National News

Charlottesville Police Chief Steps Down After Handling of Rallies Is Criticized

Posted December 18, 2017 8:15 p.m. EST

The chief of police in Charlottesville, Virginia, stepped down Monday, two weeks after the release of a sharply critical report about the department’s failure to contain violence this summer between white supremacists and counterprotesters, which left one demonstrator dead and dozens injured.

The report found that as bloody fighting broke out, police did not immediately intervene but remained behind barricades, and that they had no training in handling civil unrest. The city’s plan to control the streets was “much like it is on Saturday afternoon for a football game,” despite warnings of a serious threat, concluded the report, which was overseen by a former U.S. attorney.

Chief Al S. Thomas Jr., who has denied some of the accusations in the report, said Monday that he was retiring. “Nothing in my career has brought me more pride than serving as the police chief for the City of Charlottesville,” he said in a statement released by the city.

The violence in Charlottesville, over two days in August, sparked intense soul-searching nationally about emboldened white nationalism, which was heightened when President Donald Trump did not unequivocally condemn the torch-carrying marchers who chanted neo-Nazi slogans.

Home of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville was targeted by foot soldiers of the “alt-right” because it is a liberal bastion that has proposed removing Confederate monuments from city parks.

According to the report released Dec. 1 by Timothy J. Heaphy, the former U.S. attorney hired by the city to investigate the violence, city police failed to reach out to other cities where white nationalists and counterdemonstrators had clashed; Charlottesville police commanders did not give adequate training to officers; and in the peak period of violence, officers were pulled back to a safe zone while a large crowd fought on Market Street downtown.

It was at that moment that a self-described neo-Nazi plowed his car into the crowd, according to authorities, killing a counterprotester, Heather D. Heyer, and injuring 35 others. On Thursday, the driver, James Alex Fields Jr., 20, was charged with first-degree murder in a Charlottesville court.

The Heaphy report, more than 200 pages long, accused Thomas of trying to limit the scope of the investigation, deleting text messages that were relevant and falsifying a document implying that the department had made preparations for a mass disturbance.

The report, drafted by Heaphy’s law firm, further criticized the chief, accusing him of trying to gag his department. “Many officers with whom we spoke expressed concern that their truthful provision of critical information about the protest events would result in retaliation from Chief Thomas,” the report said.

At a news conference after the report’s release on Dec. 1, during which community members shouted at the chief, Kevin Martingayle, a lawyer for Thomas, denied that the chief had deleted relevant texts.

“We are a community divided,” Thomas said at the time. “We are still a community in crisis.”

Thomas, who was appointed to lead the Charlottesville department in April 2016, is an Air Force veteran who worked in law enforcement for 27 years, according to the city. His retirement was effective immediately.

Since the August violence, which included a nighttime march on the University of Virginia and street clashes the next day, the city has faced blistering criticism for its response.

The Heaphy report documented the failure of both the Charlottesville Police Department and the Virginia State Police to protect people, caused in part by a lack of communication between the two agencies. Their radios were not on the same frequency. Two state troopers died in the crash of a helicopter that was monitoring the disturbances, apparently an accident.

Although Thomas was supposed to be in charge of joint operations on Aug. 12, he “did not exercise functional control of VSP forces despite his role as overall incident commander,” the report said.