Almost everything that could have been mishandled was, the report concluded. The City Council pushed at the last minute to have the rally moved even though the city’s lawyers told the council that doing so wouldn’t survive a court challenge. That decision created confusion and 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 couldn’t restrict sticks, shields and clubs from being carried 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.”

Planning failures were exacerbated by Charlottesville and Virginia state police not operating under a unified command and not even operating on the same radio channel.

The rally was canceled before it began as opposing factions clashed on Market Street in front of the park - while police made little effort to intervene. Later that day, a Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old legal assistant, and injuring 19 others.

Law enforcement came under sharp criticism from many corners for not breaking up fights or taking a more active role to prevent them. 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.

The independent review confirmed those observations.

The report notes just one instance of a Charlottesville police officer “leaving a barricaded safe zone to enter the crowd and de-escalate a potentially violent situation on Aug. 12.”