Police and government officials failed to ensure public safety and protect free speech during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, an independent review concluded. An anti-fascist protester was killed after the rally.
“The city was unable to protect the right of free expression and facilitate the permit holder’s offensive speech,” said the report, published Friday. Commissioned by Charlottesville officials following criticism of authorities’ handling of the events, it was conducted by Hunton and Williams law firm and led by former US attorney Timothy Heaphy.
Sparked by the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, white nationalists flocked from around the country to protest the decision under the banner “Unite the Right.” Hundreds of anti-fascist counter protesters came to Charlottesville to challenge them. At the August 12 rally, police stood idly by as physical altercations took place in the park and adjacent streets. Police then declared an unlawful assembly and forced the two sides back together, resulting in more violence.
While clashes were at their peak, Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) “commanders pulled officers back to a protected area of the park, where they remained for over an hour,” the report says. “Because of their misalignment and lack of accessible protective gear, officers failed to intervene in physical altercations that took place in areas adjacent to Emancipation Park.”
“Despite clear evidence of violence, police consistently failed to intervene, de-escalate, or otherwise respond,” the report said. “These shortcomings contributed to a chaotic series of events that led to violence and death.”
As the crowds dispersed, counter protesters celebrated in the streets. White nationalist James Fields then drove his vehicle into a crowd of counter protesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others.
The report faulted the CPD, Virginia State Police, and local and state officials. Prior to the rally, city officials attempted to move the rally from Emancipation Park, where a federal judge allowed the white nationalist to assemble. This further compounded the efforts of law enforcement officials, whose planning is described in the report as “inadequate and disconnected.”
City and state police did not coordinate their efforts, the report said, adding that police were not adequately trained.
“This represents a failure of one of the government’s core functions – the protection of fundamental rights,” the report said. “Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death.”
Police and emergency responders should follow nationally recognized procedures for responding to large protests and enforce separation of conflicting groups, the report recommended. Lawmakers at the city and state level should “explicitly codify the prohibition of certain objects” – referring to the bats, weapons and shields protesters brought. Finally, the reports recommends police and local officials should work to “restore confidence in the government” through community engagement.
Charlottesville authorities declined to respond to the study, Reuters reported. The city council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the review on Monday, according the The Daily Progress.