Charlottesville Police Chief: 'Let them fight'

Yesterday I wrote about the damning 200-page report on the failure of police (and the city) to handle the escalating violence in Charlottesville back in August. To summarize the report briefly, police were not properly prepared or equipped to deal with the situation and once crowds of white supremacists and counter-protesters began battling in the street the police did almost nothing. In fact, this was a strategy on the part of the police who intended to allow skirmishes to escalate so they could declare an unlawful assembly. Police Chief Al Thomas even said “Let them fight…” as people began battling in the streets.

At 10:57 a.m., a woman approached the outer barricade outside of Zone 1 and got Officer Ernest Johnston’s attention. She asked, “Are you going to engage the crowd at all?”

“Not unless I get a command to,” Officer Johnson responded.

“Even if there are people physically hurting one another?” she asked.

“If I’m given the command to act, yes ma’am, I will.” She repeated her question, and he gave the same answer: he would engage if and when he was commanded to do so.

Tim Messer, a witness with whom we spoke, explained that the skirmishes he observed followed a consistent pattern. As the Unite The Right groups approached Emancipation Park, counter-protesters shouted “here they come” and formed blockades. The demonstrators then used shields, flags, or fists to start skirmishes, all of which were eventually broken up by pepper spray. The crowd would then part and allow them entry into the park. That scenario played out at least half a dozen times. Mr. Messer encountered a VSP trooper near 2nd and Market Streets and asked him why police had been standing back. The trooper replied, “Our policy today is that we cannot get involved in every skirmish, and we are here to protect the public’s safety.” The witness was incredulous that police would allow the fights to go on, but the trooper reiterated, “That is our policy.”

At 10:59 a.m., Captain Shifflett relayed to the Command Center that 2nd and Market Street were once again “getting ready to erupt any second now.” A moment later, he reported
another fight of “about forty people going at it, they’re using sticks.” He again radioed, “Weapons are being used on Market and Second Street.” He added, “Recommend
unlawful assembly.”

Charlottesville police were ordered to put on their riot gear which meant retreating from barricades to suit up, a process that took them about fifteen minutes. The report notes that some of the officers had never worn the equipment [emphasis added].

In the meantime, the intersection at Market and Second Street descended into chaos. The brawling continued and became violent as Unite The Right demonstrators who had just entered the park began to rove out from the southeast staircase, forming shield walls to push the counter-protesters back. Bottles, balloons filled with unknown substances, and debris flew through the air. The clouds of pepper spray rose every few minutes. By 11:08 a.m., Maurice Jones and the Regional Policy Group declared a local and regional state of emergency. At 11:13 a.m., COB McIntire was put on lockdown.

Chief Thomas’s response to the increasing violence on Market Street was disappointingly passive. Captain Lewis and Chief Thomas’ personal assistant Emily Lantz both told us that upon the first signs of open violence on Market Street, Chief Thomas said “let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” Thomas did not recall making that statement, though he did confirm that he waited to “see how things played out” before declaring the unlawful assembly. Regardless of what he said, Chief Thomas’ slow-footed response to violence put the safety of all at risk and created indelible images of this chaotic event.

So the fighting escalated for perhaps 45 minutes until police finally declared an unlawful assembly. But even after that declaration at 11:30 am, the skirmishes continued:

The mobile field force formed an east-west line just south of the Lee Statue and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their shields in front of them. At 11:49 a.m., they started to inch south, showing those still present that they needed to leave. By this time, demonstrators and counter-protesters were fighting inside the park, and they engaged in more violent confrontations—throwing debris, attacking each other with sticks, and recklessly spraying pepper spray—within a few yards of the approaching mobile field force line.

In fact, all the police really succeeded in doing at this point was forcing the white supremacist protesters back toward a crowd of counter-protesters and thereby creating more skirmishes and street battles [emphasis added].

Lieutenant Hatter described the dispersal of Emancipation Park on August 12 as the “most messed up thing I ever saw.” Hatter noted that the Alt-Right demonstrators were screaming at the VSP and CPD officers as the mobile field force pushed from the rear of Emancipation Park, commenting that “you are pushing us right into the crowd.” Hatter agreed with this assessment, noting that the effort was “causing confrontations and pushing [the Alt-Right] right into their enemies.” Lieutenant Mooney similarly told us that several of the Alt-Right demonstrators complained to him that the dispersal order “is pushing us right into our enemies.”…

The most notorious incident from those tense moments involved a homemade flamethrower and a gunshot. As Alt-Right demonstrators left the park and turned right to move west down Market Street, they passed by counter-protester Corey Long. Video taken by a bystander shows Long igniting the spray from an aerosol canister and pointing the flames at passing demonstrators. Richard Wilson Preston, a Ku Klux Klan leader from Maryland, saw this as he exited the park. He drew his handgun and pointed it at Long while screaming at him to stop. Preston loaded a round into the chamber of his gun then fired a single shot at the ground next to Long. He holstered his gun and walked away. VSP troopers, identified by their neon yellow vests, stood in a line behind two barricades about twenty feet away. None appeared to react.

Needless to say, none of this is how you prevent violence at a rally involving two groups who come prepared for violence. The proper approach is to keep the two groups apart and intervene where necessary to prevent fights from escalating. The Charlottesville police did the opposite. They not only failed to intervene in fights, they also pushed the two battling groups into closer contact with one another, with results the report calls “predictable.” The report found no evidence of a verbal “stand down” order. However, the report is blunt on this point saying Charlottesville police failed to “stand up.”

Even if there was no explicit “stand down” order in place, CPD and VSP both failed to “stand up” to protect human life. Supervisors devised a poorly conceived plan that under-equipped and misaligned hundreds of officers. Execution of that plan elevated officer safety over public safety. The consequence was that many in the crowd felt physically vulnerable despite intense law enforcement presence, a perfect recipe for undermining the community’s faith in law enforcement.

A report published by ProPublica on August 12th indicated it was actually “a group of assault-rifle-toting militia members from New York State” who did more to break up fights in the street than the Charlottesville police. In short, the plan for dealing with this march was such a mess that it’s a little surprising more people weren’t seriously injured.