Charlottesville police chief defends officers' conduct during violence

Gabby Kaufman
·Reporter

Facing criticism that his department failed to adequately intervene in Saturday’s violent clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters that left three dead and dozens injured, Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas defended his department’s actions, but expressed remorse at how the “tragic weekend” unfolded.

At a press conference Monday, Thomas was asked if he regretted that the police department was not better prepared to handle the chaos that erupted over the weekend.

“Absolutely, I have regrets,” Thomas said. “We lost three lives this weekend. … a local citizen and two fellow officers. We certainly have regrets. It was a tragic, tragic weekend.”

Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a man drove his car into a crowd of counterprotestors. Virginia State Police officers Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Trooper Berke M. M. Bates, 40, were killed when the helicopter they were flying to keep watch over the rally crashed.

Thomas’ police department has been criticized for not more forcefully intervening between the attendees of the “Unite the Right” rally and the counterprotestors as violence broke out. Thomas denied Monday that officers were “intimidated” by gun-toting attendees on the right, but acknowledged the firepower led police to call in reinforcements.

“We were hoping for a peaceful event,” Thomas said. “We urged leaders from both sides to engage in a nonviolent demonstration. Once the violence erupted, once the plan was altered, we had to quickly transition our officers into their protective gear. Once the unlawful assembly was declared, we requested the state police mobile field force to deploy in their riot gear, and our officers took a position behind them at that point to guard their rear.”

Virgina Gov. Terry McAuliffe defended the Charlottesville Police Department, but acknowledged the challenge posed by armed protestors, telling the New York Times Sunday, “They had better equipment than our State Police had.”

Monday, he said his office would “conduct an extensive review that will include how we issue rally permits, law enforcement preparation and response, and coordination at the local, state and federal level.”