Memo Details Police Inaction During Charlottesville Hate Rally

Police in Charlottesville were told to "deter and prevent any violent acts" during the August 2017 white supremacist gathering. At least some police officers decided not to follow the plan.

[Photo counter protesters are held back by riot police in Charlottesville, Virginia]
Arrests for assault were generally not made that day, even as violence took place under the eyes of police officers. Chet Strange/Getty Image

Law enforcement in Charlottesville during the deadly August 12 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally didn’t follow written orders to intervene in outbreaks of violence and were focused on securing an area for rally speakers who never delivered speeches, according to newly released documents.

Following a FOIA lawsuit brought by this reporter with legal assistance from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the City of Charlottesville provided a redacted copy of its operational plan for the white supremacist rally.

The plan, which was not released to the public, opens as a memo from Charlottesville Police Department (CPD) Captain Victor Mitchell addressed to CPD Major Gary Pleasants. The plan helps explain statements made in what’s known as the Heaphy Report, the result of a city-ordered investigation by local former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy, who acted as a lawyer on the city’s behalf.

Pleasants was already a subject of controversy for his role in the July 8 Ku Klux Klan rally in Charlottesville. Pleasants ordered a crowd of protesters to disperse after KKK members (who arrived from outside the area) had already left. The order to disperse was heavily criticized by locals as flawed and possibly unlawful. Pleasants ordered the crowd of peaceful and mostly local protesters to be attacked with tear gas. Pleasants told the chief of police, “You are damn right I gassed them, it needed to be done,” according to a city-ordered investigation. 

The August 7 memo to Pleasants explained that the permit for the Unite the Right hate rally indicated an attendance of about 400 people, but said that “intelligence gathered by criminal investigations predicts an attendance well over 1,000.” The memo predicted violence, stating “many individuals (on both sides) have indicated they will be openly carrying firearms. Some individuals have advocated the use of violence as a means to get their point across.”

The operational plans by CPD accurately anticipated large crowds and violence. They laid out a system of first four and later five zones, within which designated groups of police officers would patrol. The plan states that “officers will not leave their assigned area unless permission is granted by the Zone Commander.”

But there are no known cases of officers being told by their commanders to leave their zones and begin making arrests once the rally turned into a bloody street brawl in which people were brutally attacked with sticks, fists, kicks, pepper spray, tear gas, and shields.

Most of the fighting took place in Market Street, along the front of Emancipation Park. That area was designated at the last minute as Zone 5. Lt. Joe Hatter was assigned as the Zone 5 commander. A barricade was erected along the back of Zone 5, and Hatter and his officers were stationed behind it, away from the counter-protesters, according to the Heaphy Report. Hatter kept his officers behind the barricade during the riot, despite fighting taking place in a zone that he had been ordered to police.

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

The plan ordered all officers to wear body cameras, but FOIA requests for release of that footage have been refused. The plan appears to call for arrests, saying, “Officers should keep close watch of crowd members who are exhibiting behaviors which could become violent. Officers should make arrests when appropriate for unlawful behavior and should use issued flex cuffs as restraints.”

The “Objective” stated in an addendum to the plan reads, “deter and prevent any violent acts from taking place by proactively monitoring strategic locations and intervening swiftly if security threats are identified.”

Arrests for assault were generally not made that day, even as violence took place under the eyes of police officers. At least some zone commanders decided not to follow their orders as laid out in the operational plan, according to the Heaphy Report. 

Lt. Tom McKean, commander of Zone 1 in Charlottesville, told Heaphy’s staff that he was “not sending guys out there and getting them hurt.”

Officer Lisa Best, assigned under a zone commander to Zone 3 in Charlottesville, told Heaphy that they “were not going to go in and break up fights” or go among the protesters to make arrests “unless it was something so serious that someone will get killed.”

The plan called for many Virginia State Police (VSP) officers to gather around and behind the infamous statue of Robert E. Lee in the center of the parkthe statue that nominally began the series of events leading to the white supremacist rally. The role of police in appearing to guard a statue while a riot was going on has been a subject of controversy. But the CPD operational plan explains why this happened. 

“The section directly in front of the statue is designated as the area for the listed speakers with the Unite the Right rally,” the operational plan says.

The area around and behind the statue was part of Zone 4, and the Unite the Right speakers were slated to stand under the statue while giving their speeches. This was why so many police officers were pre-positioned there. But those speeches were never delivered because the rally was dispersed by police order before it formally began.

Last on a list of nine planned road closures described in the plan was 4th Street NE at East Market Street. That is the entrance to the vehicular crossing of the pedestrian-only Downtown Mall where white supremacist James Fields drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens.

Despite additional officers offered by the state police to patrol blockades, CPD Chief Thomas opted to place lone, unprepared personnel at the closed streets. In some cases, according to the Heaphy Report, unarmed civilian employees were told to man the barricades in the face of hordes of white supremacists bearing sticks, shields, swastikas, and xenophobic signs, pursued by angry counter-protesters throwing bottles. By the time Fields drove his car down 4th Street, the school resource officer (back to work on her first day from months of medical leave) assigned to that position had asked for, and received, permission to flee.

While the CPD plan was provided in advance to to the Virginia State Police, VSP never shared its own operational plan with CPD. An additional FOIA lawsuit is ongoing to obtain a redacted copy of that plan. Coordination between the two police forces was weak. The two organizations never shared their communications frequencies and were unable to communicate by radio.

Inaction by the state police and the Virginia National Guard on August 12 has not yet been explained by material in the CPD Operations Plan nor in the Heaphy Report.