The head of the Charlottesville, Virginia, police department said he had “regrets” about the white-nationalist rally in his city that turned deadly this past weekend, but pushed back on criticism that police didn’t do enough to contain the violence.
“I certainly have regrets. We lost three lives this weekend,” Charlottesville police chief Al Thomas said at a press conference on Monday. “It was a tragic, tragic weekend.”
However, Thomas defended the police response amid criticism that they failed to separate the protesters from counter-protesters. One woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a man plowed his car into a group of counter-protesters.
Thomas flatly denied that he gave orders for police officers not to intervene in clashes between the opposing groups, contradicting reports that said there was minimal police intervention at the protest. Thomas instead said police were instructed to change into appropriate riot gear.
“Once the violence erupted, once the plan was altered, we had to quickly transition our officers into their protective gear,” he said.
“We were certainly not intimidated by the firepower of the alt-right. However, it was prudent to make sure that officers were equipped to go out and deal directly with the violence at hand.”
The police “had a very large footprint during this entire endeavour,” he said.
Thomas’s comments to reporters contrasted with reports from people who witnessed to the clashes.
“There was no police presence,” witness Brittany Caine-Conley told The New York Times. “We were watching people punch each other; people were bleeding all the while police were inside of barricades at the park, watching. It was essentially just brawling on the street and community members trying to protect each other.”
Two state troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Berke M.M. Bates, also died on Saturday when their helicopter crashed in a wooded area en route to the scene of the clashes.