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Former Federal Prosecutor Says Charlottesville Response Was A 'Series Of Failures'

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The city of Charlottesville, Va., is reviewing a 207-page report on everything that went wrong last summer when white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters. The report's author is a former U.S. attorney. He has outlined more than a dozen mistakes altogether and points blame at city officials and police. From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Nazi scum off our streets. Nazi scum off our streets.

SANDY HAUSMAN, BYLINE: As hundreds of white supremacists rallied in a downtown park on August 12, more than a thousand counterprotesters gathered along the perimeter. Charlottesville's police force, 128 sworn officers, were given no specialized training for the event, according to former U.S. attorney Tim Hafey.

TIM HAFEY: A lot of them had never even tried on the ballistic helmet or used the shield that they were given for that day.

HAUSMAN: And he said the city's police chief and high-level officers appeared overconfident in the days leading up to the Unite the Right rally.

HAFEY: There was a sense we found of, we got this. We were told by the command staff at the police department we've had major events in the past. We've had dignitary visits. We have the Wertland Street block party. And this was a fundamentally different kind of event, August 12, than anything that had happened here before.

HAUSMAN: Six hundred state police were on hand, but Hafey said there was little coordination between the two forces. In fact, he found they could not even talk directly with one another.

HAFEY: They had to relay everything through their respective chains of command and verbal communication either in the command center or down on the ground - horribly inefficient to have separate communications.

HAUSMAN: What's more, state and local police were following different orders. Charlottesville officers were told not to intervene in fights unless people were at risk for serious injuries or death, while state forces said they were only there to police the park. On the morning of the rally, their commander expressed concerns for the safety of his officers and vowed they would not go into what he called that mess on Market Street. And as fights broke out, Hafey added, Charlottesville's police chief may have issued a surprising order.

HAFEY: We had evidence from a couple of people in the command center that the chief actually said, let them fight for a little while. It will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.

HAUSMAN: He also blamed lawyers for telling the city it could not ban sticks, poles, clubs and shields. Hafey said that was incorrect, and the presence of those makeshift weapons elevated the threat to public safety. Officers who cleared the park made matters worse as they forced white supremacists into crowds of counterprotesters.

HAFEY: And that's where you have more clashes. You have a gunshot fired. You have a flame thrower. You have punches. Easy for us to say, but the lack of separation is a huge problem.

HAUSMAN: And finally, he faulted the decision to assign laymen to keep traffic out of the protest area.

HAFEY: You had an animal control officer at Second and High. You had a lab tech who was at Third and High. They were told if it gets dangerous, if it gets violent, go inside your car and lock the door. And that's what they did.

HAUSMAN: That mistake allowed a man to drive his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one and injuring 19. The chief of police has denied that he allowed fighting to continue on August 12 and said this is no time for finger pointing. He told reporters Charlottesville is still a community in crisis. In a statement, the city manager disagreed with some aspects of the report but conceded authorities fell short of expectations, and for that he said the city was profoundly sorry. Hafey will present his findings and make recommendations at a city council meeting Monday. For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman in Charlottesville, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.