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.