A string of law enforcement errors contributed to the eruption of deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a white nationalist rally there in August, an investigation found.
In a monthslong investigation, former U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy found that “planning and coordination breakdowns” before the Aug. 12 rally led to “disastrous results.” The report, released Friday, said the city failed by not adequately communicating or coordinating in advance, and by removing an officer from an area where a car plowed into counterprotesters and killed a woman.
“Because of their misalignment and lack of accessible protective gear, officers failed to intervene in physical altercations that took place in areas adjacent to Emancipation Park,” the report said. “(Virginia State Police) directed its officers to remain behind barricades rather than risk injury responding to conflicts between protesters and counterprotesters.”
Heaphy’s team interview 150 people and pored over half a million documents for the report, which said the city of Charlottesville had failed to protect public safety or the protesters’ rights to express themselves.
“This represents a failure of one 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 preserved neither of those principles on Aug. 12, which has led to deep distrust of government within this community.”
White nationalists, who descended on Charlottesville in part to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, began fighting with counterdemonstrators in the streets before the event even officially began. The brawling went on for nearly an hour, in plain view of officers, until the event eventually disbanded.
“The report finds that protesters/counterprotesters were basically able to have a free-for-all on Market Street while police sat back for an hour in one case, and in other cases they were told to just stand by while people fought each other,” the report said.
According to the report, as brawling first broke out, Charlottesville Police Chief Al S. Thomas Jr. said, "Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly."
Thomas said he does not recall making that statement, which was cited in accounts by two other police employees, though he confirmed he waited to "see how things played out" before declaring an unlawful assembly, the report stated.
The report also said Thomas initially tried to limit access to certain information by directing subordinates not to answer certain questions. And it said Thomas and other Charlottesville police command staff deleted text messages relevant to the investigation.
Later, as counterdemonstrators were peacefully marching along a downtown street, a car drove into the crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
The review also found that an officer was initially supposed to be stationed near the intersection where the car plowed into counterprotesters. But the officer asked for relief out of safety concerns and was not replaced.
Only a sawhorse was in place when the car drove into the crowd, killing Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. The day's death toll rose to three when two state troopers sent to monitor the scene and support the governor's motorcade died in a helicopter crash.
The report also said officers were dressed in everyday uniforms, not riot gear, at the outset caused problems. Their helmets and shields were staged behind barricades, not beside offers, Heaphy said, requiring them to leave conflict areas to retrieve that equipment.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Thomas and other top officials have previously defended the law enforcement response, saying police had to show restraint because some people in the crowd were heavily armed.
Rally organizers and counterprotesters, as well as some law enforcement experts, have questioned why authorities didn't do more to separate opposing forces or step in once the violence began breaking out.
City officials had tried to move the rally to a larger park about a mile from downtown Charlottesville, but their request was blocked by a federal judge after the American Civil Liberties Union sued on free-speech grounds.
Heaphy's report was published online. City officials asked Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, to conduct the review after facing scathing criticism over the rally.
Thomas' lawyer sent a statement to Fox News in regards to the report saying: "The goal of this report is a more unified Charlottesville, and I couldn’t agree more. My hope now is that, as we move forward, and as we seek common understanding among a diversity of people, that 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 well-being."
Fox News' Lauren Blanchard and The Associated Press contributed to this report.