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What police can learn from the Charlottesville protest report

It is time to train 100 percent of police officers nationwide in the team tactics of crowd control


A photo of Heather Heyer, who was killed during a white nationalist rally, sits on the ground at a memorial the day her life was celebrated at the Paramount Theater, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, in Charlottesville, Va.

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

A 207-page report by law firm Hutton and Williams on the Charlottesville protests documents the actions taken by all involved leading up to and during the clashes of opposing groups of demonstrators. These clashes led to a young female demonstrator being run down by a car deliberately driven into a crowd by an opposition demonstrator.

Two Virginia State Troopers also tragically died working the event after their helicopter crashed.

Here is a timeline of the events that led to the protests on August 12, as well as a synopsis of what happened that day (synopsized not quoted) from the final report:

  • In March 2016, Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy proposed the removal of the statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. Following this, the Charlottesville City Council voted 3-2 in favor of removal of these statues. This inspired two opposing coalitions to form – a pro-statue coalition and an anti-statue coalition.
  • The pro-statue coalition included members of the Ku Klux Klan, as well as folks who openly carried Nazi symbols while chanting “blood and soil.” This is the English version of a Nazi chant “Blut und Boden.” The anti-statue group included representatives of Antifa and Black Lives Matter.
  • Pro-statue and anti-statue groups staged repeated demonstrations simultaneously in Charlottesville. Tensions increased during each subsequent event. In July, a Charlottesville PD Major ordered the use of tear gas to clear a violent crowd. People were critical of its use in spite of the fact that it effectively dispersed the crowd without injury.
  • To prevent violence, the City tried to legally stop a demonstration scheduled for August 12. A judge ruled the demonstrations should take place.
  • The Charlottesville PD’s plan included the deployment of arrest teams to work in the crowd, but on the morning of the event the commander assigned to supervise these teams decided that they would go “off plan” and not deploy.
  • In an effort to appear non-confrontational, police officers were assigned to face the crowds without any crowd control protective gear.
  • In contrast, members of the demonstration and counter demonstrations arrived armed with firearms, clubs and long poles. Many wore helmets and carried shields.
  • When escalation of violence proved that protective equipment was a necessity, it was a considerable distance away. This, along with the fact that many police officers had never been trained on how to put the gear on prior to this date, slowed the police response to the violence.
  • Some crowd control-trained and fully equipped contingents of police officers, who were standing by quite a distance away, were effectively out of position when they were needed. Another trained unit was never even summoned.
  • The Charlottesville Police Department had the opposing groups separated initially, but when the unlawful assembly was declared, the opposing groups were pushed together during the dispersal effort. Eventually members of both groups violently clashed. One crowd member used a homemade flame thrower. Seeing this, another crowd member drew a pistol and fired a round into the ground, while ordering flame thrower-man to stop flame throwing.
  • A lone unsworn uniformed employee controlling traffic in the path of the dispersing crowd became afraid for her safety. She radioed in her predicament and complied after she was directed to leave the traffic-saw-horse in place and retreat. This was the intersection where later the driver drove through and into the crowd killing one demonstrator.
  • The Charlottesville police and first responders were praised for their response to the vehicular homicide scene and their care of the victims there.

Some of the Charlottesville protest report’s conclusions

The report by Hutton and Williams was critical of the police response, stating that the Charlottesville PD and Virginia State Police:

  1. Implemented a flawed plan;
  2. Failed to intervene in acts of violence;
  3. Were under-equipped to respond to mass arrests;
  4. Failed to deploy available resources to quell violence;
  5. (Virginia State Police) directed their people to remain behind barricades;
  6. Placed a higher priority on officer safety than public safety;
  7. Declared an unlawful assembly and then pushed opposing groups together;
  8. Failed to deploy officers in locations where violence should have been anticipated;
  9. Left the downtown vulnerable to the vehicle used as a weapon attack;
  10. Failed to operate under a unified command, resulting in delayed and ineffective responses to critical events.

What police can learn from the Charlottesville protest report

The report did not mention that anyone knowing the history of the South and the Civil War should have reasonably foreseen that a push to remove the statues of Lee and Jackson from Charlottesville would inevitably lead to violence.

When that violence occurred, the police – who were stuck in the middle – may have formed an imperfect plan, but if not for the police presence, there would have been much more damage, injury and death.

There are individuals and groups actively engaged in fomenting violence for their own ends all over this nation. When this violence comes to a town near you, your law enforcement agency will be placed in the middle. Therefore:

  1. It is time to train 100 percent of police officers nationwide in the team tactics of crowd control.
  2. These perishable skills should be updated for police officers just prior to when they are expected to work an event such as this.
  3. Law enforcement leaders must realize that wearing protective equipment is not confrontational. Have your police officers put it on when trouble is anticipated, not after it starts.
  4. Have a plan and make certain every person knows how they fit in that plan.
  5. Give your leaders not only the responsibility for bad results, but the authority, skills and tools to do what needs to be done to ensure good results.

I have always said that in a crowd control situation, you can accomplish more with 10 police officers working as a team than you can with 100 police officers working as individuals. However, in a crowd, 100 police officers – who are highly trained, properly equipped, expertly led and working as a team – will excel.

Lt. Dan Marcou is an internationally-recognized police trainer who was a highly-decorated police officer with 33 years of full-time law enforcement experience. Marcou’s awards include Police Officer of the Year, SWAT Officer of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year and Domestic Violence Officer of the Year. Upon retiring, Lt. Marcou began writing. Additional awards Lt. Marcou received were 15 departmental citations (his department’s highest award), two Chief’s Superior Achievement Awards and the Distinguished Service Medal for his response to an active shooter. He is a co-author of “Street Survival II, Tactics for Deadly Encounters,” which is now available. His novels, “The Calling, the Making of a Veteran Cop,” “SWAT, Blue Knights in Black Armor,” “Nobody’s Heroes” and Destiny of Heroes,” as well as his latest non-fiction offering, “Law Dogs, Great Cops in American History,” are all available at Amazon. Dan is a member of the Police1 Editorial Advisory Board.