Investigation into Charlottesville rally blames police for failing to prevent violence

Investigation into Charlottesville rally blames police for failing to prevent violence
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” clash with police as they are forced out of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the “Unite the Right” rally was declared an unlawful gathering. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the “alt-right” clash with police as they are forced out of Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, after the “Unite the Right” rally was declared an unlawful gathering. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After a monthslong investigation, a team headed by former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy released a report Friday examining what went wrong during the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.

The result? The police didn’t do their job, according to the report.

The most damning criticism from the report is that Charlottesville’s assembled coalition of local law enforcement agencies failed to adequately maintain control over attendees and counterprotesters. They failed to keep anti-fascists and white nationalists sufficiently separated and did not set up checkpoints for weapons confiscation, unlike the checkpoints later observed at similar rallies in Berkeley, California and Shelbyville, Tennessee).

When violence did break out, the report found police repeatedly neglected to respond. As street fights broke out on the morning of the rally, Charlottesville Police Chief Al S. Thomas Jr. reportedly said, “Let them fight. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” He later said he didn’t recall making that statement.

“Despite clear evidence of violence, police consistently failed to intervene, de-escalate or otherwise respond,” the report’s authors found.

A Virginia State Police officer in riot gear keeps watch from the top of an armored vehicle after a car plowed through a crowd of counterprotesters marching through the downtown shopping district in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12.
A Virginia State Police officer in riot gear keeps watch from the top of an armored vehicle after a car plowed through a crowd of counterprotesters marching through the downtown shopping district in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The report, which is over 200 pages long, is based on interviews with more than 150 people and a review of hundreds of thousands of documents.

Charlottesville police were also unaccustomed to being part of a “mobile field force” assembled between various law enforcement agencies. Many officers had never responded to military-style commands, gathered to practice formations ahead of time or trained in the appropriate use of non-lethal weapons.

“Many officers had never worn or even tried on their ‘riot gear,’ which consisted of ballistic helmets, plastic shields, and gas masks,” the report reads. “We heard numerous stories from officers regarding incomplete equipment, struggles to put on gas masks underneath their helmets and forced adjustment of sizes for equipment as they ‘geared up’ in Emancipation Park.”

Rescue workers and medics tend to people who were injured when a car plowed through a crowd of anti-facist counterprotesters.
Rescue workers and medics tend to people who were injured when a car plowed through a crowd of anti-facist counterprotesters. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But Charlottesville police aren’t the only ones called into question in the report. The city itself is criticized for its sloppy preparation for the rally — including its attempt to relocate the rally at the last minute, further complicating police planning.

The report is validating for white nationalists, who have been abdicating blame for Heather Heyer’s death and blaming the unpreparedness of police since the day of the rally. Jason Kessler, the event’s central organizer, tweeted Friday morning the report gave him “much firmer ground to sue the city.”