Independent Review: City, law enforcement errors contributed to violence in Charlottesville

John Sexton Posted at 3:21 pm on December 01, 2017

Ever since the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia escalated to murder, there has a been an ongoing debate over who was responsible for allowing things to get so out of hand. In late August the city hired Hunton & Williams LLP to perform an independent investigation of the city’s performance on August 11 and 12, plus two previous protests from earlier in the year. Today, former U.S. Attorney Timothy J.  Heaphy released his 200-page report based on hundreds of interviews and a review of half-a-million documents including video footage and photographs. Heaphy concludes that a series of errors by the city and by law enforcement contributed to the chaos which culminated in Heather Heyer’s death. The full report is quite lengthy so I’m going to focus on two portions of the executive summary. First, the poor planning by the city and police leading up to the march:

In the face of strong community opposition to the Unite The Right rally, City leaders wanted to deny Kessler’s permit application. City Councilors responded to this pressure by injecting themselves into the operational details of the City’s response to this event—a function typically reserved for City staff. In a closed meeting ten days before the event, they considered the prospect of moving the Unite The Right event to McIntire Park. City Manager Maurice Jones and CPD Chief Al Thomas voiced concerns with moving the event to McIntire Park, particularly just days from the event. City attorneys and outside lawyers cautioned that an attempt to move the event was likely to be struck down by courts. Nonetheless, four of the five Councilors emerged from the closed meeting in favor of moving the event to McIntire Park. This put strong pressure on City Manager Jones and Chief Thomas to comply with their desire to move the event.

The late decision to shift the event’s location had a negative impact on preparations for this challenging event. Uncertainty about the location prevented City leaders from providing thorough information to the public about the event beyond its potential danger. The limited communication by the City frustrated many residents already on edge after the July 8 events. Law enforcement leaders had to plan for two possible scenarios, complicating their efforts. The move to McIntire was ultimately unsuccessful; a federal judge granted Kessler an injunction that prevented the move and guaranteed his group access to Emancipation Park.

Even apart from the complexity introduced by the possible move, police planning for August 12 was inadequate and disconnected. CPD commanders did not reach out to officials in other jurisdictions where these groups had clashed previously to seek information and advice. CPD supervisors did not provide adequate training or information to line officers, leaving them uncertain and unprepared for a challenging enforcement environment. CPD planners waited too long to request the assistance of the state agency skilled in emergency response. CPD command staff also received inadequate legal advice and did not implement a prohibition of certain items that could be used as weapons.

Tha poor planning resulted in officers who were not properly equipped and who avoiding skirmishes between protesters and counter-protesters that went on for hours. Again, this comes from the executive summary which connects these failures directly to the ultimate failure to protect Heather Heyer:

The planning and coordination breakdowns prior to August 12 produced disastrous results. Because of their misalignment and lack of accessible protective gear, officers failed to intervene in physical altercations that took place in areas adjacent to Emancipation Park. VSP directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts between protesters and counter-protesters. CPD commanders similarly instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations. Neither agency deployed available field forces or other units to protect public safety at the locations where violence took place. Instead, command staff prepared to declare an unlawful assembly and disperse the crowd. 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.

Once the unlawful assembly was declared, law enforcement efforts to disperse the crowd generated more violence as Alt-Right protesters were pushed back toward the counterprotesters with whom they had been in conflict. Once Emancipation Park was clear, the violent conflicts spread beyond the park. Small groups of people wandered through the streets and engaged in frequent skirmishes unimpeded by police. Violence erupted at the Market Street parking garage, Justice Park, High Street, the Water Street parking area, and on the Downtown Mall. Police attempted to respond to these violent conflicts, but were too far away and too late to intervene. The result was a period of lawlessness and tension that threatened the safety of the entire community.

The most tragic manifestation of the failure to protect public safety after the event was declared unlawful was the death of Heather Heyer. Early on August 12, CPD had placed a school resource officer alone at the intersection of 4th Street NE and Market Street. This officer feared for her safety as groups of angry Alt-Right protesters and counter-protesters streamed by her as they left Emancipation Park. The officer called for assistance and was relieved of her post. Unfortunately, CPD commanders did not replace her or make other arrangements to prevent traffic from traveling across the Downtown Mall on 4th Street. A single wooden saw horse was all that impeded traffic down 4th Street as large groups of people continued to roam the streets. This vulnerability was exposed when James Fields drove his vehicle down the unprotected street into a large crowd of counter-protesters at the intersection of 4th Street SE and Water Street, killing Ms. Heyer.

The report’s front page is illustrated by an image of a police officer with his back turned to a group of white supremacist protesters (above). That image seems to have been chosen to express visually what the report itself found. The summary above is simplified. Here’s an excerpt from the actual report describing the police response on Aug. 12 [emphasis added]:

Shortly after the waves of Unite The Right demonstrators began arriving, so too did groups of counter-protesters that had staged at McGuffey and Justice Parks. Just after 10:00 a.m., two of these opposing groups ran into each other behind the First United Methodist Church on 2nd Street NE. Will Peyton, the Rector of St. Paul’s, was standing in the parking lot of FUMC when a fight broke out between a group of counter-protesters in black shirts and white-shirted Unite The Right demonstrators “with short haircuts and swastikas.”

Peyton saw law enforcement officers standing on either end of 2nd Street NE, bookending the crowds. On the south end, at Jefferson Street, a large group of VSP troopers had gathered behind the barricade creating Zone 4. On the north end near High Street, a lone female CPD officer stood near her squad car. When the fight broke out, none of the officers made a move. Peyton told us that the CPD officer “was clearly ordered to stand by the car no matter what happens, and she wasn’t going to do a thing.” He was right…

At 10:21 a.m., a large group of counter-protesters wearing helmets and carrying a banner reading “Fascist Scum” confronted Alt-Right demonstrators on Market Street between 1st Street and 2nd Street NE. At 10:26 a.m., a scuffle broke out when a counter-protester tried to grab a demonstrator’s flag in the center of Market Street directly south of the Lee statue. CPD officers in Zone 5 walked up to the barricade, and Sergeant Larry Jones reported to Captain Shifflett, “We’ve got a disorder in middle of Market.” Shifflett responded, “Let’s give them a second,” then asked whether Zone 3—which was situated behind two rows of barricades more than twenty feet from the fighting—needed more units. Officers in Zone 5 watched as militia stepped in to separate people. Officer Maney turned to a fellow officer and said, “We need clarification of when we’re jumping in or not.”

A minute or so later, Lieutenant Hatter jumped over the barricade to deescalate the tension between the flag-toting demonstrator and the crowd around him. Followed by a VSP trooper, Hatter drew his retractable baton and walked over to step between the parties. Officer E.A. Maney, who had moved to the back of the parking lot for a moment, noticed Lieutenant Hatter go over the barrier and confront the demonstrator. Maney’s body camera footage shows Hatter and the state trooper walking the demonstrator away from the crowd with members of the militia appearing to guard Hatter’s rear. Maney then jumped the barrier to assist Hatter. Hatter spoke a few words to calm the demonstrator down then walked back around to 2nd Street to re-enter Zone 5. This is the only instance we identified of a CPD officer leaving a barricaded safe zone to enter the crowd and de-escalate a potentially violent situation on August 12.

All of this matches the statements of many people who were critical of the police response at the time, including the ACLU of Virginia which took a lot of blame for fighting the city in court. Again, this is a small portion of the full report but it definitely conveys the sense that the response by the city and police allowed tensions to escalate in a way that can only be viewed as a failure. The executive summary concludes, “the City of Charlottesville protected neither free expression nor public safety on August 12.”

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