Charlottesville, VA – A 220-page independent review of the 2017 protests and rallies in Charlottesville was released on Friday, and largely blamed city officials and law enforcement administrators for failing to protect citizens during the violence that ensued.
The team examined city officials’ and law enforcement’s response to the events, including May’s torch-lit rally and a July rally orchestrated by supporters and affiliates of the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the culmination of events during the Unite the Right rally in August, WVIR reported.
Heaphy announced on Friday that the independent investigation took place over a period of three months.
He said his team of four lawyers and their support staff interviewed over 150 people and examined a half million documents, including hundreds of hours of video and thousands of photographs, Vice News reported.
Heaphy’s team concluded that city officials and law enforcement administrators gravely underestimated the potential violence the clashes could create.
“There was a sense that we found of ‘we got this,’” Heaphy said, according to WVIR.
“In sum, this was a poorly conceived plan,” Heaphy said. “Good intentions gone awry. A failure to protect, which was a product of a failure to communicate and a failure to prepare.”
The response plan created by law enforcement administrators and city officials left officers who were out on the front lines underprepared and unauthorized to act until the situation escalated to violence, Heaphy explained.
“I talked to a dozen police officers who were very disappointed in their inability to react to this disorder,” Heaphy told Vice News.
Blue Lives Matter heard accounts from officers who claimed that they were ordered ahead of time not to use any crowd control chemicals or weapons.
“They said ‘We had our thumbs up our ass’ or ‘We let the community down,’” Heaphy explained. “Officers believed that because the way the plan was executed, they were prevented from doing their jobs.”
According to the report, part of the police administration’s response strategy was to allow violence between the groups to escalate so they would have reason to shut the event down without raising civil rights issues.
“We have evidence from the command center that the chief actually said, ‘Let them fight. Let them fight for a little while and it’ll make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly,’” Heaphy told WVIR.
Once officers were given permission to react, they didn't even have their riot gear on-hand because they weren't allowed to bring it ahead of time. Officers had to seek out their riot gear from nearby staging areas. Many were using these tools for the first time.
The report indicated that administrators and officials had received “accurate information” about the potential threat and number of people who planned to descend on the city for the rally, and should not claim to have been surprised in that regard, Vice News reported.
“It’s not an intelligence failure,” Heaphy said. “It’s a failure, frankly, to appreciate the significance of that intelligence and prepare adequately for what occurred.”
A lack of radio communication between law enforcement agencies also negatively affected how line officers were able to respond to the escalating violence.
According to the report, the Virginia State Police and Charlottesville Police Department operated on two radio channels – separate from one another – as the event unfolded. The departments also had separate operational plans.
The report questioned the integrity of Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas, and alleged that he fabricated “planning guides” after the Unite the Right rally in an attempt to create the illusion that his department was better prepared than they actually were.
The report indicated that Chief Thomas and other city officials allegedly deleted text messages that were relevant to the independent investigation.
The University of Virginia received its share of blame in the report, as well.
The team found that university officials failed to take action to “enforce separation between groups or otherwise prevent violence” as hundreds of protesters marched across campus with torches while chanting phrases such as "Jews will not replace us," Vice News reported.
University officials said they have made changes to improve campus safety, and that they are “contemplating a number of long-term investments and initiatives to advance our commitment to being a diverse and welcoming community.”
“Although we do not agree with every aspect of the report’s findings we do appreciate the efforts of the reviewers...” Jones said, “On a number of fronts, as the report acknowledges, we succeeded in protecting our City to the best of our abilities.”
Jones also recognized the need for improvement.
“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,” Jones said. “Chief Al Thomas and the men and women in his department are dedicated to protecting our City every day and we thank them for their service. This police department and this City government pledge to learn from these experiences and strengthen our ability to offer the safety that our residents, visitors and business owners deserve.”
Chief Thomas echoed Jones’ sentiments in his own Friday statement.
“My hope now is that, as we move forward...we can learn from the productive elements of this report, work together to address our shortcomings and recommit ourselves to serving the public in a way that gives our citizens the utmost confidence in their safety and wellbeing,” he said, according to National Public Radio.
The independent investigation lists numerous points of failure in response to the events, as well as a multitude of recommendations to help handle future situations.