With help of Reporters Committee attorneys, journalists win lawsuit to release planning documents that shed light on law enforcement actions during Charlottesville rally

Amelia Nitz | April 10, 2018
Following a lawsuit brought by two freelance journalists represented by attorneys from the Reporters Committee, the public will have access to more information about how the Charlottesville Police Department and Virginia State Police planned for the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally. The rally left 19 injured and led to the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, as well as two Virginia state troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates, who were killed in a helicopter crash while monitoring the day’s events.
 
In 2017, Reporters Committee attorneys filed suit on behalf of Jackson Landers and Natalie Jacobsen for access to the safety or operational plans for the rally after the journalists’ requests for the records under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act were denied. The two sought access to the plans to find out what preparations law enforcement made before the rally and whether police were given a stand-down order or otherwise directed to not respond to acts of violence or make arrests. 
 
The City of Charlottesville reached a settlement with the journalists and provided them with a redacted copy of its operational plan, which, when compared to officers’ actions on the day of the rally, showed law enforcement officers “didn’t follow written orders to intervene in outbreaks of violence and were focused on securing an area for rally speakers who never delivered speeches.” The city’s plan noted that law enforcement anticipated large crowds and violence at the rally and called for officers to “keep close watch of crowd members who are exhibiting behaviors which could become violent,” “make arrests when appropriate for unlawful behavior,” and “interven[e] swiftly if security threats are identified.” 


 
City and state officials had argued that the plans fell under an exemption to the state’s open records law that allows tactical plans to remain private if their disclosure would jeopardize the safety or security of law enforcement or the public. A Virginia trial court rejected this argument at the end of March and ordered the state police to also turn over a redacted version of its plan within 30 days of the ruling. The court’s ruling made clear that in instances where part of a requested record falls under the “tactical plans” exemption, the government still has a duty to redact that portion of the record and release the non-exempt information to the public.
 
“The city’s plan has already provided valuable insight for the Charlottesville community and the broader public into how city officials prepared for the rally, and the release of the state police plan will shed additional light on how the state prepared for this event,” said Caitlin Vogus, staff attorney for the Reporters Committee. “Thanks to the information we helped obtain, we know that law enforcement didn’t live up to its promise to keep the community safe. Public records like these are essential to informing the public and holding our officials accountable for their actions.”