Challenges ahead: Charlottesville, state police prepare for what weekend may bring

Expert weighs in on challenge amid anniversary of Unite the Right rally

By Rachel Lucas


All eyes are on Charlottesville this weekend. Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the deadly Unite the Right rally. A second rally is planned in Washington, D.C., as well as several counterprotests.

Charlottesville police were highly criticized for being unprepared last year. Police have been training for months on how to handle a repeat demonstration.

Crowds can expect to see more than 1,000 police officers, as well as the Virginia National Guard, on duty this weekend in the city.

The community is still healing after two state troopers -- Lt. Jay Cullen, and Trooper-pilot Berke Bates -- were killed in a helicopter accident and 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed after being hit by a car, which also injured 19 others while driving through a crowd last year.

“As the mayor, I don't want to see the devastation that we saw last year,” Charlottesville’s Mayor Nikuyah Walker said Friday.

The community is hoping to heal but preparing for the worst. Walker said there is a fear of the unknown of who will show up in their city.

“With not knowing what steps these alt-right groups might take, how many people are coming, how they might arrive...and when,” Walker said.

Assuring safety this weekend for those who may come has taken a year of preparation.

“The police have a lot of challenges,” said criminal justice expert and former police officer Tod Burke of Christiansburg.

Burke, who formerly taught criminal justice at Radford University,
said police across the country have learned a lot from the deadly riots last year.

Charlottesville police are now focusing on keeping crowds and cars separated and issuing street closures and parking restrictions. There will be only two access points to the downtown area, both of which can only be entered by foot.

There will even be a curfew in the city. The curfew has come with controversy from residents who expressed their opinions to City Council. Gov. Ralph Northam's state of emergency declaration means the National Guard will be added to the mix of police.

Burke said their presence will certainly add extra safety assurances, but the manner in which they are stationed will drastically affect public perception. Burke said from a police perspective, when handling mass demonstrations like last year, law enforcement can either choose to use a show of force by having a large, uniformed police presence in an effort to deter rioters, or choose to be more subtle by infiltrating crowds with plainclothes

He said police this year are hoping to be proactive instead of reactive to a crisis, a goal that can only be accomplished by starting with good communication.

Burke said it’s important for law enforcement to know what groups are coming to the city, a hard task that he said will even include gathering information from social media or out-of-state agencies. He emphasized that communication between law enforcement and city officials is crucial.

"You want to be able to have a central command, and sometimes that is a little bit difficult when you have a lot of agencies that are involved,” Burke said. “I think communication is critical."

Burke said the change of protest venues and the mixing of dangerously opposing views were perhaps the biggest problems last year that led to the riot.

"Being able to separate the parties -- I think they've learned from that -- and be able to say, 'You know what? We can't have these parties mix. We want to be able to keep them separated.' At the same time, the police want to be able to keep the constitutional rights of people maintained, particularly the First Amendment,” Burke said, admitting that comes as a hard task for police.

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