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Charlottesville police chief retires in wake of damaging report

Free Press staff, wire reports | 12/22/2017, 2:08 p.m.
The first African-American police chief of Charlottesville abruptly retired Monday, about two weeks after a scathing independent review criticized his ...

Free Press staff, wire report

The first African-American police chief of Charlottesville abruptly retired Monday, about two weeks after a scathing independent review criticized his “slow-footed response” to violence at a white nationalist rally this summer.

In a brief statement, the city did not give a reason for Chief Al Thomas’ departure, which was effective immediately.

“Nothing in my career has brought me more pride than serving as the police chief for the city of Charlottesville,” Chief Thomas, 50, said in a statement. “I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to protect and serve a community I love so dearly.”

Earlier this month, a former federal prosecutor hired by the city released a report that was sharply critical of Chief Thomas and other law enforcement officials.

The report from former U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy said Chief Thomas’ response was “disappointingly passive” as the violence began to escalate on Aug. 12, the day of the “Unite the Right” rally that drew hundreds of white nationalists from across the county. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed that day when an alt-right sympathizer plowed his car into a crowd of people who were peacefully protesting.

On Wednesday, Charlottesville officials dedicated a street in her honor on the Downtown mall.

Earlier in the week, charges against James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old Ohio man accused of driving the car that struck Ms. Heyer and injured 19 others, were upgraded to first-degree murder.

The Virginia State Conference NAACP expressed concern about the Heaphy report earlier this week in statement, saying it was “particularly worrisome” that the report failed to mention “racism and racist attitudes” surrounding the events at the time and through the years that gave rise to the violence.

“Of specific concern are the University of Virginia’s and other alt-right/KKK tiki torch marches in May, July, August and October,” stated the Rev. Kevin L. Chandler, president of the state NAACP. “How could very prominent leaders at the University of Virginia, city, county and state officials all not see, or seemingly turn a blind eye, to these incidents that happened repeatedly?”

Rev. Chandler called on state NAACP members, pastors and church congregations across the state and other activists “to coalesce in unity, working to ensure we provide better lives for succeeding generations.”

According to the report, as brawls broke out between rally attendees and counterprotesters, Chief Thomas said, “Let them fight, it will make it easier to declare an unlawful assembly.”

Chief Thomas did not recall making that statement, which was cited in accounts by two other police employees, though he confirmed he waited to “see how things played out” before declaring an unlawful assembly, the report said.

“Chief Thomas’ slow-footed response to violence put the safety of all at risk and created indelible images of this chaotic event,” the report said.

The report also said Chief Thomas initially tried to limit Mr. Heaphy’s team’s access to certain information by directing subordinates not to answer certain questions and made officers fearful of retaliation for speaking with investigators. And it said Chief Thomas had deleted text messages relevant to the investigation and used a personal email account to conduct some police business, then denied having done so in response to an open records request.