Local officials talk preparedness for potential August demonstrations

Officials emphasize reform of policies, practices after deadly Unite the Right rally last August

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From left to right: Assistant Charlottesville City Manager Mike Murphy, Charlottesville police chief RaShall Brackney, Virginia State Police Capt. Craig Worsham, Gloria Graham, U.Va.’s associate vice president of safety and security, and Capt. Darrell Byers of the Albemarle County Police Department. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

Eleven months after the violent white nationalist demonstrations of Aug. 11 and 12 at the University and in downtown Charlottesville, local emergency management officials and police personnel convened at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church July 12 to present preliminary plans for managing a potential anniversary rally next month — including improved coordination between law enforcement and emergency management personnel and reformed policing tactics.

The discussion came shortly after Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler settled a lawsuit with a consent decree that same day in the Charlottesville Circuit Court, agreeing not to solicit armed groups to return to Charlottesville. Currently, Kessler has filed a lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville for denying him a permit to hold an anniversary Unite the Right rally in Emancipation Park and is also preparing for a rally in Washington, D.C. — or both — on Aug. 11 and 12. A federal court judge will consider an injunction July 24 to allow the rally to take place. 

Officials who spoke at the event included a Charlottesville Assistant City Manager Mike Murphy, recently-appointed City Police Chief RaShall Brackney; Capt. Craig Worsham of the Virginia State Police; Gloria Graham, U.Va.’s associate vice president of safety and security; Capt. Darrell Byers of the Albemarle County Police Department; and City Fire Chief Andrew Baxter. 

In response to audience concerns expressed about the potential for another white nationalist demonstration at the University and the rights of students and community members to protest against it, Graham said there was a zero tolerance policy in place. 

“We are not going to tolerate unlawful assemblies on Grounds,” Graham said. “We engage in constitutional policing, and we are not driven by subject matter, we are driven by behavior.”

However, Graham added that under recently implemented free speech guidelines for unaffiliated persons at the University, students and any simultaneously present, affiliated community members are exempt from many of the restrictions which apply to anyone else not currently employed or enrolled at the University. For example, unaffiliated groups gathering under the new policy are barred from carrying weapons, disrupting University operations and blocking pedestrian or vehicle traffic. 

“The Lawn is a place where students can assemble, and don't necessarily have to make a reservation provided there is no other University-sponsored event going on there — so it is fairly difficult for you to unlawfully assemble as a student,” Graham said. 

Murphy summarized how the city has been preparing for a potential anniversary rally next month. 

Murphy cited the City Council’s adoption of an ordinance earlier this year — which revised the City’s guidelines and regulations regarding special event and demonstration permitting — as a major step in allowing the City to better control the time, place and manner of events such as last summer’s white nationalist demonstrations. 

Additionally, Murphy said City staff and law enforcement personnel have undergone extensive crowd management training in recent months as recommended by an independent review conducted by former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy last fall, adding that over 80 percent of city departments have received additional crowd management training since last fall. 

Murphy said training sessions have included joint exercises with state and regional police personnel. Graham said this has including the University Police Department.

Additionally, Baxter has also been designated as the local emergency management coordinator to directly oversee incidents of civil unrest through a newly-formed committee for public safety and emergency preparedness.

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Charlottesville Director of Communications Brian Wheeler said the City Manager — or acting City Manager as will be the case by next month — is the City’s Director of Emergency Management based on a regional Emergency Operations Plan. 

However, Wheeler added that Baxter’s designation by outgoing City Manager Maurice Jones will allow the City to better coordinate with Albemarle County’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Alison Farole. 

“The designation of a Local Emergency Management Coordinator on staff ensures we have a single point of coordination with the Regional Emergency Management Coordinator (Allison Farole) and staff oversight of the newly formed Committee on Safety and Emergency Preparedness,” Wheeler said. 

“[The committee] will provide programmatic oversight, policy direction, and coordination of Emergency Management efforts for the community, citizens, and City government employees and will be staffed by senior leaders from a number of City departments,” Jones said in email to City staff in March. “[The committee] seeks to build upon daily operating concepts and inter-departmental and community relationships to ensure that skills and resources are matched to the needs of the community, our citizens, and our employees in times of emergency or disaster.”

Murphy also said that a regional special event planning group comprised of the City, Albemarle County, the University, Virginia State Police and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management has also been formed to increase local and regional coordination when preparing for mass demonstrations or protests.

