In the August events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where neo-Nazi and white-supremacist marchers clashed violently with counterprotesters, the two main law enforcement agencies tasked with keeping the peace, the Virginia State Police and the Charlottesville Police Department, may as well have spoken different languages. Because there was no common radio channel, all communications between them had to take place face to face. On the morning the march was scheduled, Aug. 12, the state police conducted their own briefing, to which the city police were not invited. Although the city had formal command authority, it failed to exercise it. In the course of failing at their most fundamental duties, both agencies - particularly the state police, whose force outnumbered the city’s officers by at least 4 to 1 - made the Keystone Kops look like polished professionals.
Unsurprisingly, given the poor preparation and posture of law enforcement, things went disastrously wrong. The extent to which the relevant authorities failed to do their jobs is detailed in a report made public Friday by Tim Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Western District.
It was not only amateur hour for the uniformed forces; the event also was a massive failure of leadership not just for the top police commanders - Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas and State Police Superintendent W. Steven Flaherty. but also for Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and state Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran.
Even in the face of a deluge of intelligence beforehand indicating the scope of the event and its potential for trouble, no one took the lead in coordinating or planning adequately for what turned into the nation’s largest and most violent recent display of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and white-supremacist ideologies. Sticks, poles and other objects that could be used as weapons were not banned. Measures were not implemented to ensure adequate physical separation between the rival groups.
Make no mistake: The marchers themselves, a noxious crew of racist and anti-Semitic thugs spoiling for a fight, were primarily responsible for the violence and, especially, the loss of life. Heather Heyer, a peaceful counterprotester, died that day when she was mowed down by a car allegedly driven by a racist from Ohio. So did two state police officers who were monitoring the events when their helicopter crashed.
Still, when the potential for violence is so clearly present, the public expects its leaders and law enforcement bodies to take adequate steps to contain and control it. In this case, those measures were clearly inadequate. Officers stood passively as fights erupted before their eyes. Streets near the demonstration that should have been blocked off were left unattended. The consequences were tragic. “This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions -the protection of fundamental rights,” Heaphy’s report said.
The result in Charlottesville has been a deterioration in public confidence in the institutions of leadership. Now the main organizer of the racist marchers, Jason Kessler, has applied for a permit to stage an anniversary march at the same downtown location in August. Here’s hoping the authorities and police have learned some badly overdue lessons.