Despite criticisms of heavy police presence in Charlottesville, officials say the public safety response to Unite the Right anniversary was a success

An estimation of the local, regional and state costs for the public safety operation has yet to be determined

Brian Moran

Brian Moran, Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, speaking at Monday's press conference. 

Geremia Di Maro | Cavalier Daily

Local, state and regional officials are saying the public safety and security response to the one-year anniversary of last summer’s violent Unite the Right rally was largely a success, despite facing sharp criticisms from some community members of the heavy law enforcement presence in the region and heightened security measures in downtown over the weekend. 

“Our job as public safety professionals is to prepare for worst case scenarios,” Charlottesville Fire Chief Andrew Baxter said during a press conference with officials Monday afternoon. “I believe deeply that our commitment to that understanding and the planning process that flowed from that is the basis for our success as a unified team this past weekend.” 

Well over a thousand law enforcement personnel were in the Charlottesville area for the anniversary, including 700 Virginia State Troopers and 300 National Guard personnel. 

The strong showing of a variety of state, local and regional law enforcement agencies was protested during several of the anti-racist demonstrations which took place during the weekend.

Even though the demonstrations remained largely peaceful, a handful of arrests were made throughout the weekend and a number of scuffles occurred between demonstrators and law enforcement personnel. However, Baxter said no major injuries were reported by officials.

While most of the officials who spoke considered the planning, execution and response to the events of the anniversary weekend to be successful, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney noted some of the heightened security measures in place — including a restricted access zone established around the downtown mall with two checkpoints which required “consensual” bag searches to prevent the admittance of prohibited items

In response to a question from a reporter about what mistakes may have been made, Brackney said it was too early to authoritatively conclude where improvements could have been made in the planning and execution process. 

Brackney added that social media posts concerning suspicious activity — which officials encouraged individuals to share with multiple agencies — submitted to the City and other law enforcement agencies by the public revealed that there were counterintelligence efforts being conducted by individuals in the days before the anniversary weekend to reveal the location of police officers and alternate means of access into the restricted access zone downtown. She said these submissions were a motivating factor in the implementation of the bag searches. 

“There were screening processes in place, and everyone was actually given the opportunity,” Brackney said. “There was no one who was searched that was not consensual. Actually everyone was allowed in, it was their items that were not allowed in or did not have access.”

In response to questions from reporters about a justification for the massive law enforcement presence in the region over the weeked, Brackney said the planning process was not only centered around the potential presence of “alt-right” groups. 

“[There] is the variable of the unknown, and that's what we have to plan for,” Brackney said. “Because even if you have those who are not necessarily on the alt-right, you could have people who decide to do counter-surveillance and plant themselves into very good causes so they can have their messages be heard. I don't plan for whether it’s the alt-right or any group that’s coming, I plan based on for who we know to be coming.” 

Brackney also said law enforcement personnel exercised great restraint throughout the weekend — in terms of crowd management and interaction with demonstrators —  for the greater good of public safety. 

“In terms of how the community felt and how we responded, I think the community saw that we responded in the way that we should have responded,” Brackney said. “Professionally, and acknowledging that there are a lot of grievances.” 

Brackney said there were three assaults on law enforcement personnel during the weekend, but added that they were still under investigation. Baxter further added that three law enforcement officers were treated for heat related injuries but not hospitalized. He also said six civilians were treated — of those, two were transported to U.Va. Medical Center in stable condition. 

Brackney added that law enforcement personnel from Henrico County, Augusta County and George Mason University were among a few of the law enforcement agencies that aided in the regional response during the weekend. 

With regards to a rally hosted by U.Va. Students United near the Rotunda Saturday night, Gloria Graham — University associate vice president for safety and security — said U.Va. was supportive of the event. The rally was originally planned for the North Plaza of the Rotunda but was quickly relocated to the grass triangle beside Brooks Hall seemingly in protest of the heightened security the University enforced on the North Plaza area, which included a capacity limit and metal detectors for entry. 

“We worked closely with the organizers of that event, we supported them wholeheartedly in their event, [and] I worked directly with that group,” Graham said. “We appreciate those who attended that event on Saturday. It was a peaceful protest, and we support peaceful protests … and to express their First Amendment rights as a whole.” 

Graham added that the strong showing of security at the rally — including a line of law enforcement personnel in riot gear — was necessary due to the lack of knowledge regarding the risks for danger. 

“The significant security presence was a product of uncertainty,” Graham said. “You can expect us as public safety officials to plan and to do things that minimize the opportunity for risk and criminal incidents to occur in the community.” 

Brian Moran, the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the planning and preparation for the weekend was driven by a desire to prevent anything like the ill-fated rally from ever occurring in the Commonwealth of Virginia again. 

Moran also praised the anti-racist demonstrators who took to the streets of Charlottesville and the University throughout the past weekend. 

“I want to thank many of the protesters,” Moran said. “They articulated their grievances in a manner that was peaceful and observed other persons’ safety concerns. The First Amendment is tough, and public safety must be balanced [with] our First Amendment rights. It's not always easy, but I think we observed this weekend [that] we accomplished that.”

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