When City Manager Maurice Jones introduced the man hired to investigate the events of Charlottesville’s summer of hate, he listed former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy’s “critical eye,” his experience with law enforcement and investigations, and then he described the city as “partnering” with Heaphy.
Heaphy immediately took some trouble to distance himself from the perception that he’s a partner working in the city’s pocket to sweep under the rug missteps that led to a fatality and multiple injuries at the August 12 Unite the Right rally.
“I don’t think that’s a fair characterization,” he said. “I think we were hired to look critically at the city.” The investigation, which will include the city’s handling of the July 8 KKK rally and the first assembly of tiki-torch-carrying white nationalists May 12, will not be a “whitewash to affirm decisions that were made or meant to point a finger at any individual,” he said.
Instead, he promised an “arm’s length investigation” that would “objectively assess” what happened. “I don’t really see the city as a partner,” he said.
The decision to hire Heaphy and his $545-an-hour firm, Hunton & Williams, has brought some criticism, including from several speakers during public comment.
“It’s been 51 days since a murder here,” said Don Gathers, who chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. “It’s been 51 days since the hounds from hell marched on our city.” If necessary, he said, the people would call on its own review board.
Gathers also urged the city to do away with the Pledge of Allegiance that begins every City Council meeting. “Please no longer ask us to start these proceedings with a Pledge of Allegiance to a flag or a country that shows no allegiance to us.” He ended his comments with a drop to both knees with both fists raised.
Heaphy stressed that he was not the sole investigator, and said he was leading a team of four lawyers, other professionals and a separate group of law enforcement consultants. “It’s not me doing this, it’s me supervising a team,” he said.
The investigation is not just looking at law enforcement and police response, and it will also examine the permitting process, interagency coordination, internal and external communications and the relationship between council and staff, he said.
That became an issue when Mayor Mike Signer was not allowed into the command center August 12, and on Facebook and in a leaked memo, he pointed the finger at Jones and police Chief Al Thomas. Jones responded that Signer threatened to fire both him and Thomas during the height of the crisis. Signer was subsequently reprimanded by his colleagues on City Council, who reminded him in the city’s form of government, the mayor is one among five equals and the city manager is the CEO.
The investigation is “not strictly did police do a good job,” said Heaphy. “It’s much broader than that.”
Investigators are poring over thousands of documents, photos and videos, have established a tip line (charlottesvilleindependentreview.com, 877-448-6866) and have conducted 60 interviews so far, said Heaphy. “We’re trying our best to get a comprehensive report.”
He also acknowledged the lack of “universal acceptance” because of his own background and the “skepticism” of city government. “We’ve worked hard to disabuse people of that perception,” he said.
Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy asked the big questions that remain unanswered at this point: Why was Fourth Street, where Heather Heyer was killed and dozens of other injured when a car plowed into a crowd of counterprotesters, open? Was there a stand-down order for police, and why were protesters allowed to carry shields and weapons?
Those are “not simple answers,” said Heaphy, and he said he preferred to give a full narrative based on verifiable facts, which he anticipates could come by Thanksgiving or December.
He said there would be no legal prohibition preventing the release of the information.
Councilor Kathy Galvin urged a speedy release of the report. “I think the public is so hungry for news, it would be incumbent upon us to share it as quickly as possible,” she said, and not hold it for even “a single day.”
Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, came to City Council to thank it for the “honor” of naming a portion of Fourth Street between Market and Water streets for her daughter, who died there August 12.
“I also wanted to point out it was my idea not to put a park associated with her name for a number of reasons,” said Bro, “and absolutely no statues.” Bro said she thought that “was a little bit much and Heather, frankly, hated statues for a number of reasons.”
Bro, who is not a Charlottesville resident, urged the city to consider naming more streets for African-American leaders who have made an impact, including Laura Robinson, who taught before and during segregation and who died earlier this year at 103.