THE BLAME for the bloodshed and chaos in August in Charlottesville lies squarely with the neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klansmen and other thugs who descended on that city, infusing it with their hatred and venom. That is no excuse for the incompetence of state and local police on the scene that day, who, despite ample and timely intelligence, failed in their most basic duties.
An accounting for that stunning failure began this week when Charlottesville Police Chief Alfred Thomas resigned and, a day later, State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty announced his retirement. News of their departures came less than three weeks after the publication of a comprehensive report, commissioned by the city, that heaped damning detail upon damning detail to describe their agencies’ shortcomings in leadership, training, preparation and execution.
A sense of law enforcement’s bumbling and ineptitude that day is conveyed by the report’s description of what happened when city police officers were finally ordered to don riot gear to deal with the enveloping mayhem. Retreating to a supply trailer, the report said, “They had to fish through plastic bins to find their gear, which included gas masks, riot shields, and ballistic helmets. For many of them, it was the first time they had ever worn this equipment.” It then turned out the supply of gas masks was inadequate and commanders could not find enough bullhorns.
The report, by Timothy Heaphy, a former U.S. attorney for Virginia’s Western District, focused much of its scathing commentary on the Charlottesville police. But it did not spare the state police, which, after all, outnumbered the Charlottesville force by at least 4 to 1 that day.
Hundreds of state troopers, uniformed as well as undercover, were on hand in Charlottesville. They did not cover themselves in glory.
Guided by Mr. Flaherty, who said only “fools rush in” to chaotic street skirmishes where they might be forced to use deadly force, the troopers mostly hung back. A key commander said she would not “send arrest teams into the street,” the result being that troopers watched impassively as alt-right demonstrators and counterprotesters brawled just a few feet away.
At one point, state troopers looked on inertly from behind barricades as a Klansman shot a handgun at the ground near a counterprotester who wielded a torch. Just then, a female counterprotester was punched in the face by an alt-right demonstrator; she suffered a concussion. When she asked the troopers for help, “none of them responded,” the report said.
So why have police?
Later, when state police in riot gear did move in to clear Emancipation Park, they pushed the alt-right demonstrators into throngs of counterprotesters in the adjacent streets, triggering more violence. It was, said Lt. Joseph Hatter, a Charlottesville police commander, “the most messed-up thing I ever saw.”
To say law enforcement was ineffective in the events in Charlottesville is an epic understatement. We hope the departure of the two top commanders is a sign that lessons have been learned from that debacle.