According to a new report, the violence at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville earlier this year was mostly the result of mistakes made by the police.
The report indicates that the death of Heather Heyer, the counterprotester who was murdered, could have been prevented if law enforcement had been allowed to do their jobs. Our current political discourse has grown so intense, that it seems impossible to have an event without violence breaking out.
This incident highlights an unsettling reality: controversial events must have a prominent police presence to prevent further incidents such as the Charlottesville rally.
Law Enforcement Errors “Inflamed” Violence
The Charlottesville Independent Review details the events of the white supremacist rally held in the city. After an extensive investigation, former U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy found that “planning and coordination breakdowns,” led to the death of Heyer. According to the report, the injuries sustained at the gathering occurred because the police did not intervene when the violence began:
“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,” the report said. Moreover, the document asserts that the Virginia State Police “directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts between protesters and counterprotesters.”
Heaphy’s team examined hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewed 150 people who were present at the rally. They state that the city did not provide adequate protection for the protesters or the counterprotesters.
“Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death. Charlottesville preserved neither of those principles on Aug. 12, which has led to deep distrust of government within this community,” the report states.
Lack Of Police Presence
White supremacists and members of the alt-right came to Charlottesville to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on August 12. The counterprotesters showed up to demonstrate against their rally. The violence began before the event started.
Police officers were present to witness the violence but did not move to stop the brawl. The report states that “protesters/counterprotesters were basically able to have a free-for-all on Market Street while police sat back for an hour in one case, and in other cases, they were told to just stand by while people fought each other.”
A few hours into the event, James Fields, a white supremacist, drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer. According to the report, an officer was supposed to be stationed near the area where the murder occurred. However, the officer requested to be relieved due to safety concerns and was not replaced.
After the incident in Charlottesville, many criticized the response of law enforcement. Governor Terry McAuliffe defended the police, claiming that they had to stand down because some of the participants were heavily armed.
Not Allowed To Do Their Jobs
The blame for the violence ultimately lies with the individuals on both sides who chose to physically assault their opposition. Nevertheless, the job of the police was to ensure the safety of the attendees.
If the police had intervened, it is likely that Heather Heyer would still be alive today, but we should not blame the individual law officers who were present at the event. The fault lies with the leadership, which prevented them from doing their jobs. According to Heaphy, the police wanted to intervene.
“I talked to a dozen police officers who were very disappointed in their inability to react to this disorder,” said Heaphy. “They said ‘We had our thumbs up our a**’ or ‘We let the community down.’ Officers believed that because the way the plan was executed, they were prevented from doing their jobs.”
Police Chief Al Thomas’ personal assistant told investigators that when the violence started, Thomas said “Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.’ The police chief claims that he does not remember making that statement, but he did admit that he wanted to “see how things played out.”
The fact that we even need police protection at events where people express their political views is troubling enough, but the idea that police would not be allowed to protect participants is even more disturbing. Charlottesville law enforcement cannot go back in time to fix their mistake, but hopefully, police agencies nationwide will learn from this tragedy.