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Report cites security failures in deadly Charlottesville crash

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    A vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

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    People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday.

    THE DAILY PROGRESS via AP

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An investigation into last summer's Charlottesville, Va. white nationalist rally – during which officials said a Toledo man killed a counter-protester – sharply criticized law enforcement for extensive security lapses.

The 220-page report, published online Friday, details how city leaders “protected neither free expression nor public safety” during the Aug. 12 event.

“This represents a failure of one of government’s core functions — the protection of fundamental rights. Law enforcement also failed to maintain order and protect citizens from harm, injury, and death,” the report states.

Former U.S. attorney Tim Heaphy, a partner at Hunton & Williams law firm, led the independent review. A Charlottesville spokesman did not return messages seeking comment.

Police said James Fields Jr., 20, smashed his car into counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring 19 others. He and his lawyer have declined interview requests from The Blade.

A school resource officer earlier that day stood alone to patrol traffic near the intersection. She feared for her safety with protesters and counter-protesters leaving. The officer was relieved from her post, but not replaced, according to the report.

Mr. Heaphy described the event planning as “inadequate and disconnected.” Police commanders, for example, did not provide sufficient training to officers, or reach out to cities where these groups fought.

Officials waited too long to request help from a state agency well-versed in emergency response. City and state police largely acted independently from each other, the findings show.

After authorities declared the assembly unlawful, police tried breaking up the crowd and violence ensued. Small groups of people wandered the streets, starting fights without officer response, Mr. Heaphy said.

“Police attempted to respond to these violent conflicts, but were too far away and too late to intervene. The result was a period of lawlessness and tension that threatened the safety of the entire community,” he wrote.

Mr. Heaphy said many residents reported police failing to act. He cited one downtown brawl in which “Unite the Right” protesters struck counter-demonstrators with flagpoles, and the counter-demonstrators fought back.

“Body camera footage shows people attacking each other in plain view of the officers. The officers stood behind the barricades and watched,” Mr. Heaphy wrote.

Police could have prevented some injuries, he said, and multiple assailants fled because of “police inability or unwillingness to pursue them.”

Officers completed no field training for the event and their information from command was limited. They did not try on riot gear, including new ballistic helmets bought for the rally, he wrote.

“As a result, many officers likely did not put on their gear or helmets until ordered to do so on the day of the event,” they said.

The report sheds new light on Mr. Fields' arrest as well. His Dodge Challenger struck the crowd before reversing up the street. Nearby officers called in the license plate number for a police helicopter to pursue.

Four minutes after the crash, Mr. Fields pulled over and dropped his keys outside the car window, Mr. Heaphy said.

Also this week, the rally's organizer filed paperwork for an anniversary rally.

Jason Kessler submitted a special event application request to Charlottesville officials. It's a rally against “government civil rights abuse” and for “memorializing the sacrifices made by political dissidents in Lee Park August 12th, 2017,” he wrote.

If approved, the two-day event would take place Aug. 11-12 for an estimated 400 participants. Mr. Kessler requested police presence to separate demonstrators from other attendees.

Contact Ryan Dunn at rdunn@theblade.com, 419-724-6095, or on Twitter @RDunnBlade.

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