Independent investigation says systemic collapse in police planning led to Charlottesville violence

Attorney Timothy Heaphy, gestures as he delivers an independent report on the issues concerning the white supremacist rally and protest in Charlottesville, during a news conference in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Law enforcement in Charlottesville failed to prepare, communicate, or adequately protect public safety during the Unite the Right rally, according to a highly critical independent review of the deadly protest, released on Friday.

Former U.S. attorney Timothy J. Heaphy, who led the months-long review, said that the response by Charlottesville and Virginia State Police was marked by systemic errors that allowed violent confrontations between white supremacists and counter-protestors to happen, eventually resulting in the death of  Heather Heyer.

“The inability to plan for people hurting each other is the theme here,” Heaphy said at a Friday press conference. “This was a poorly conceived plan and it was not flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions.” Heathy highlighted three areas where law enforcement failed to adequately prepare, starting with the refusal to take on intelligence gathered from police in cities where white supremacists had previously staged rallies.

“There was no consultation whatsoever between the Charlottesville police department and other communities where this had occurred,” Heathy said, citing the cities of Pikeville, Ky. and Portland, Ore. “This is not the first time these people had come together and the fact that there was no effort to gather lessons learned was a missed opportunity. There was a sense we found of ‘we got this’.”

Heathy also criticized the lack of specialized training Charlottesville police received prior to the protests, and a failure of communication between the various law enforcement agencies tasked with policing the event. “Charlottesville line officers really 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 that they had that day.”

The most critical failure, however, was law enforcement’s inflexibility in only focusing on Emancipation Park in central Charlottesville, rather then the surrounding area where much of the violence spilled over to. “The plan obsessively focused on park and did not have sufficient resources outside of park,” Heathy said. “The positioning and alignment of officers was a recipe for disorder.” He added that as violence escalated, Charlottesville police had to leave the area and double-back to a staging area to collect their riot gear.

The report emphasized that the failures weren’t due to a lack of police willpower — many officers apparently feeling frustrated by their agency’s response to the protests. Heathy said during their interviews, officers had conveyed their sense of disappointment with remarks like, “We were prevented from doing police work,” “We had our thumbs up our ass,” and “We let the community down.”

But many activists involved with fighting against white supremacy in Charlottesville feel the report brushes over the antagonistic relationship between them and the police — a relationship which, if used properly, could have helped to stem some of the critical errors Heathy outlined in his press conference.

“I think the fact that the report condemns anti-racists activists for not wishing to speak with CPD, without bothering to examine or critique the many systemic and structural reasons why they would feel this way, is one example that exposes the report’s bias,” said Pam Starsia, a former Charlottesville attorney who’s mentioned in the report. Other counterprotestors have pointed out that they made significant inroads into discovering what the white supremacists were planning prior to the rally and would have shared that information if law enforcement approached them in an appropriate manner.

“We presented [intelligence], in multiple public forums, throughout July, to City officials. It fell on deaf ears,” said Jalane Schmidt, a co-founder of Charlottesville’s Black Lives Matter chapter.  “There is little more to say other than that we warned officials about the nature of the groups, which we enumerated by name, and provided evidence of their lethal intent.”

Meanwhile the organizer for the Unite the Right rally, Jason Kessler, is already planning an anniversary march.

This posted has been updated with Jalane Schmidt’s comments. Joshua Eaton contributed additional reporting.