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Law enforcement breakdowns produced 'disastrous results' at Charlottesville rally, report says

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clash with police as they are forced out of Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A series of failures by law enforcement in response to violence at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August allowed the situation to spiral out of control, according to an independent review released Friday.

The rally began as a protest of the potential removal of Confederate statues from a local park, but the scene turned violent when counterprotesters arrived and clashed with those gathered.

"Our goal in preparing this report is to enhance our community’s ability to understand and learn from the difficult events of 2017," the report reads. "We also hope the facts and recommendations herein lead to constructive discussion in Charlottesville and elsewhere about the important issues raised by the protest events."

About the report

The report comes from a review team led by Virginia U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy, completed over the course of 90 days by four lawyers and support staff.

The information in the report comes from more than 150 interviews, half a million documents, 300 hours of video footage and 2,000 still photos.

What did they find?

A lack of preparation. Other cities had hosted rallies with the same group responsible for the Charlottesville rally earlier in the summer. But, local law enforcement didn’t reach out to those other cities to learn how to respond most effectively.

There was little effort to specially train officers for the event, and when things got out of hand, some officers found themselves putting on riot gear and gas masks for the first time ever.

An inflexible response. Numerous officers reported that they felt restricted by a rigid plan of action, which didn’t include a viable plan B to respond when the violence escalated.

“I talked to a dozen police officers who were very disappointed in their inability to react to this disorder,” Heaphy said. “They said ‘We had our thumbs up our ass’ or ‘We let the community down.’ Officers believed that because the way the plan was executed, they were prevented from doing their jobs.”

A failure to communicate. Virginia state police had a separate operational plan from Charlottesville police, and there were not open lines of communication.

The lack of communication created issues as state police tried to extract undercover agents while Charlottesville riot police were moving in to establish order.

A failure to separate conflicting groups. Efforts to disperse the crowd took too long and started too late, according to the report. The violence that ensued as mixed crowds were pushed out of the park where the rally took place resulted in numerous brawls, and Heather Heyer was killed by a man who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.

A personal assistant to Charlottesville Chief of Police Al Thomas said the chief told officers to “Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.” However, it took more than 40 minutes after violence broke out for that declaration to be made.

The positives

There were some things that the report found that went well, such as:

  • No one was shot, despite the presence of angry people and firearms
  • No significant personal property damage occurred
  • The Charlottesville Fire Department and University of Virginia Health System had an effect response plan to treat injured people quickly
  • The information gathered by law enforcement before and during the event was accurate and thorough
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