Charlottesville’s Police Department is again under heavy criticism. After last month’s KKK rally, some blamed the police for taking an over-militarized, aggressive approach towards protesters. Now, some are saying the police erred in the other direction, and in many instances of disorder did nothing. WMRA’s Marguerite Gallorini reports.
On Monday afternoon, City Police Chief Al Thomas held a brief press conference at CitySpace. He pointed out several times that the alt-right crowd did not follow the plans, forcing the police to adapt. He also said a hot line was put in place to help investigate into what’s happened on Saturday:
AL THOMAS: We're still receiving reports of assaults and additional crimes, and we're working with our state and local partners to investigate thoroughly any criminal or civil rights' violations that may have occurred this past weekend that have not yet been reported.
City Council member Kristin Szakos felt threatened by the alt-right crowd.
KRISTIN SZAKOS: I was doing some of the events, yes, I was at the morning service and the march to McGuffey Park, and then was at McGuffey Park. I feel like our city was under attack. People came to threaten what we're trying to do here.
Beyond this, narratives differ between Al Thomas and people who were part of the counter-protest.
THOMAS: Throughout the entire weekend, the Virginia State Police, Charlottesville Police Department, intervened to break up fights and altercations among those in attendance at the rally site. We had to send our forces to multiple locations to deal with a number of disturbances, in and around the downtown area. It took probably an hour to gain control of the streets, we had groups that were moving constantly, we were following a number of groups ensuring that they were being peaceful, but it was a challenge.
Here’s the take of Kasey Landrum, who works at Charlottesville’s Thomas Jefferson Health District, and who was part of the counter-protest as well.
KASEY LANDRUM: It seemed like no matter what we did, time after time, we just kept getting assaulted and attacked. How come these guys were able to come here fully armed, ready for war? The cops showed up after each time something happened. They were not present.
Jeanette Johnson, a coworker of Landrum, talks about the police being intimidating towards their non-violent group.
JEANNETTE JOHNSON: It was snipers on the rooftops of some of the buildings, and they had guns pointing down towards us.
Back at McGuffey Park, Landrum talks about an encounter with heavily armed White Nationalists threatening their group as they passed by the park.
LANDRUM: He threatens this guy, they spit on this woman, and we ask the police officer standing right there "what are you going to do?" and he's standing behind a barrier, and he's like "I can't do anything right now: that side of the barrier is Charlottesville Police Department - this side of the barrier is where I'm responsible." You are literally ten feet away from somebody being assaulted, and you’re doing nothing. And then he goes: "Have fun today."
Asked if he had any regrets in not having his officers better prepared, Al Thomas answered one thing:
THOMAS: Absolutely I have regrets. We lost three lives.
REPORTER: Do you regret your actions and your decisions that day?
THOMAS: I explained what our regrets are: we regret this tragic day, we regret that we had a tragic outcome, and we lost lives.
Kasey Landrum was there when Heather Heyer lost her life: she was attending to her wounds.
LANDRUM: We rotated her, and then started doing compressions, and making sure we can give some kind of life saving aid to her while we're holding her wounds at the bottom. And up come the cops, and they're screaming in my face, "Get away from her, clear the area". And I said "I'm sorry we can't go, I have to stay here, she's dying." They actually told the volunteer medics to stop and leave. I was like “why would you do that until there's a secure pass off?"
JOHNSON: And that’s what I didn’t understand: when they came, they came like they were getting ready to start shooting. We're now screaming for medic, and you come, pointing a gun.
LANDRUM: We actually had one of the reverends step into the street, and stop a police officer and say "You're going to have to let us handle our people, man, because you're just not doing it." He started corralling people because the cops were being violently threatening to a bunch of people who were just brutalized.
Here’s another declaration of Al Thomas during his press conference:
THOMAS: We tried to give the individuals in the crowd who wanted to leave, we wanted to make sure that they were able to leave safely. We've facilitated that process, we had a number of individuals who chose to remain, and cause violence.
This is another claim challenged by Johnson.
JOHNSON: When I wanted to go to my car, and I told him I wanted to go to my car, and he threatens, to say that if I was going to my car I was going to get arrested. Where were they, when they could have escorted me to my car? They could have said "well, here's the route you can take" or something. But it was "if you walk by yourself or if you walk with a group of 3 or more, you're going to get arrested." So I had no choice. I was stuck.
LANDRUM: I'm just really, really, really let down by our institutions locally, and I think a lot of this was preventable.
City Council member Szakos tries to find a silver lining to it all.
SZAKOS: We certainly are capable of having spirited disagreements among ourselves and there are things that are problems in our city and we work very hard to try to deal with those and certainly fall short sometimes. And to have people come from outside and just attack us like that, it's very traumatic; and I’m hoping that if anything good can come out of this, it will be… that we're determined to kind of figure out how to move forward together.