The police badly mishandled white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, failing to give officers needed training, gear and marching orders, and remaining passive as bloody clashes between protesters and counterprotesters raged around them, a former federal prosecutor reported today.
The Charlottesville police knew in advance “that there were people here bent on engaging in violence,” but they believed they were ready, naively citing their experience of handling block parties and visits by dignitaries, said Timothy J. Heaphy, the former U.S. attorney who was hired by the city to investigate the episode.
Heaphy’s law firm, Hunton & Williams, drafted a report more than 200 pages long that was released today, detailing many basic tactical mistakes, including a failure to keep the factions apart, coordinate among law enforcement agencies, react to violence, or call in available reinforcements. The investigators found fault with elected city leaders and University of Virginia officials, but pointed their sharpest criticism at the Charlottesville Police Department, or CPD, and the Virginia State Police, or VSP.
“VSP directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts,” the report states. “CPD commanders similarly instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations.”
What the report calls “the most tragic manifestation of the failure to protect public safety” was the death of Heather D. Heyer, a counterprotester who the police say was killed by a white supremacist who drove into a street that was closed to traffic, and thick with pedestrians. An officer assigned to keep cars off the street had felt threatened, so the police had withdrawn her.
The city manager, Maurice Jones, released a statement praising the work of Heaphy and his team, “although we do not agree with every aspect of the report’s findings.” He said that on Monday, city officials will present to the City Council a proposed set of new policies in response to the August unrest. The city police declined to comment on the report.
White supremacists focused on Charlottesville, known as a liberal bastion, in part to oppose the removal of statues of Confederate generals from city parks. Following smaller rallies in the city, in May and July, they organized a “Unite the Right” event on Aug. 12.
The violent protests became an international news event, and then a political furor after President Donald Trump equated the two sides, refusing to explicitly condemn protesters who chanted Nazi slogans and carried white supremacist symbols.
Heaphy’s firm interviewed witnesses, examined video and still photographs, and reviewed half a million pages of documents. What emerged, he said, was a failure to prepare, a failure to inform the public about what to expect, and a failure to protect people.
The Charlottesville police had not been trained in handling civil unrest, and did not consult with other departments around the country that had relevant experience, the report said.
Many officers “had never even tried on the ballistic helmet or used the shield that they were given that day,” Heaphy said at a news conference. “We talked to a lot of police officers who really didn’t have a sense of what they were asked to do.”
The Police Department and the State Police did not coordinate efforts — state officials did not even give their tactical plan to the city police — and the two groups could not talk to each other on their radios. Unknown to the city police, Heaphy said, “the state police were told, ‘You are here to protect the park,’” and not to respond to violence.
Days before the rally, City Council members insisted that the site be changed from Emancipation Park to another location, over the Police Department’s objections. Though that plan was eventually dropped, it hindered preparations.
The night before the Aug. 12 rally, Unite the Right forces marched without a permit onto the University of Virginia campus, carrying lit torches. At the base of a statue of the university’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, they fought with a smaller group of opponents.
“University officials were aware of this event for hours before it began but took no action to enforce separation between groups,” the report said. The university refused repeated offers of aid from the city police, until after the event had descended into a melee.
During the main rally, the police did not keep the factions apart, and officers were stationed around the protesters, but not in the crowd, where they could have responded to incidents more quickly. At first they did not have riot gear with them — as violence escalated, officers had to leave to retrieve the equipment from staging areas blocks away.
When the police finally moved in, forcing the crowd out of the park and onto city streets, the violence worsened. “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,” the report said.
The city’s plan to control the streets “essentially was much like it is on Saturday afternoon for a football game,” without the resources needed for mass unrest, Heaphy said. It relied on officers and unarmed personnel directing traffic, he said, and “they were told, if it gets dangerous, if it gets violent, go inside your car and lock the doors.”
A single Charlottesville officer, normally assigned to schools, was posted with a patrol car at an intersection on Fourth Street to keep it closed to vehicles. She grew afraid for her safety and called for help, but her superiors told her to leave her post and no one was sent to take her place.
Without the officer and her car, all that blocked the street was a wooden sawhorse, and vehicles easily drove around it and into the crowd — including the one that killed Heyer.