Independent review scrutinizes deadly Charlottesville protests

Published: Dec. 1, 2017 at 11:21 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 1, 2017 at 10:13 PM EST
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (WWBT) - Former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy released an independent review of the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Friday.

The 200-page report goes into details about what led to the August rally, as well as four recommendations to improve the response for future events.

"This represents a failure of one of government's core functions - the protection of fundamental rights," the report said. "Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death. Charlottesville preserved neither of those principles on Aug. 12, which has led to deep distrust of government within this community."

Part of the reports say troopers had orders by VSP to stay behind barricades well before the violence erupted. Charlottesville Police were told the same thing and to only intervene only if there was risk of serious injury.

"Those instructions exposed people to the violence that occurred, particularly on Market Street," says Heaphy.

It says there was a serious lack of communication between CPD and VSP, as well as very little training for CPD officers for an event like this.

Heaphy says one of the most shocking comments was made by Charlottesville police Chief Al Thomas.

"There's also evidence that the chief actually said, 'Let them fight. Let them fight for a little while, and it will make it easier to declare unlawful assembly.'"

Heaphy reiterated like many city officials, the chief had well intention that were misguided, but it was not misconduct.

Chief Thomas is also accused of deleting texts messages during the event. His lawyer addressed that accusations saying, "That is not accurate and [Chief Thomas] plans to address that."

The report also says there was only one lone officer near the site where Heyer lost her life. It says the officer feared for her life as both groups came towards the Downtown Mall.

The report says that officer called for assistance and was relieved of her post, but nobody came to replace her. All that was left was a wooden barrier that cars could easily get around.

After that, the car driven by James Fields plowed through the crowd, killing Heyer and injuring others.

Here is the list of recommendations made in the report

  1. Preparing for civil disturbance: "Police agencies should ensure that they have adequate means to gather and vet intelligence and incorporate that information into operational plans. They should reach out to peers in other jurisdictions and learn from their experience."
  2. Effective management of protest evidence: "When a protest threatens to be volatile, the City should consider creating a secure perimeter with designated points of entry and enforced separation of conflicting groups. While this 'stadium approach' will not be possible in every situation, it is a sensible default approach to planning for large, potentially violent events."
  3. Changes in law: "Charlottesville should modify its permitting regulations to explicitly codify the prohibition of certain objects at large protest events and require permits for all events involving open flames. The Virginia General Assembly should criminalize the use of a flame to intimidate."
  4. Restoring faith in government: "We recommend that the City address the issues raised in the wake of these events as a means to restore confidence in government. For CPD, this means not only better planning and event management, but also more community engagement, a necessary condition for proactive, effective policing."

"On a number of fronts, as the report acknowledges, we succeeded in protecting our city to the best of our abilities," said Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones. "But in other areas we, and our law enforcement partner in the Virginia State Police, undoubtedly fell short of expectations, and for that we are profoundly sorry. This report is one critical step in helping this community heal and move forward after suffering through this summer of hate."

Police Chief Al Thomas was the only city official to make a statement on camera. He said he received the report at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning.

"I am hopeful that we will have an opportunity to implement these recommendations in order to unite our community," says Chief Thomas. "We are a community divided, we are still a community in crisis."

Jones says the city is working on an action plan that will be revealed on Monday.

Virginia State Police issued the following statement on the independent review:

The state police appreciates the time and effort put forth by Mr. Tim Heaphy and his team to produce such a detailed report on the unprecedented events that occurred in the City of Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.  Thorough reviews and evaluations of public safety planning, response and management of significant incidents are invaluable in helping a law enforcement agency assess what has happened and successfully prepare for the future. In addition to the completion of our own internal after-action report, we also await the results of the final report by the Governor's Task Force on Public Safety Preparedness and Response to Civil Unrest.

As with any review of a public safety response to a major incident, context and experience in proper policing practices are critical to the utilization of reports of this nature. On Aug. 12, individuals from 35 different states came to the City of Charlottesville cloaked under the protection of our nation's First Amendment. These very individuals, from both the extreme right and extreme left, attended the Unite the Right Rally with the sole purpose of provoking violence from the opposing side. In that kind of volatile and rapidly-evolving environment, it is difficult for any one police plan to account for every possible circumstance and resulting scenario. For that reason, police plans must be adaptive in nature so as to empower the on-scene police agency(s) with the flexibility needed for immediate decision-making and sufficient deployment of resources.

What happened in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017 was unprecedented in Virginia's history. Aug. 12, 2017 also required the largest deployment of Virginia State Police personnel and resources to a single event in our 85-year history. That decision to assign more than 600 sworn and civilian personnel to this event did not happen overnight. State police, in partnership with local and state public safety agencies and Charlottesville government, spent weeks planning and preparing for a multitude of worst-case scenarios that had the potential to occur because of the unparalleled intelligence gathering and analysis shared among all relevant agencies. The state police deployments in Charlottesville on July 8 and Aug. 12 were in support of the Charlottesville Police Department in fulfillment of our agency mission: "The Virginia State Police, independent yet supportive of other law enforcement and criminal justice agencies, is to provide high quality, statewide law enforcement services to the people of Virginia and its visitors; and to actively plan, train and promote emergency preparedness in order to protect the citizens of the Commonwealth and its infrastructure.

Friday's report came just days after Jason Kessler, who organized the original Unite the Right rally, announced he has filed a permit with the city to return to Charlottesville on the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right Rally.

Thousands of people descended on the city of Charlottesville last summer, and the event turning violent.

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed and Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper Pilot Berke Bates died when their helicopter crashed while watching over the city.

A report from the state safety task force, which was also created in response to the white nationalist rally, is also expected to come down on Friday.


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