Bacon's Rebellion

“A significant failure that has diminished the City’s faith in its elected leaders”

I haven’t had time to do anything more than scan Timothy Heaphy’s report on the tragic events in Charlottesville on Aug. 11-12, but I’ve seen enough to know that it provides a sober, just-the-facts-ma’am narrative of events leading up to the Unite the Right rally, a blow-by-blow account of the rally itself, and critical context to evaluate the performance of both politicians and police. A formidable research effort, the 207-page report represents a ddraws upon interviews with hundreds of participants, hundreds of thousands of documents, thousands of photographs and many hours of video.

I extract some of Heaphy’s key conclusions about what went right and what went wrong at the United the Right rally. (Most of what follows is quoted verbatim, although I have made occasional modifications for purposes of readability.)

What Went Right

Despite the presence of firearms and angry confrontations between protesters and counter-protesters, no person was shot and no significant property damage occurred.

The Charlottesville Fire Department and UVA Health System had effective operations plans that allowed rescue personnel to extract and treat a large number of injured persons within minutes of a violent attack.

Law enforcement planning and response was informed by thorough, accurate intelligence before and after the event.

What Went Wrong

The Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) did not seek input from law enforcement personnel experienced in handling similar events, and the CPD did not provide adequate training or information to officers in advance of the event.

The City of Charlottesville waited too long to request the specialized assistance of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

The Charlottesville City Council unduly interfered with operational planning by directing that the event be moved to McIntire Park just days in advance.

Rather than micromanage professional staff and second-guess their decisions, Council should have helped the community understand the rules that govern these events. Rather than overruling law enforcement and forcing them to prepare for a more complex event, Council should have helped the community understand the public safety challenge and anticipate the law enforcement response to the event. Instead of working as a team, City staff and City Council worked at cross purposes and stoked public uncertainty about the event. This was a significant failure that has diminished the City’s faith in its elected leaders.

The timing of the decision to move the rally to McIntire Park was initiated much too late. The City of Charlottesville did not provide adequate information to the public about plans for the event. City planners mistakenly believed that they could not limit the possession of certain items used as weapons at the Unite the Right event.

The owners of private property adjacent to Emancipation Park — the Central Branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library and Christ Episcopal Church — refused police access to their facilities, which hampered law enforcement response.

The University of Virginia Police Department refused multiple offers of mutual aid assistance from the Charlottesville Policy Department, resulting in violent encounters that emboldened protesters at the Unite the Right rally.

The Charlottesville Police Department implemented a flawed operational plan that failed to protect public safety on August. 12. Specifically, it failed to ensure separation between Alt-Right protesters and organized counter-protesters. The CPD was insufficiently equipped to respond to mass unrest, and it failed to intervene in violent disorders and did not respond to requests for assistance.

The Virginia State Police directed its personnel to remain behind barriers within Emancipation Park.

It is remarkable that VSP officials attended weeks of planning sessions with CPD and weighed in on CPD’s operational plans without ever specifying in writing or verbally that VSP did not expect its officers to police serious incidents of lawbreaking by participants. Their inaction in the face of violence left CPD unprepared.

Upon declaration of an unlawful assembly, protesters were pushed directly toward counter-protesters without separation.

Those in the park at the time of the unlawful assembly were pushed straight south, into the area on Market Street where counter-protesters had assembled. Predictably, violent confrontations occurred as the United the Right protesters streamed past the counter-protesters. Rather than separate the crowds and break up individual fights, troopers stood behind barricades as people left the park.

The traffic plan placed insufficient resources at particular intersections and left the downtown mall vulnerable to a vehicle used as a weapon.

The Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police failed to operate under a unified command, resulting in delayed and ineffective responses to critical events. Heaphy cites the failure to share the VSP operational plan, the lack of unified decision making, the lack of an all-hands briefing, and the lack of interoperable communications. In summary:

The passive law enforcement response to violence on August 12 represents a tremendous tactical failure that has real and lasting consequences. People were injured in violent confrontations that could have been but were not prevented by police. Some of the individuals who committed those violent acts escaped detection due to police inability or unwillingness to pursue them. People who watched violence occur without police intervention were alarmed and unsettled. Many individuals described to us a diminished confidence in law enforcement which has potentially lasting consequences for this and other communities.

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