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Virginia State Police responds to independent review of 2017 protests in Charlottesville

The below statement comes from Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, in response to the publication of the independent review of the 2017 protest events in Charlottesville.

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.

Report on Charlottesville rally faults police over planning, failure to protect public

An independent review of the circumstances surrounding an August rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that led to a woman's death found police were unprepared and failed to protect the public.

The August 12 "Unite the Right" rally was a gathering of white nationalists and other far-right groups that culminated in the death of Heather Heyer when a man drove a car through a crowd of counterprotesters.

The rally was originally planned as a protest over the city's decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Former US Attorney Timothy Heaphy released the results of his investigation in a 220-page report Friday, detailing failures by the city and law enforcement to prepare adequately for the rally, which led to a breakdown in communication and an inability to protect participants.

But Heaphy said at a press conference Friday that his investigation "never found evidence of misconduct ... or anything but the best of intentions" on the part of local and state police.

Charlottesville hired Heaphy's law firm to review how the city handled the protest. Heaphy is set to present his findings to the City Council on Monday evening.

In remarks following the press conference, Police Chief Al S. Thomas Jr. said he was "committed to implementing the recommendations" made in the report.

"We are a community divided, we are still a community in crisis," Thomas said. "It's not a time for finger-pointing; it's a time to come together."

The report cited evidence from officials who said that the police chief told officers to let the two sides fight, to make it easier to declare an "unlawful assembly" and provide a basis for it. The report said Thomas did not remember making that statement.

Kevin Martingayle, an attorney representing the chief, said after the press conference the report's assertion that Thomas said, "Let them fight," is inaccurate.

Failure to prepare

Charlottesville officials failed to prepare adequately for the August event, the report said, by not providing specialized training for police on the ground. Some officers, Heaphy said, didn't even know how to use the riot gear that they'd been issued that day in case the rally became violent.

Charlottesville should have consulted with other cities and communities where similar gatherings had occurred and taken their advice, Heaphy said.

"Some of those cities actually reached out," he said, pointing to Portland, Oregon, where right-wing protesters and left-wing demonstrators clashed in June.

Still, none of the shared information became part of the Charlottesville police's plan, Heaphy said. He called the decision not to implement the intelligence a "tremendous failure."

"The fact that there was no effort to talk with those other places and gather lessons learned was a missed opportunity," the former federal prosecutor said. "There was a sense of, 'We got this.' "

Local and state police didn't consult with each other and develop an operational plan ahead of the rally, Heaphy said, and the result was a lack of unified command. With different agencies on the ground, there needed to be coordination, Heaphy said, and without it, joint efforts were "horribly inefficient."

Communication failures

Inadequate communication was another misstep, the investigation found.

Central to this breakdown was confusion over whether the event would take place in Emancipation Park, where it was originally planned, or move elsewhere. The rally ultimately stayed at that park, but the uncertainty forced police to "plan for different contingencies."

As a result, it was unclear where crowds would gather, and police were spread thin and ineffectively placed to respond to the battling groups, Heaphy said.

Another issue was how long it took for an "unlawful assembly" to be declared, the investigation found. From the time it was requested -- about 10:50 that morning, Heaphy said -- it took 40 minutes for police to get prepared and declare an unlawful assembly.

Failure to protect the public

The third failure was law enforcement's inability to protect the public, Heaphy said.

"The most tragic manifestation of the failure to protect public safety after the event was declared unlawful was the death of Heather Heyer," the report said.

In the immediate aftermath, both rallygoers and counterprotesters said that police had not done enough, and in some cases, intentionally stood by.

Heaphy's investigation found that Charlottesville police officers had been ordered to intervene only in violent altercations between participants if there was a possibility of serious injury or death. "Short of that, they were not going to intervene," he said.

Meanwhile, according to the investigation, Virginia State Police had been told its responsibility was to protect Emancipation Park, and not to disperse violent participants or make arrests because of concerns for those officers' safety.

In interviews with line officers, Heaphy said, he was told they believed "they were prevented from doing their job."

"In sum, this was a poorly conceived plan that was not flexible enough to not accommodate changing conditions," Heaphy said at the press conference. "Good intentions, gone awry. Failure to communicate, failure to protect, all a product of the failure to prepare."

Several days after the rally, at a contentious press conference, President Donald Trump prompted a political firestorm when he said "both sides" were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville.