Since the August 12 Unite the Right rally that left three people dead, Charlottesville residents have asked where the police were that day and why Fourth Street was open so that a neo-Nazi from Ohio could plow into a group of counterprotesters, injuring dozens and killing Heather Heyer. The release of former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy’s 207-page report today offered some answers, with the use of the word “failure” 44 times.
Police were stationed behind barricades and while they were not given “stand down” instructions, says Heaphy, they were told to intervene only in instances of serious violence.
The report confirmed word that had been going around since August 12: A school resource officer was stationed alone at the intersection of Fourth Street NE and Market Street. When an unlawful assembly was declared and protesters flooded from emancipation Park into Market Street to clash with counterprotesters, the officer feared for her safety and was relieved of her post—leaving only a wooden sawhorse to block Fourth Street.
Heaphy pulled in four additional full-time lawyers, reviewed half a million documents and interviewed 150 witnesses, racking up what would be $1.5 million in legal fees, had his firm, Hunton & Williams, not agreed to undertake the review for $350,000.
“It was truly an independent review,” says Heaphy at today’s press conference. “I wouldn’t have undertaken it if it was not.” He stresses that he was “quite critical of the city.”
Heaphy outlined three major areas of failure: preparation, communication and protection of public safety.
The plan was to have the rally declared an unlawful assembly, and one officer told Heaphy that during the brawling on Market Street, police Chief Al Thomas said, “Let them fight for a little while” because that makes it “easier to declare an unlawful assembly.”
Thomas comes under additional fire in the report for failing to “exercise functional control of VSP forces despite his role as overall incident commander.” As the rally drew closer, he displayed a “hunkered down” mentality in refusing to consider alternate plans, and insisted Albemarle County police refused to offer assistance, an account county officers contradicted.
During the course of Heaphy’s investigation, Thomas attempted to limit the information Heaphy requested, deleted text messages, as did other command staff, and used a personal email account to conduct official police business, then denied doing so in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, according to the report.
“Chief Thomas’s attempts to influence our review illustrate a deeper issue within CPD—a fear of retribution for criticism,” says the review.
The attitude of city police, says Heaphy, was, “we’ve got this.” And while some officers talked to their peers in other cities that had experienced violent clashes, like Pikeville, Kentucky, and Portland, Oregon, that information did not factor into the city’s operational plan.
Rather than being in the midst of protesters, city cops were behind barricades, and when it became necessary to don protective gear, they had to retreat to another location to put on equipment some of them had never used before, says the report.
The alignment of police—and the lack of any being stationed at points of ingress and egress at the park—was a “recipe for disaster,” says Heaphy.
Virginia State Police sent 600 officers, helicopters and equipment, yet had their own operational plan that was not shared with city police. The state police were there to protect Emancipation Park, says Heaphy, and one VSP commander said about the violence around the park, “We’re not going into that mess,” according to Heaphy.
And the lack of a unified command—not even using the same radio frequency—was “horribly inefficient,” says Heaphy.
City Council, led by Mayor Mike Signer, also had a role in further complicating matters by caving to constituent pressure and making a last-minute decision to move the rally to McIntire Park, despite nearly unanimous advice that such a move would not withstand a legal challenge.
By interjecting itself into what “should be an operational decision,” says Heaphy, council created “further uncertainty” about where the event would be held and spread police resources even further.
“City Council should have been the mouthpiece in saying what the law says,” Heaphy says.
While the August 11 torch-lit march through UVA was not the responsibility of the city, it did have a “direct effect” on what happened the next day, he says.
University Police’s “soft response” to the alt-righters surrounding counterprotesters at the statue of Thomas Jefferson made a lot of people who were not planning to go the the August 12 rally decide to show up to defy the white nationalist and neo-Nazi presence, he says, while it “emboldened” the Unite the Righers.
The fundamental goals of government, says Heaphy, are to preserve free speech and public safety. “The city failed and it was not able to protect that fundamental right,” he says.
In a statement, City Manager Maurice Jones says that while the city does not agree with every aspect of Heaphy’s findings, he does acknowledge that the city and “our law enforcement partner in the Virginia State Police undoubtedly fell short of expectations, and for that we are profoundly sorry.
“This report is one critical step in helping this community heal and move forward after suffering through this summer of hate.”
Jones says he will present an action plan to City Council Monday night.
Read more in next week’s C-Ville Weekly.