Avoiding Another Charlottesville

There is plenty that local officials can do to avert the kind of deadly violence that erupted in the Virginia city.

When chaos broke out during protests in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, many Americans wondered why police seemed to be standing back. Despite intelligence that neo-Nazis and other white-nationalist extremists planned to come to Charlottesville heavily armed and expecting violence, the city’s law-enforcement response was widely seen as inadequate.

Before the day was over, one Charlottesville resident had been killed and more than 20 people had been injured when an extremist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. How, many wondered, could that have happened with almost a thousand city and state police deployed to maintain public order?

Stunned by the events that had unfolded in a usually quiet university town, local law-enforcement and political leaders across the country began serious efforts to “avoid another Charlottesville” should demonstrators bent on violence come to their communities. How can localities prepare for demonstrations that pose a clear threat to safety? Fortunately, there is a wealth of emergency management expertise to draw on:

Before the event:

• Gather intelligence on the demonstrators and their leaders. Tom Martin, a retired Virginia State Police captain and the state’s point person for several emergencies, puts it this way: “You have to learn who are these people are. What’s their track record? How reliable are they?”
• Communicate with the groups’ leaders, clarifying expectations. “One of the most significant things you can do when you have two kinds of volatile groups is to meet with them beforehand and establish strong lines of communications. You want to establish the rules of engagement,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
• Seek assistance from the state’s fusion center (an information-sharing entity staffed by intelligence and law-enforcement professionals). Fusion center staff can monitor the protest groups and tell local and state officials about their plans and their expected numbers.
• Based on the information gathered, develop a plan. It must include clear goals, a set of contingencies and a variety of possible law-enforcement responses. “It might be to contain and arrest, to prevent violence or to disperse crowds,” says Martin. Determine what streets will be closed, where counter-demonstrations can take place, and what areas residents should avoid.
• Keep local elected leaders in the communications loop with public-safety officials. Bill Leighty, a nationally recognized crisis-management expert, emphasizes the importance of forming relationships prior to the event: “You don’t want to be handing out business cards in the emergency operations center!” And invite crisis-management experts to advise law enforcement and political leaders. When things don’t go according to plan, it’s wise to have experienced people on hand.
• Create a unified command structure, with one person in charge. Typically, this will be the local police or fire chief. That person should maintain continual communications with law enforcement and political leaders.
• Engage state and local police in joint training. When violence is possible, the training must include the methods for dealing with it, from de-escalation to dispersing crowds and making arrests. Joint training builds trust among the agencies.
• Create extra response capacity. The governor can place the National Guard on standby. Local hospitals can postpone elective surgeries.

During the event:

There is no one formula for responding to events that become chaotic. But a few principles are clear:

• Establish one command post, where all information is integrated, viewed, discussed and disseminated to local and state leaders.
• Vet the information before acting on it. Initial information is often inaccurate. That’s what happened prior to riots in Virginia Beach in 1989. “The governor was told that a bunch of drunkards and drug addicts were coming,” Leighty recalls. “And that’s what law enforcement was expecting. Turned out it was a group of college kids looking for a good time.” Things nearly came to bloodshed at Virginia Beach because law-enforcement leaders were prepared to act on false information. Leighty concludes, “I always say, ‘if you’re planning for a riot, you’ll get a riot.'”
• Designate who will communicate to the community and media. That may be an elected official, a city manager or other top-level administrator, or the police chief. If the task is shared, there must be one consistent message, telling residents what’s known, dispelling false rumors and giving people the information they need to remain safe.
• Station significant numbers of police between hostile groups. Otherwise you’re asking for just the kind of trouble that Charlottesville experienced; there, city officials reported, demonstrators didn’t enter the park they had agreed to use, preventing police from creating a barrier between the two groups. And organize for maximum flexibility. For instance, if police don’t want to increase tensions by stationing officers in riot gear at a demonstration, ensure that those who are in riot gear can get to the site very quickly.

After the event:

When hostile groups collide, mistakes are likely. Blame doesn’t help, but a thorough and objective after-action review does. It’s essential to take a clear-eyed look at what happened: Did we follow the plan? Did we change tactics as events required? How well did we maintain communications? What are the key lessons learned?

There are no perfect examples of emergency management when hostile groups threaten violence. But when government leaders use these principles, most people will forgive them when the inevitable mistakes occur.

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Sexual Assault at UVA: 4 Lessons in Crisis Leadership

There are better ways to handle a situation like the one that has ignited a firestorm at the University of Virginia.

