CHARLOTTESVILLE — A police officer radioed for help as angry protesters swarmed around her: “They are pushing the crowd my way and I have nobody here to help me.”
Tammy Shiflett, who had just returned to active duty as an elementary school resource officer after two months recovering from a shoulder surgery, was the only person assigned to block traffic at the intersection where a deadly car attack began in Charlottesville on Aug. 12.
Instead of sending reinforcements, a superior instructed her to abandon her post and move the car that had been positioned in the intersection, leaving a wooden sawhorse as the only barrier keeping vehicles out of the area. Roughly an hour and a half later, a white nationalist drove his car down that very street, striking a crowd of counterprotesters and killing 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer.
The decision by police officials to set up only minimal barriers in preparation for the white nationalist rally and then, in one particularly grave case, to withdraw from a “crucial” intersection was among the dozens of mistakes, missteps and failures cited in a damning report commissioned by the city and publicly released Friday.
“Supervisors devised a poorly-conceived plan that under-equipped and misaligned hundreds of officers,” the report says. “Execution of that plan elevated officer safety over public safety.”
The review, led by Tim Heaphy, a former federal prosecutor who now works for Hunton & Williams, also found:
• Despite repeated public statements by state and local officials that officers were not instructed to “stand down,” police had in fact been instructed only to intervene in conflicts between white nationalists and counterprotesters in the event of serious injury.
• A Virginia State Police commander made an “off-plan” decision to keep state officers behind barricades instead of sending them into the streets to break up fights and make arrests.
• After clashes began, Police Chief Al Thomas was heard by several people in the command center saying to “let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly” and shut down the rally.
• Thomas attempted to obstruct the city’s investigation, deleting relevant text messages, attempting to hide his use of a personal email account to conduct some official police business, and creating planning checklists that were not actually used to plan for the rallies.
The 220-page document is based on hundreds of thousands of documents, video and audio recordings, photos and interviews. It represents the most comprehensive account yet of how public officials handled the “Unite the Right” rally.
Overconfident local force
The racist, far-right groups that organized the rally said they intended to protest the city’s planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But the event quickly devolved into chaos, culminating in the car attack that made the rally a national news story and led political leaders to promise a full exploration of what went wrong and how future violence might be prevented.
At a news conference Friday in Charlottesville, Heaphy said city police were overly confident as they planned for the event and did not consult with other localities that had dealt with similar protests despite offers of assistance.
“There was a sense (among local police) that ‘we’ve got this,’” he said, saying officials cited to him previous experience handling a large block party as an example of their expertise.
The report is particularly critical of the traffic plan, noting that city personnel had proposed using jersey barriers or dump trucks to block intersections, but that the idea was inexplicably discarded. And despite having more than 700 police officers on hand to respond to the event, police decided in some cases to assign unsworn police personnel, including a lab technician, to secure the event perimeter and keep vehicles out.
“They were told when it gets violent, go inside your car, lock your door,” Heaphy said.
When Shiflett, the school resource officer, left her post, the commander in charge of traffic control was never notified and, at some point, the wooden sawhorse was moved and vehicles began crossing into the downtown mall on the street where the car attack would later take place.
“Leaving that intersection unguarded was a tactical error that should not have been allowed to happen,” the report says.
The report also says that while the city did not have authority under state law to ban firearms, it did have the power to ban weapons such as sticks and bats, but opted against pursuing such a prohibition based on incorrect legal advice from the local commonwealth’s attorney’s office.
In addition to criticizing police planning, the report criticizes City Council members for what it characterizes as last-minute interference. Ten days before the rally, the council asked for the event to be moved to a different park away from the downtown area, over the objections of city staff members, including the police chief and city manager.
The decision by elected officials to wade into the operational planning “was a dangerous overreach with lasting consequences.” A federal judge ultimately overruled the attempt to cancel the permit, ordering the city to allow the rally to proceed at the originally planned location.
Passive police response
Instead of intervening in violent street clashes occurring around Emancipation Park, the site of the rally, police were instructed to take largely passive positions and were slow to change into riot gear. It’s a finding that starkly conflicts with prior assertions by both state and local authorities that police were not told to avoid getting involved in the clashes.
“VSP directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts between protesters and counter-protesters,” the report says. “CPD commanders similarly instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations.”
Police commanders said they were hesitant to send officers into the crowds to break up fights because doing so could result in a “deadly force situation,” according to the report.
The report includes statements from several Charlottesville police officials who said they were frustrated by their inability to act.
“We were sitting there with our thumbs up our asses,” said Lt. Jim Mooney.
Instead of taking a more aggressive posture to prevent violence, the report says, commanders focused on declaring an unlawful assembly to clear the park.
