How Police Botched Response to Charlottesville Hate Rally: ‘Let Them Fight for a While’ (Updated)

A report released Friday charges that police at the August 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville were told not to intervene in riots that injured many and killed a counter protester.

The report details a systematic attempt to cover up planning and communications errors by police in Charlottesville. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

UPDATE, December 18, 4:02 p.m.: Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas “abruptly retired” on Monday, the Associated Press reports. The city didn’t give a reason for Thomas’ decision.

The first formal investigation into the deadly August 12 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, indicates poor decision making by government officials followed by efforts to disguise or cover up mistakes.

The report, released Friday, was compiled by a legal team led by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy of the Hunton & Williams law firm. The 220-page document outlines how a lack of communication and coordination between law enforcement agencies led to an inability to effectively work together as violent white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups rioted in the Virginia town. 

“Virginia State Police [VSP] never shared its formal planning document with CPD [the Charlottesville Police Department],” the report says, “a crucial failure that prevented CPD from recognizing the limits of VSP’s intended engagement. CPD and VSP personnel were unable to communicate via radio, as their respective systems were not connected despite plans to ensure they were. There was no joint training or all-hands briefing on or before August 12. Chief [Al] Thomas did not exercise functional control of VSP forces despite his role as overall incident commander. These failures undercut cohesion and operational effectiveness. CPD and VSP operated largely independently on August 12, a clear failure of unified command.”

Heaphy during his press conference stressed that there was no formal use of the term “stand-down order” by any police officers, but his team’s report described how a series of operating instructions directed police not to assist people being assaulted during the rioting on August 12.

“VSP directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts between protesters and counter-protesters,” Heaphy’s report says. “CPD commanders similarly instructed their officers not to intervene in all but the most serious physical confrontations.”

Heaphy was asked during the presser whether police requested permission from superior officers to make arrests or assist victims of assaults. He indicated that he found no evidence of such requests.

Heaphy, the son-in-law of former U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, proposed in August that the city hire him to investigate the events leading up to the August 12 riot at the white supremacist gathering. The decision to hire Heaphy and his firm was made jointly by City Attorney S. Craig Brown and City Manager Maurice Jones. City managers in Charlottesville exercise many of the powers and responsibilities associated with mayors in other cities. Neither Brown nor Jones were implicated in any wrongdoing by Heaphy’s report.

“There was also a lack of training of line officers,” Heaphy said of Charlottesville City Police. “A lot of them had never tried on the helmet or held the shield they were given for that day.”

“Charlottesville police offers were told, ‘You are to intervene in serious violence where someone is going to be killed but short of that, not to,'” Heaphy said. “The state police were told, ‘You are here to protect the park. Park security.’ They were not going to go beyond the park to make arrests or disperse violence.”

Heaphy described how witnesses–including at least one police officer—heard Chief Thomas say, “Let them fight for a while, it’ll make it easier,” as he watched the violence spread at the white supremacist rally. 

During a press conference held by Chief Thomas on August 13, Rewire asked Thomas, “Did you give any orders to police officers not to help people who were being assaulted?”

“No,” Thomas said.

Other state police units positioned outside of the park failed to respond to emergencies, reports of assaults, and at least one gunshot, despite being available and waiting within a few blocks.

The report details a systematic attempt to cover up planning and communications errors by police.

“Chief Al Thomas initially attempted to sequence our review by limiting our access to information about various topics,” the report says. “He directed subordinates to provide us only with information regarding the planning for the protest events, not the events themselves. He later admitted to us in an interview that his goal in this process was to educate our review team in a methodical process which he controlled.”

“In our interviews with CPD personnel, we learned that Chief Thomas and other CPD command staff deleted text messages that were relevant to our review,” the report says. “Chief Thomas also used a personal e-mail account to conduct some CPD business, then falsely denied using personal e-mail in response to a specific FOIA request.”

Attempts by Heaphy’s team to obtain information from the Virginia state government were met with resistance and obfuscation. Despite initial promises of cooperation, he was denied important planning documents by Noah Sullivan, counsel to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Sullivan invoked executive privilege.

Sullivan, on McAuliffe’s behalf, has fought a state FOIA request in a suit brought by this reporter against the Virginia State Police seeking documents that could shed light on why the state police failed to protect assault victims at the white supremacist rally. 

Some community members at the press conference criticized Heaphy for leaving out perspectives and stories from members of anti-fascist groups, including SURJ and Black Lives Matter. Heaphy blamed members of those groups for refusing to talk to him. SURJ and BLM members pointed out that Heaphy refused to protect their identities or guarantee them anonymity because he was acting as an attorney on behalf of the city.

Chief Thomas stood silently in uniform at the back of the room throughout the press conference.

“I talked to a dozen police officers who were very disappointed,” Heaphy said, adding some officers felt they had “let the community down.”

“There were a lot of people who wanted to do the right thing,” Heaphy said.