CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — A former U.S. attorney will lead an independent review of Charlottesville’s response to three white nationalist rallies, the largest of which ended in deadly violence, the city announced Friday.
Tim Heaphy, a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia who is now a partner with the international law firm Hunton & Williams, will evaluate how the city prepared for and responded to a May torch-light rally, a Ku Klux Klan gathering in July and the Aug. 12 “Unite the Right” rally, the city said in a news release.
The scope of his investigation will extend beyond the Charlottesville Police Department. Heaphy intends to interview agency representatives, law enforcement and government officials, and members of the community, including protesters, counter-protesters, and onlookers at each event, officials said.
“Our review will be thorough and objective, and will begin immediately. I look forward to presenting a comprehensive summary of what occurred in and around the protest events, and to formulating practical recommendations for improved future response,” Heaphy said in a statement.
Mayor Mike Signer posted on Facebook that he expects the review to take at least three months, and urged that it be done quickly to enable healing, and to prepare the community for future protests, because “organizers of these events have vowed to return to Charlottesville.”
Charlottesville leaders are facing scrutiny and anger from residents and activists over how they handled the rallies, which were called in response to a city council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
In May, a group including white nationalist Richard Spencer came to town carrying torches and chanting “you will not replace us.” Then in July, a small group of Klansmen rallied at Justice Park, met by more than 1,000 counter-protesters. Virginia State Police used tear gas to disperse that crowd.
Afterward, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, Legal Aid Justice Center, Rutherford Institute and National Lawyers Guild Central Virginia Chapter asked for an investigation of what they called the “outsized and militaristic” police presence.
Organizers named their next rally “Unite the Right.” It was believed to be the largest gathering of white nationalists in at least a decade. Crowds fought violently in the streets, and a man said to admire Adolph Hitler is accused of plowing his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring many more. Two state troopers sent to monitor the scene and support the governor’s motorcade died when their helicopter crashed.
Rally organizers, counter-protesters and some law enforcement experts have questioned why authorities didn’t do more to separate opposing forces or step in once the violence began breaking out.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Police Chief Al Thomas and other officials defended the law enforcement response, saying police had to show restraint because some people in the crowd were heavily armed.
City officials had tried to move the rally to a larger park about a mile from downtown Charlottesville, but their request was blocked by a federal judge after the ACLU sued on free-speech grounds. The ACLU later announced that it will only defend future events if protesters don’t carry weapons.
City Manager Maurice Jones said Heaphy would review “what we as a local government working with our state partners did well and where we can improve.”
Heaphy served as the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia from 2009-2015, after being appointed by President Barack Obama. He currently heads Hunton & Williams’ white-collar defense and investigations practice.