Top Va. public safety official defends police response in Charlottesville
Saturday marked the first time in 28 years that the Virginia National Guard was deployed to quell civil unrest
By Peter Dujardin
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia's secretary of public safety on Monday defended the police response to the mayhem in Charlottesville on Saturday when white nationalists and counter-protestors clashed on the city's streets.
The Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police have faced sharp criticism in the aftermath of the chaos — accused of not doing enough to keep the two sides separated and standing idly by as the disorder unfolded.
A 32-year-old woman was killed when a white nationalist sped his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters. Later in the day, two Virginia State Police officers died when their helicopter crashed nearby. More than 20 others were injured.
But Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran — a cabinet secretary under Gov. Terry McAuliffe — contended that the knocks on the police are off-target.
"Let me unequivocally state that that is an unfounded criticism," Moran said. "I was there. I was at their training at 7 o'clock in the morning. ... I could not be prouder of the Virginia State Police, our National Guard and the Charlottesville Police Department, how they pre-planned and how they executed the plan to ensure public safety in Charlottesville."
Saturday marked the first time in 28 years, Moran said, that the Virginia National Guard was deployed to quell civil unrest. He wouldn't say how many officers were on hand but said there were "hundreds" of Virginia state troopers there, as well as 115 national guardsmen and Charlottesville's "entire force" of 124 officers.
Moran, who oversees the Virginia State Police as part of his duties, made the comments in Newport News on Monday after speaking to sheriff's deputies about dealing with jail deaths at the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Training Academy in City Center.
Several national news outlets ran stories Monday raising questions about the police response in Charlottesville, quoting protestors from both sides with complaints.
"The worst part is that people got hurt, and the police stood by and didn't do a g------- thing," David Copper, 70, of Staunton, told The Washington Post, saying a fight in the park went on for several minutes before police stepped in.
The Post added that police at one point "appeared to retreat and then watch the beatings before eventually moving in to end the free-for-all, make arrests and tend to the injured."
Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department sergeant and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said he was floored that a large band of white nationalists was allowed to carry torches into a rally on Friday evening — and that people from both sides were allowed to carry masks, helmets, face-guards, sticks and bats to the Saturday event.
"In New York, if you said you were going to have people carrying torches (into a rally), they'd say, you have a better chance of seeing God," he told the Daily Press. "That ain't happening." And anyone carrying shields or sticks as they headed toward such an event, he said, would be turned back or have that equipment taken from them.
Giacalone also maintained that police didn't have an adequate plan to keep the sides apart once the noon event was canceled a half-hour before it began. "When you push them out of the park, where do you think they are going to go?" he asked. "I don't see cops lining the streets. Why weren't you standing in between these two groups of fools making sure they don't hurt each other?"
He also said police vehicles and vans could have been lining the streets in a show of force. What unfolded on TV, he said, appears to be a "classic case" of officers being told, "Don't go too far unless somebody is directly attacking you." But he said "the ethereal strategy of disengagement doesn't work with radical groups."
Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corrine Geller said there was "no stand-down order" issued by state or local police Saturday.
She said that the center of the event, Emancipation Park, had a physical barrier down the middle, with officers in that area. But the police couldn't legally tell people which side they could stand on, she said.
There also were "roving patrols" of officers throughout the park and downtown area, Geller said.
"That may have given the impression that there were a lot of officers standing around," Geller said. "But they were standing there in order to rapidly respond to incidents as they occurred."
The hostility grew increasingly heated throughout the morning, with Geller saying people began throwing frozen water bottles, soda cans with cement, paint-filled balloons, and other items -- in addition to using mace, sticks and pool cues on each other.
"There were flashpoints of engagement," she said. "Someone would come up, throw something or strike someone, and move back. Our troopers would respond to conflicts, but by the time they got there, people would already be dispersed back into the crowd."
Geller said police didn't use tear gas or fire any shots, though they did use pepper spray on a couple of occasions.
Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas said during a nationally televised news conference Monday that there was a plan "to keep the two sides separate" at the park, but that "we can't control which side someone enters the park ... They didn't (follow the plan), and entered the park from different directions."
The Charlottesville officers had been in their traditional police clothing, Thomas said, but were told to change into more protective gear as the unrest grew worse.
"Once the crowds were dispersed, they went to many locations throughout the city," he said. "We had to send our forces to multiple locations to deal with a number of disturbances."
It took at least an hour to get control after the rally's cancellation, Thomas said. "We were following a number of groups, ensuring that they were being peaceful, but it was certainly a challenge. We were spread thin once the groups dispersed."
McAuliffe called a special Cabinet meeting for Monday afternoon to discuss the Saturday event, Moran said, with a smaller protest in Richmond this past Sunday. "It's probably not the end of these types of displays and confrontations," he said. "So we'll learn from this one, but I'll tell you, in terms of what worked and what didn't, a whole lot more worked than didn't."
Newport News Police Chief Richard W. Myers — who served as the interim chief in Sanford, Fla., in the aftermath of the explosive Trayvon Martin saga — asserted that it's not fair to criticize without a lot more information.
"Police in those kind of scenarios are in a no-win situation," he said. In some cases, Myers said, things could go wrong with a heavy police response, "and people say, 'See, you were way too eager to get into battle.'"
"I've been very distressed about the quick criticism of the police when no one has done a thorough after-action report," he said. "I wasn't there, and neither were all the social media trolls complaining that they didn't jump at it quick enough."
White nationalist groups and other "alt-right" groups first descended upon Charlottesville on Friday, with witnesses saying hundreds of marchers bearing torches shouted racist, racially charged and Nazi slogans, walking into the Rotunda area on the University of Virginia's campus.
The group was to hold a "Unite the Right" rally at Emancipation Park on Saturday, in part to protest the Charlottesville City Council's vote to remove a statue of Confederate war hero General Robert E. Lee.
"The crowd came to provoke violence, and they got violence," Moran said. "They came for a fight."
Moran said later that he was talking mostly about the white nationalist sides as the main instigators. But he said there were people from both sides geared up for battle.
It was in the aftermath of the rally's cancellation that a gray Dodge Challenger slammed into a crowd of counter-protestors.
Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville, a paralegal, died in what police are calling a deliberate act. The car's driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, of Ohio, is charged with second-degree murder in her death, and related charges of aggravated maiming.
But though Moran termed Heyer's death "a terrible, terrible tragedy," he said he thought officers "demonstrated professionalism" throughout the day. "At the end of the day, not a pane of glass was broken and not a gunshot was fired, and I'm not aware of any claims of police brutality," he said.
Moran said it would have helped matters if the rally had been held at a larger park.
The city had wanted the event moved to McIntire Park, which they said would have enhanced security. But organizers, backed by the ACLU, wanted it to remain at Emancipation Park, where the Lee statute still stands.
U.S. District Judge Glen Conrad sided with the organizers, declining to order that the venue be moved.
"This was an urban environment, one that we did not choose to be in," Moran said. "In fact, if we had our druthers," it would have been "removed from the downtown mall area."
Going forward, Moran said, Virginia will do everything it can to ensure public safety. He also said people "need to take a deep breath" and "ratchet down the rhetoric."
©2017 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)