After damning report, Charlottesville police chief resigns

Independent investigators said poor police planning led to violence at the Unite the Right rally.

FILE PIC: Charlottesville Police Chief Al S. Thomas Jr. exits the memorial service for Heather Heyer, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va..  (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP, Pool)
FILE PIC: Charlottesville Police Chief Al S. Thomas Jr. exits the memorial service for Heather Heyer, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Va.. (Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress via AP, Pool)

The head of the Charlottesville Police Department abruptly resigned on Monday, barely a fortnight after an independent report found that police failed to adequately prepare, communicate or protect public safety during August’s Unite the Right rally in the city.

Chief Alfred Thomas, an Air Force veteran with 27 years of law enforcement experience, stepped down from his post immediately. “Nothing in my career has brought me more pride than serving as the Police Chief of the City of Charlottesville,” Thomas said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to protect and serve a community I love so dearly. It truly has been an unparalleled privilege to work alongside such a dedicated and professional team of public servants.”

Thomas’ resignation comes 17 days after former U.S. attorney Timothy J. Heaphy released an independent review of the actions of the Charlottesville and Virginia State Police forces during the Unite the Right rally. The report fiercely criticized law-enforcement’s response to the march where Heather Heyer was killed, and said that there were systemic errors that allowed for violent confrontations between white supremacists and counter-protesters to occur.

“The inability to plan for people hurting each other is the theme here,” Heaphy said earlier this month. “This was a poorly conceived plan and it was not flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions.” Heaphy specifically focused on the lack of specialized training Charlottesville officers received prior to the march. “Charlottesville line officers didn’t have a clear sense of what to do, and there was no experience in the past with events like this,” he said. “A lot had never even tried on the ballistic helmet or used the riot shield they had that day.”

However, policing failures at the Unite the Right rally weren’t the only cause of tension between Charlottesville residents and Chief Alfred Thomas. In August, an investigation by ThinkProgress revealed that black residents were nine times more likely to be stopped by police then their white counterparts, accounting for 71 percent of all stop-and-frisks between January and August 2017, despite making up just 19 percent of the city’s population.

Charlottesville activists who were previously critical of Chief Thomas were glad that he had resigned, but said the city’s wider problem was much more systemic. “He needed to go, but so do others,” Jalane Schmidt, professor of religion at the University of Virginia and co-founder of Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter chapter, told ThinkProgress. “To make a black man the sacrificial lamb for the failings of so many is cowardly papering over. What a sad irony that our first black police chief would be ousted in the wake of white supremacist rallies, while white officials like Major Pleasants and Mayor Signer escape accountability.”

There have been tentative signs of improvement in law enforcement accountability in Charlottesville. On Tuesday, a day after Thomas’ resignation, the City Attorney Craig Brown announced he would step down at the end of January, according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Meanwhile on Monday, the city council unanimously passed a resolution to create an independent civilian review board which will work to address issues with law enforcement in the community.