“We’ve been very serious about doing things differently,” Murphy said. “Not just as a city, but the whole partnership you see up here today so that if there is any hazard, any emergency or any future emergency or large demonstration, we’d be in a different place planning and preparation wise.” 

Baxter said he met with representatives from VDEM in February of this year to begin the planning process for this summer and added that it was customary for emergency management personnel to prepare for the worst. 

“It’s very important to understand that in the midst of all this planning for what may occur that weekend, we are also focused on being able to maintain our response capabilities for anything else that may happen both in the City, in the County or at the University of Virginia,” Baxter said.

Baxter added that ensuring maximum safety next month may involve discouraging locals from protesting or being near potential demonstrations, but said individuals would have to weigh the risks for themselves. 

“If you choose to [go] — because you are passionate about exercising your constitutional rights, which is wonderful — understand then that you will be assuming a degree of risk,” Baxter said.

While Brackney said she can’t provide specific details regarding the operation plans and strategies of law enforcement personnel, she added that there would be restrictions on vehicular traffic and parking in the city in certain designated areas during the anniversary weekend but did not specify further. 

Heather Heyer, a Charlottesville resident and a counter protester at the Unite the Right rally, was killed while dozens more were injured Aug. 12 after a car plowed into a crowd of counter protesters gathered on south Fourth Street near the Downtown Mall. James Alex Fields Jr., an Ohio man accused of driving the car into the group, has been indicted for 29 counts of hate crime acts and one count of racially-motivated interference in federally-protected activities, to which he pleaded not guilty. 

According to the Heaphy report, the City did not adequately restrict traffic flow in and around the downtown mall during the rally. In the chaotic aftermath of the declaration of an unlawful assembly in Emancipation Park, violence broke out between white nationalist demonstrators and counter protesters along adjacent Market Street and near the mall which left many individuals vulnerable. 

In relation to the inaction of law enforcement personnel at the rally, as found in the Heaphy report, Brackney said the newly established unified command structure of the City, County, University, VSP and VDEM aimed to prevent confusion regarding directions for officers. 

According to the Heaphy report, the lack of responsiveness by law enforcement personnel at the Unite the Right rally was largely the result of ambiguous and overlapping lines of command among various police personnel on the ground. 

“We have a very clear understanding from the top through our emergency management and unified systems as to what the expectations are,” Brackney said. “The expectations are that there will not be the type of violence that occured in this community last year.”

Worsham said local residents can expect a strong showing of state troopers in the region during the lead-up to Aug. 12. The Heaphy report criticized the response of VSP last year in particular, writing that officers were tasked with protecting Emancipation Park rather than dispersing violence.

Worsham added that the VSP was planning a fundamentally different response this year which will involve multiple officers directly interacting with demonstrators and counter protesters to resolve conflicts and prevents violence — a de-escalation strategy recommended in the Heaphy report. 

“We’re going to be active and assertive,” Worsham said. “Expect interactions with the police. Expect them to be dressed in various uniforms because we’re going to be out and about doing what we do — not a lot of standing around. There will be some police officers and law enforcement standing at perimeters, but there’s going to be many, many people out and about working to patrol.” 

Despite the repeated assurances of the officials, several audience members expressed mistrust in the ability of law enforcement personnel and the city at large to respond to any potential demonstrations next month after the mismanagement of last year’s rally. 

“What I find extraordinary about this event …  is the failure on the part of law enforcement to acknowledge how badly they handled last year and why that happened,” said local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel.

Fogel said he witnessed VSP personnel fail to intervene last year when violence broke out between white nationalist demonstrators and counter protesters, adding that such a failure to respond resulted in great skepticism on behalf of the community in the ability of city and police personnel to respond to similar violence this year.

When audience members asked how the city would enforce the consent decrees signed by various militia groups, Brackney said planning for the anniversary weekend went far beyond the scope of Kessler or any of the other groups, and added that the planning process was not contingent upon Kessler potentially receiving an injunction for his rally. 

“Lawbreakers do not care about our ordinances, they don’t care about our legislation, they don't care about statutes,” Brackney said. “We know somebody is coming to Charlottesville. We know all eyes are on Charlottesville. We know that someone, regardless, is going to use this as an opportunity for their national platform to be heard… My thoughts are ‘Somebody’s coming here’, and shame on us if we don't plan for whomever might show.” 

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