When violence broke out, Thomas, the Charlottesville police chief, said, “Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly,” according to the recollections of Emily Lantz, an executive assistant in the police department. The report says Thomas “did not recall” making the remark, and an attorney for Thomas denied he said it.
The report says local officials were taken aback by Virginia State Police adopting a “far more limited range of law enforcement activities” than expected. State police Lt. Becky Crannis-Curl told a local police captain Aug. 12 that she was making an “off-plan” decision to not “send arrest teams into the street.”
The idea that state police officers were not expected to “police serious incidents of lawbreaking,” the report says, was never communicated to city police during the planning process.
“Their inaction in the face of violence left the City unprepared — and unaware that it was unprepared — to address one of the predictable risks of the event: brief but serious incidents of interpersonal violence and mutual combat,” the report says.
In discussions after the rally, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty characterized the state police role as “park security,” according to the report.
Overall, the report concludes, the city of Charlottesville “was unable to protect the right of free expression and facilitate the permit holder’s offensive speech.”
“This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions — the protection of fundamental rights. Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death,” the report says. “Charlottesville preserved neither of those principles on August 12, which has led to deep distrust of government within this community.”
In a statement responding to Heaphy’s report, Flaherty said the state police “appreciate the time and effort” that went into it. Calling thorough after-action reviews “invaluable” to preparing for the future, Flaherty said he’s waiting to see final reports from his own agency and one from a task force convened by the governor.
Both the extreme right and the extreme left, Flaherty said, went to the 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,” Flaherty said.
The team of lawyers conducting the review also said Thomas and other officials resisted their efforts to investigate what happened Aug. 12, but maintained that the review gathered enough information to paint a comprehensive picture.
The report accuses Thomas of making several attempts to obstruct the process, including trying to control what information subordinates gave to investigators, deleting text messages related to the review, trying to hide his use of a personal email account to conduct some official police business, and creating post hoc planning checklists that were not actually used to plan for the rallies.
“Chief Thomas’s attempts to influence our review illustrate a deeper issue within CPD — a fear of retribution for criticism,” the report says. “Many officers with whom we spoke expressed concern that their truthful provision of critical information about the protest events would result in retaliation from Chief Thomas.”
Thomas’ lawyer, Kevin E. Martingayle, denied the claims, saying it’s unfair to focus on Thomas.
“This report criticizes everybody,” Martingayle said, but he did not offer a detailed rebuttal. He said Thomas received a copy of the report only when it was made public Friday morning and that he would offer a more detailed response in the future.
In a statement, Charlottesville City Manager Maurice Jones said city officials “do not agree with every aspect of the report’s findings,” without elaboration.
“On a number of fronts, as the report acknowledges, we succeeded in protecting our City to the best of our abilities,” Jones said. “But in other areas we, and our law enforcement partner in the Virginia State Police, undoubtedly fell short of expectations, and for that we are profoundly sorry.”
The city manager’s statement gave no indication of displeasure with Thomas. Jones said the police chief and his department are “dedicated to protecting our city every day.”
Virginia State Police also refused to provide some information to the Hunton & Williams team, according to the report, an attitude consistent with the agency’s “relative independence” before and during the rally. The report says the state agency did not share its “formal planning document” for the Aug. 12 rally with city police, “conducted separate trainings and convened an exclusive briefing for its on-scene personnel” on the morning of the event, and used a separate radio channel to communicate as events unfolded.
State report forthcoming
McAuliffe convened a state-level task force that has prepared its own report on what happened in Charlottesville and what policies should change as a result. That report was due to be submitted to the governor Friday, but is not expected to be released to the public until next week.
The helicopter crash that killed two state police pilots appeared to be an “accident,” according to the report. The cause of the helicopter crash was outside the scope of the review, but the report points out that “almost all” of the state police left the Charlottesville command center to go to the scene of the helicopter crash. The report came in at 4:49 p.m., well after the rally appeared to be over.
McAuliffe and other state officials have said they wished the state had more control over tactical decisions instead of serving in a supporting role behind local police. His spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor will evaluate Heaphy’s report “in conjunction with” the report he received from the state task force.
Though the report is filled with stinging criticisms, Heaphy credited first responders for a rapid reaction to the car attack.
“No question these events could have been substantially worse,” Heaphy said. “That is a success.”
In a statement, Republican leaders in the General Assembly expressed dismay over Heaphy’s report and said they will ask him to present his findings to the legislature’s public safety committees next year.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the findings were “certainly inconsistent” with statements from public officials immediately after the rally.
“It’s very troubling to learn that law enforcement was effectively told to stand down, even if those weren’t the words that were used,” Gilbert said.