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Report critical of police in August Charlottesville rally

An independent review says police failed to plan, react appropriately

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.Update (5:46 p.m. Friday): Virginia State Police Colonel W. Steven Flaherty has released a statement in response to the independent review, saying state police believe evaluating responses is helpful for law enforcement agencies, and saying, “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 full response is below.

Original story:
A report released Friday is critical of police planning and reaction on Aug. 12, when white nationalists held a rally in Charlottesville, drawing counterprotesters, sparking violence and leading to an attack that killed a woman.

As of the time of this post, the city of Charlottesville, the Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police haven't issued a response.

A law firm, acting separately from the city of Charlottesville and other government entities, composed a 200-plus page independent report. It came out just days after the white nationalist organizer, Jason Kessler, announced he plans on holding a similar event there next August, on the one-year anniversary.

Former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, speaking on behalf of the law firm issuing the report, spoke to the media Friday for more than an hour to explain that, while there were some successes, there’s a long list of police mistakes.

"There's a failure to plan for these events. There's a failure to communicate with the community about these events, and then, ultimately, and this is the big one, a failure to protect public safety,” Heaphy said.

He said police needed to keep the people attending the rally separated from the counterprotesters. Faulting both the planning and response, he said there needed to be officers located in places in the path people used to enter and exit the event, saying there were areas of predictable conflict when the crowd dispersed.

"That's where you have more clashes. You have a gunshot fired. You have a flamethrower, punches,” Heaphy said.

He said a better plan could have helped clear areas near Market Street, where there was an attack using a car that killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

The report criticizes the strategy of police largely not intervening in conflicts. It shows that the Charlottesville Police Department instructed its officers to only step in if there was the potential for “serious injury.”

"There were a lot of people who wanted to do the right thing. They weren't put in the position to do that,” Heaphy said.

The report said Charlottesville police and Virginia State police needed to communicate better. It showed that the two departments didn’t share plans and were disorganized on the day of the event.

"Those agencies need to be coordinated and need to have the same understanding as to who's responsible for what, and that did not occur here,” he said.

The report said the decision not to wear more protective gear was a mistake. Heaphy said, while it’s often reasonable to assume that appearance can lead to escalation, this particular event should have required the military-style gear from the beginning.

The report concluded that police should have made use of SWAT teams, which were standing by, to help deal with the conflicts early in the event in certain areas.

Heaphy said officers acted with good intentions, despite the poor response, and he said there were some successes, including that the injuries and damage to property were not worse.

"We never found evidence of misconduct or bad faith or anything but the best of intentions,” he said. ”What we found was a pretty consistent inability to plan for an event and then react in real time to crisis conditions."

He suggested changes to planning, including consulting other departments across the country ahead of an event that could spark conflict.

Part of the recommendations include changes to the law. Heaphy urged the state legislature to consider giving localities the ability to ban weapons, including guns, at certain events.

Thousands of people came to downtown Charlottesville for an event organizers called the Unite the Right rally, which received international attention. Along with the death of Heyer,  Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper Pilot Berke Bates died when their helicopter crashed near the event. Friday’s report did not comment on the specifics of the crash.

The rally began, in part, as a way for white nationalists and other groups to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown Charlottesville park.

The independent review also included other events in Charlottesville, including a torch-lit rally in May and a Ku Klux Klan rally in July.

Here is the full response from Virginia State Police Colonel W. Steven Flaherty:

"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.'"