Authorities in Charlottesville failed to protect both public safety and free speech during a white nationalist rally over Confederate statues that turned deadly in the Virginia college town in August, an independent review said on Friday.
The violence between counter-protesters and the white nationalists, who were outraged by the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, marked an eruption in tensions over the symbols of the Civil War’s losing side.
A 32-year-old woman was killed when a car plowed into a group of counter-demonstrators.
Friday’s three-month review by a former U.S. attorney, Timothy Heaphy, faulted law enforcement agencies for breakdowns in planning and coordination as well as a timid response, that led to “disastrous results.”
“The city was unable to protect the right of free expression and facilitate the permit holder’s offensive speech,” said Heaphy’s report, commissioned by Charlottesville officials amid criticism of the response to the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally.
“This represents a failure of one of the government’s core functions — the protection of fundamental rights,” the report said. “Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death.”
Charlottesville spokeswoman Miriam Dickler said the city did not have an immediate response. Charlottesville police and the Virginia State Police declined immediate comment.
Residents in Charlottesville, home to the University of Virginia, demanded answers about the violence. Other cities across the U.S. South have since acted to remove monuments to the Confederacy.
Heaphy, whose team interviewed 150 people, said no police officer he spoke to felt good about what happened. “Nonetheless, they didn’t protect safety,” he told a news conference.
Officers were not properly trained nor deployed, Heaphy said. State and city police used different radio systems during the rally so could not communicate effectively.
Heaphy said the city had wrongly believed it could not ban protesters from carrying items such as clubs and shields, and city and state police took too passive an approach when clashes broke out.
“Despite clear evidence of violence, police consistently failed to intervene, de-escalate, or otherwise respond,” the report said. “These shortcomings contributed to a chaotic series of events that led to violence and death.”
Among the recommendations made by Heaphy’s team were that authorities should react more quickly to violence, as well as communicate better with the public before and after such events.
(Editing by Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman)