Not ‘finger pointing’: State task force weighs in on August 12

The city prepares for the anniversary of last summer's Unite the Right rally. Photo by Eze Amos The city prepares for the anniversary of last summer’s Unite the Right rally. Photo by Eze Amos


Almost immediately after the violent clashes in Charlottesville August 12, Governor Terry McAuliffe established a task force to review the events of that weekend, and consultants presented a preliminary report November 15.

The top two takeaways: This is a new era of protests—and a stronger permit process for those seeking to use public facilities could avoid the violence in the streets that left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead.

“People were coming in from out of state,” says Nicky Zamostny, the task force director who works in Secretary Brian Moran’s Office of Public Safety. In comparing videos, “we’re seeing a lot of the same faces. It’s a completely new sort of incident.”

The preliminary report notes competing, heavily armed groups of protesters out to harm one another, loaded with weapons and projectiles and using social media to coordinate efforts.

The other significant finding, says Zamostny, is a “strong permitting process” is the best way to avoid what happened at Emancipation Park. Among the recommendations is to restrict the length of time of the permit, change state law to allow the prohibition of weapons and have a protocol in place before the next Jason Kessler asks for a permit.

“We’ve worked with a First Amendment scholar,” says Zamostny. “Localities can absolutely have a strong permit process.”

The task force, made up of about two dozen top public safety officials from across the state—except from Charlottesville—heard a report from the consultants who actually did the review heavy lifting: the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which was paid around $46,000, and the Olsen Group, which cost $300,000, according to Zamostny.

“It’s not about finger pointing,” says Zamostny—several times in the course of a phone interview—perhaps mindful that the day the initial report came out, Charlottesville spokeswoman Miriam Dickler fired off a statement: “It is disappointing that, from what we have heard to date, the report lays fault on one organization rather than comprehensively considering the roles played by each participating agency.”

The city hired Tim Heaphy to conduct an independent, in-depth review that’s expected to be presented to City Council December 4.

As much as the state’s review was not about placing blame, the initial report notes, “Recommendations communicated by the state to the City of Charlottesville were not accepted, including industry best practices for handling violent events.”

Among the concerns shared with Charlottesville were intelligence the participants were planning to be violent and a mass-casualty event, such as a car attack, was a possibility, according to the report.

The big question in Charlottesville since August 12 has been, where were the police and why didn’t they intervene when demonstrators were fighting. The governor’s task force does not address that issue, but it does note the “lack of a unified command.”

Virginia State Police appeared after an unlawful assembly was declared. Staff photo

Activist Emily Gorcenski says she has not read the entire report, but her impression is that it was more a presentation of tactics. “My question was, is this a review of what happened in Charlottesville or was this a case study for future events. My sense is it’s the latter.”

Zamostny likely wouldn’t disagree. She says the focus was public safety, and “to have necessary precautions in place” across the state to prevent future violent events.

The report also identified “a lot of things that went well,” she says. The state provided “an unprecedented level of resources,” including 600 Virginia State Police, 125 National Guard members and more than 400 on standby.

State police leave Emancipation Park after protesters were ordered to disperse August 12. Staff photo

But the recommendations suggest the state may have second thoughts about providing such a level of resources while allowing a locality to retain command. “The state should re-evaluate the extent to which it is comfortable remaining in a support role to local jurisdictions, particularly following a declared state of emergency and when large numbers state resources are allocated,” advise the consultants.

What went wrong: the state’s perspective

  • Charlottesville didn’t heed state recommendations
  • Charlottesville didn’t put restrictions on Jason Kessler’s Emancipation Park permit
  • Disparate incident action plans
  • Lack of unified command, unclear chain of command
  • Multiple command posts—and the one at Wells Fargo was “not functional”
  • Decision-makers weren’t trained on command post operations
  • Similar functionary units couldn’t communicate on the same radio frequency
  • No primary spokesperson
  • Criminal histories of participants not evident in operations plan



Work Group RecommendationsAug12

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