Q: Were the police in Charlottesville, Virginia, told to “stand down” to allow the violent clashes that occurred on Aug. 12?
A: The police chief, mayor and city spokeswoman say there is no truth to that claim. Others have criticized what they describe as slow police action.
Is there any truth to the allegations that the police in Charlottesville were told to “stand down” to allow the violent clash to occur on Aug. 12?
Protesters at a white nationalist rally clashed with counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12. By 10:30 a.m., a few people had been treated for injuries. An hour later, Virginia’s governor declared a state of emergency, and at 11:37 a.m., Virginia State Police tweeted that unlawful assembly had been declared. Before noon, the state police tweeted that “arrests are being made.”
But our readers have asked us about viral rumors that claim police in Charlottesville were ordered to “stand down” and not intervene in violent clashes. Some websites — YourNewsWire.com and truthuncensored.net — claim this was part of a leftist conspiracy to “ignite race war.” Those sites feature a quote from a purported anonymous Charlottesville police officer, claiming police were “ordered to bring the rival groups together” and then “stand down.” The anonymous quote goes on to claim the “event” had been “set up” since at least May and that those “in charge really want to destroy America.”
That anonymous quote and conspiracy story have been reposted on numerous websites. We didn’t find that any legitimate news organization had used or even referred to that anonymous quote.
The Charlottesville police chief, mayor and city spokeswoman all have said there was no “stand-down” order. However, there has been criticism of the police response that day, and media reports say that police allowed physical altercations to occur without intervening.
ProPublica posted an article the evening of Aug. 12 that said: “State police and National Guardsmen watched passively for hours as self-proclaimed Nazis engaged in street battles with counter-protesters.” The story said the reporters had “walked the streets beginning in the early morning hours and repeatedly witnessed instances in which authorities took a largely laissez faire approach, allowing white supremacists and counter-protesters to physically battle.”
Both protesters and counterprotesters have criticized the police for not doing more to stop the violent confrontations, as the New York Times reported.
The ACLU of Virginia tweeted at 11:03 a.m. on Aug. 12: “Clash between protesters and counter protesters. Police says ‘We’ll not intervene until given command to do so.’”
At least one website — called Right Forever — claimed that tweet “confirms” there was a “stand-down” order. Not quite. We don’t know who among the police said this, or what exactly it means. We contacted the ACLU of Virginia, asking for more information about that tweet, but we did not get a response to our questions.
The executive director of the ACLU of Virginia speculated in a statement that the police allowed skirmishes to occur in order to declare “unlawful assembly” and put an end to the rally.
ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire G. Gastanaga, Aug. 14: The policing on Saturday was not effective in preventing violence. I was there and brought concerns directly to the secretary of public safety and the head of the Virginia State Police about the way that the barricades in the park limiting access by the arriving demonstrators and the lack of any physical separation of the protesters and counter-protesters on the street were contributing to the potential of violence. They did not respond. In fact, law enforcement was standing passively by, seeming to be waiting for violence to take place, so that they would have grounds to declare an emergency, declare an “unlawful assembly” and clear the area.
Fox News correspondent Doug McKelway reported this on Aug. 14: “I know for a fact that we have heard from a senior law enforcement from another county nearby this one, nearby Albemarle County, who that says that some of his underlings who attended a briefing here conducted by the city of Charlottesville and the police department of Charlottesville and the mayor’s office of Charlottesville before Saturday morning’s riot happened, that they were not to make arrests without the explicit approval of the mayor of the city of Charlottesville.”
When a Fox News producer asked Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas about that allegation in a press conference the same day, Thomas replied that it wasn’t true. “And I would like to know who that officer is who allegedly made those remarks. That’s simply not true.”
Thomas faced several questions about the police response in that press conference. One reporter said: “Chief, I witnessed personally dozens of acts of violence, people being assaulted and other general assaults as well with police officers in sight watching who did not intervene or help those victims. Did you give any orders to the police officers not to help people who were being assaulted?” Thomas responded: “No.”
Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer was asked on CNN on Aug. 16 about claims that he had issued a stand-down order. He replied that it was “false nonsense” and that he didn’t even have the authority to make such an order, because Charlottesville had a city manager form of government, in which the city manager is the chief executive. “The police chief does not report to me,” Signer said. “If I wanted to issue a stand-down order, I could not legally, A. And B, the police chief had a press conference yesterday where he stated categorically that no, no stand-down order was issued.”
We asked the city director of communications, Miriam Dickler, if the city manager had issued any “stand-down” order, or if there had been any instructions from the mayor, city manager or any city official that could have been misconstrued by participating police forces, leading them to believe that they weren’t allowed to intervene in clashes between protesters and counterprotesters. “The City Manager did not issue any such order,” Dickler responded in an email. “There were no instructions from the Mayor, Manager or police officials to refrain from intervening. Neither the Mayor, City Manager nor Chief of Police told anyone in law enforcement that arrests could only be made with the mayor’s or city’s approval.”
There are different opinions over whether the police response was adequate, but there is no evidence that a “stand-down” order was issued to intentionally encourage violent clashes.