White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" clash with police as they are forced out of Emancipation Park after the "Unite the Right" rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

For Charlottesville Authorities, a Painful Post-Mortem on Preparedness

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August 7, 2018
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by Ali Winston Special to ProPublica

This story is part of an ongoing collaboration between ProPublica and FRONTLINE that includes documentaries, the first of which airs Tuesday, Aug. 7 on PBS.

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On Aug. 2, 2017, Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer convened a closed meeting of the City Council. The Unite the Right rally was days off, and Signer was concerned about how to manage the potential for trouble. The Virginia State Police were there. So, too, was the chief of the Charlottesville Police Department.

Signer and the council members asked the law enforcement officers present directly: Was there a “specific, credible threat” of violence?

There was none, the elected officials said they were told.

Mayhem, of course, ensued some 10 days later, as marches by white supremacists turned bloody and left a 32-year-old woman dead. The violence set off a national political firestorm, and also a great deal of soul-searching by the city of Charlottesville.

Months later, a 200-page independent review of law enforcement’s handling of the rally excoriated the local and state police for failing to intervene earlier and more effectively to limit the bloodshed.

Buried deeper in the report, however, was a detailed account of the intelligence shortcomings that left the police poorly prepared for what was to come, including the Aug. 2 meeting. Those at the meeting considered relocating the rally, the account reveals, thinking it might be safer away from Emancipation Park, site of the disputed statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But they didn’t, based on advice from police – and specifically from Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas.

“Council asked the law enforcement officers about imminent danger, but received no information suggesting a ‘specific, credible threat of violence,’” the report said. “Chief Thomas told us that the information presented to the Council did not, in his view, meet the threshold that would justify moving the event.”

Signer, in a recent interview with ProPublica and FRONTLINE, said he never actually saw security plans for the event until weeks after the fatal rally.

“I wish that we had known more. I wish that we had been given more information by the state intelligence apparatus,” Signer said.

Asked if the police had indicated that white supremacists would come heavily armed to the marches on Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 — some marchers had guns, clubs and pepper spray, among other weapons — Signer said, simply, “No.”

In an effort to better understand how that could be, ProPublica and FRONTLINE spoke with a researcher hired by a federal agency in the months before Charlottesville to collect information on the aims and activities of white supremacist groups, dozens of which would ultimately make their way to Charlottesville. The researcher, who has decades of experience in law enforcement, would only speak on the condition that his name would not be used because of his ongoing intelligence and undercover work for the government. He said he filed reports roughly every two weeks from January to August 2017 chronicling what he said was clear evidence that extremists on the right and left were destined to meet violently.

Those reports, he said, were shared with the federal agency that hired him, and he believes, made their way to the local authorities.

“Because of the length of time that the groups had to organize, the extent of their networking, and the logistics in question, there were concerns expressed to law enforcement agencies about the potential for violence,” the intelligence researcher told ProPublica and FRONTLINE in an interview last week.

He would not name the specific agency he worked for or give us copies of the reports he says he submitted. What became of his work is hard to determine. Shortly after the rally, there were published reports that offer support for his claim: The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI had warned the state and Charlottesville police of the potential for violence.

Politico reported late in August 2017 that the Department of Homeland Security had issued a confidential warning to law enforcement authorities three days before the deadly Aug. 12 Charlottesville protest rally. It warned that “an escalating series of clashes had created a powder keg” likely to ignite in Charlottesville. An earlier report that month by Foreign Policy magazine said the FBI and DHS had warned the Trump administration back in May.

“We assess lone actors and small cells within the white supremacist extremist movement likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year,” said the bulletin, which was titled “White Supremacist Extremism Poses Persistent Threat of Lethal Violence.”

The independent review done in Charlottesville does not resolve the question of how and why federal warnings were not heeded by local police. But it makes clear failings on the front end (inadequate intelligence on potential threats) made the failings that came later (inexplicable restraint in the face of bloodshed) all the more likely.

“The planning and coordination breakdowns prior to August 12 produced disastrous results,” the report said.

The report said the Virginia State Police would not cooperate with investigators, and faulted Thomas for trying to limit the participation of officials in his department.

Contacted this week, the State Police said they did the best they could a year ago. The local police had nothing more to say.

Thomas, the CPD chief, retired shortly after the release of the independent report. A request to speak with him made through his lawyer was unsuccessful.

ProPublica and FRONTLINE had sent a series of questions to the FBI about its intelligence on white supremacist groups and why the information the bureau developed did not seem to result in better preparedness.

The FBI issued a statement in response.

