Law enforcement that responded to the “Unite the Right” rally and subsequent violent clashes in Charlottesville, Va., over the summer lacked preparation and failed to protect citizens, according to an independent review of the August events released Friday.
Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, led a team in investigating the response to the Aug. 12 clashes between white nationalist groups and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., that left one woman dead.
Through the course of his investigation, Heaphy found police planning for the “Unite the Right” rally was “inadequate and disconnected.” In his 200-page report, Heaphy also said breakdowns in coordination and planning before the Aug. 12 event “produced disastrous results.”
“The City was unable to protect the right of free expression and facilitate that permit holder’s offensive speech. This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions — the protection of fundamental rights,” the report states. “Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury and death. Charlottesville preserved neither of those principles on August 12, which has led to deep distrust of government within this community.”
White nationalists descended on Charlottesville on Aug. 12 to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, and clashed with counter-protesters opposing their efforts.
According to the review, officers lacked access to protective gear and therefore “failed to intervene in physical altercations that took place” in areas near Emancipation Park.
The Virginia State Police instructed its officers to stay behind barricades instead of risking injury when responding to confrontations between the white nationalist groups and counter-demonstrators, and commanders with the Charlottesville Police Department told its officers “not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations.”
While a crowd fought on Market Street, Charlottesville Police Department commanders “pulled officers back to a protected area of the park, where they remained for over an hour," the report states.
Law enforcement tried to break up a crowd after the “Unite the Right” rally was officially cancelled, but their efforts only led to more violence as white nationalists were pushed back in the direction of counter-protesters.
As a result, fights broke out in various areas of Charlottesville beyond Emancipation Park.
“Police attempted to respond to these violent conflicts, but were too far away and too late to intervene,” the report states. “The result was a period of lawlessness and tension that threatened the safety of the entire community.”
Heaphy said in his report that the “most tragic manifestation of the failure to protect public safety after the event was declared unlawful” was the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was killed when a suspected Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
The Charlottesville Police Department placed a lone school resource officer at an intersection near where the car later plowed into the demonstrators, but the officer was relieved of her post after calling for help, worried about her safety.
The resource officer was never replaced, and only a wooden sawhorse was put in place to stop traffic where the counter-protesters marched.
In addition to Heyer, two state troopers responding to the clashes were killed when their helicopter crashed.
In the wake of the violent clashes, Heaphy recommended the city change its permitting regulations to prohibit specific objects at large protests events. His report also encouraged the Virginia state legislature to pass restrictions on the right to carry firearms at such events.