The turmoil that has enveloped the University of Virginia since Rolling Stone magazine’s publication of a scathing article describing a gang-rape at a fraternity party and a university culture “less concerned with protecting students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal” has done more than tarnish the reputation of a prestigious public institution. It has produced a primer on how not to lead during a crisis.

The Nov. 19 article included graphic references to a UVA coed, called “Jackie” by the author, who told the magazine she had been raped by seven men at a fraternity party. The article described a university culture in which sexual assaults “are kept quiet” not only by the university administration but also by students “as regrettable but inevitable casualties of their cherished party culture.” Later that day, UVA President Teresa Sullivan issued a statement saying, in part, that the university “takes seriously the issue of sexual misconduct” and that Charlottesville police were being asked to investigate the alleged rape. Then she left the country for a previously scheduled conference.

That’s when all hell broke loose. Students, faculty, alumni and others were outraged not only that a coed had allegedly been gang-raped but also that university officials had apparently done nothing more than offer their support to her. Dozens of current and former UVA coeds wrote to Rolling Stone describing their own rapes on the campus. A Charlottesville newspaper reported that Sullivan and others at UVA had learned of the alleged gang-rape in September but had done little except talk to fraternity leaders.

Sullivan became the focus of much of the outrage from the UVA community. How, some asked, could she refer to gang-rape and other criminal activities as “sexual misconduct”? Why didn’t she cancel her trip and address the firestorm of protests? In response, Sullivan announced that UVA was suspending all fraternities and associated parties until early this month. She also talked in much stronger terms about the problems of sexual assault on campus and promised a long-term effort to change the culture at UVA. Virginia’s attorney general announced that he had asked a prestigious law firm to investigate the rape allegations. And Rolling Stone’s editor acknowledged major discrepancies in the article and apologized, raising the question of whether the gang-rape had actually taken place — and leading to yet another storm of anger and protest.

Any institution facing such a situation needs strong, proactive leadership. To be fair, Teresa Sullivan is a caring, honest human being who has worked hard to improve the welfare of students, faculty and the institution. In this instance, however, her leadership has been flawed. Sullivan’s and other UVA leaders’ inability to understand and deal effectively with the crisis they face is a cautionary tale for all leaders and an important reminder of four key crisis-leadership principles:

• Be wary of the initial information that emerges during crises. In our rapid-fire desire for quick explanations, it’s easy to accept the first reports about a major event. The problem is that those reports are often wrong. After the 1999 murders of 13 people at Columbine High School, some students and school officials said that the two shooters had been victims of school bullying and were acting out of revenge. That explanation was quickly accepted by many professionals who work with kids. But 10 years later, David Cullen wrote in his carefully researched book Columbine that the two were not victims of bullying; indeed, he reported, one of them was often the perpetrator of bullying. Much of the information in the Rolling Stone article about UVA is now suspect, but UVA leaders initially accepted it as fact, creating serious problems for many individuals and groups.

Crisis leaders must resist the temptation to accept the first reports they receive and aggressively seek as much information as possible before taking decisive action.

• Listen carefully to people with sound judgment. President Sullivan’s immediate actions after being told in September of the alleged sexual attack seem woefully inadequate. So, too, were her first comments when the Rolling Stone article appeared two months later. Then, just days later after the article created a firestorm of anger, she switched gears and made very strong statements about rape. People were left wondering why she leapt from a passive response to an aggressive one. Her faltering responses raised an important question: What kind of advice — if any — was she getting as the crisis unfolded?

It’s very difficult to get a sense of perspective in the middle of a crisis. That’s why it’s so important to call on people whose judgment you trust, people who owe you nothing and have experience with the issue you’re facing.

• In crises, communications are (almost) everything. There may be excellent reasons why UVA officials refused for over a month to respond to multiple requests for records related to the alleged gang rape and wouldn’t say whether the report to be issued by the law firm would be made public. Those reasons were not divulged. Thus, some people wondered whether UVA leaders had something to cover up.

The crisis leader’s most precious asset is trust. During a crisis, the leader’s most critical task is to communicate sincerely, openly and consistently with all stakeholders.

• First protect people; think about reputation later. This is one of the most difficult principles for many crisis leaders, especially those who work in agencies with very strong cultures, such as law enforcement, fire/emergency services and transportation. When such agencies experience a crisis that exposes them to strong criticism, they sometimes circle the wagons and point the finger elsewhere. Such defensiveness is understandable, but it is usually counterproductive, as UVA’s leaders have learned.

Crisis leaders need to put their focus squarely on the needs of the people they serve, irrespective of the criticism being leveled at their organization. When people see leaders showing a passion for protection, when leaders focus all of their energies on handling the crisis professionally and openly, reputation usually takes care of itself.