“The FBI investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security, and cannot initiate an investigation based solely on an individual’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, or exercise of First Amendment rights. We remain committed to protecting those rights for all Americans.”

The statement, which can be read in full here, added that, “the FBI takes seriously all acts or threats of violence and is committed to investigating crimes that are potentially bias-motivated.”

In pages upon pages of fault-finding, the review offers a painstaking chronology of local law enforcement’s struggle to obtain useful intelligence in the weeks leading up to the Unite the Right weekend.

In May, there had been two tense days in Charlottesville involving white supremacists and protesters who challenged them. There was no violence and few arrests, but Thomas told investigators for the independent report that the events amounted to an “operational blind spot” for his department, which had failed to see the potential for trouble in advance.

Thomas and his department had another chance to improve its intelligence when the Ku Klux Klan held a march in Charlottesville on July 8. Thomas said he authorized the purchase of more sophisticated technology capable of “pinpointing potential threats based on social media activity.” He also assigned a captain to oversee the intelligence gathering, but wound up disappointed with the first results of the effort, according to the report.

There was no estimate of how many people would show up; no criminal histories for any of the likely marchers were compiled, and scant information was gathered about the anticipated tactics of the Klan marchers or their expected opponents. The department also had failed to reach out to other jurisdictions that had a history of dealing with Klan gatherings, the report said.

The Charlottesville Police Department’s blind spot, Thomas conceded, had remained so.

There also had been next to no training for officers handling the march.

“CPD’s training efforts to prepare for the Klan event were fragmented, unfocused, and inadequate,” the report concluded.

It showed. The Klan came and went without great incident, but hundreds of protesters who had shown up to confront the marchers swarmed the streets. Groups of officers got separated. More than 20 arrests were made. An officer was spit on. The Virginia State Police and the Charlottesville Police Department used different radio channels for communication, and the state police deployed tear gas without proper authorization.

“You are damn right I gassed them; it needed to be done,” a state police official told Thomas, according to the independent review. The police, he said, were “under attack.”

Seth Wispelwey, a local religious leader, said it seemed as if city leaders and law enforcement “didn’t know what they were doing,” according to the report.

Thomas and his department recommitted to doing a better job with the Unite the Right rally looming. Individual detectives were assigned to research groups on the right and the left that were likely to attend. But this appears to have amounted to not much more than reading old news articles and trying to reach the group leaders to determine their intentions, according to the report.

The report says CPD got some input from “outside agencies and groups.” It lists a police chief in Pikeville, Ky., where there had been a recent rally; an investigator at the Anti-Defamation League; and the FBI’s field office in Richmond, Va. The threat assessments warned that white supremacists were likely to bring bats, batons, knives and firearms, and that anti-racist militants would respond with soda cans filled with cement, bottles filled with urine or fuel, and pepper spray.

How that failed to qualify as a “specific, credible” threat of violence is unclear. But the report makes clear the authorities didn’t believe they had what they needed to try and move or cancel the rally.

“Council was told that generalized threats of violence, promises to use violence in self-defense, and information that counter-protesters planned to use violence….were insufficient,” the report said.

But the full report contains virtually no mention of an intelligence tool typically vital for such events: confidential informants inside extremist groups on both sides. There is nothing in the report about whether local or federal law enforcement had, or used, such intelligence assets.

William Long, a former FBI agent who retired in 2014, said there were clearly breakdowns in intelligence gathering and sharing in Charlottesville. He spent many years of his career investigating white supremacist groups in the western United States, probes that routinely relied on the use of informants. He finds it hard to believe the FBI and others didn’t have multiple informants within the groups, both before Charlottesville and after.

“People in this movement, many times they are ripe for development as informants,” Long said. “They’re people who are looking to belong to something. Some of them are overtly racist and believe what they’re spewing. Others are not, they’re weak-minded followers that fall in because others will accept them. There are people in neo-Nazi and white supremacist movement that will mature, realize, hey, my friends are going to prison, I’m going nowhere in life and I’m tired of sleeping on someone’s couch. If you can catch them at the right time, when you get them realizing that this is stupid, you can knock it out of the park.”

He acknowledged that developing intelligence through human sources was far more challenging than tracking material on the internet, which seems to have been the chief approach taken by local authorities.

“Developing informants who are going to the training sessions with groups, for example, is a whole different thing,” Long said. “You have to make a real effort to either recruit people who are already on the inside, or recruit a capable person with credentials to get there, and once you vet them, move them into that position where you want them, where they’re most useful — that takes some experience and skill to do that. The bureau does emphasize that. Whether it’s being done expertly, across the board, I don’t know.”

—Nick Verbitsky and A.C. Thompson contributed to this report.

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