South Carolina law enforcement officials learned three big lessons in July 2015 after fights broke out between rival racial groups at their State House rallies, Midlands law officers said Monday.
The first is that you need an overwhelming number of officers, said Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Mark Keel, who is chief of the State Law Enforcement Division.
Second, you have to keep the groups separate, they said.
And third, and just as important, you must continue to keep the groups separate even after the event is over and people are leaving the site, they said.
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The three officers, interviewed Monday in the aftermath of the weekend violence in Charlottesville involving Klan and Nazi groups who faced off against counter protesters, said they didn’t have enough information about what happened to judge how the Virginia police forces handled the protesters.
But Lott said, “I just think they were surprised and overwhelmed by number of people that were there and the amount of violence.”
In July 2015, at the S.C. State House, fighting broke out between rival groups after state officials issued permits for both the Ku Klux Klan and the New Black Panthers Party to hold rallies back to back. Five people were arrested as violence erupted around the State House grounds and afterward, on Gervais and Main and Pendleton streets near the capitol.
“We learned a lot from that incident, and how the state wasn’t prepared to address it,” Lott said of South Carolina law enforcement agencies.
“One thing, we learned we needed more people” moving the demonstrators back to their cars, Holbrook said. “We would plan that a little differently as to where groups would park and how we would get them to and from their parking. Our goal would be to keep them separate from each other. We want it to be safe for everybody.”
Keel said, “If we anticipated having those sorts of groups together again, we certainly would have additional officers there to address it. ... It all goes back to prior planning.” Good communication between law enforcement and event organizers is essential, as is good communication between law enforcement agencies, he said.
South Carolina’s rallies were held a week after the Confederate flag came down for the last time from the State House grounds. The Legislature ordered the flag removed after white nationalist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans during a Bible study meeting at a historic downtown Charleston church a month before.
Roof had posted multiple images of himself online, posing with the Confederate flag. Roof, who jurors would later learn wrote admiringly of Hitler in his diary, was convicted last winter of the killings and sentenced to death by a federal jury.
In Virginia, white nationalist and Nazi-inspired groups marched in downtown Charlottesville Saturday, clashing with counter protesters who were arguing against violence and the marchers’ message. Television stations’ and bystander videos showed people pushing and beating one another. Faces were bloodied, and people fell to the ground.
Local and Virginia state police did not keep the two sides separate.
Afterward, as people dispersed, a speeding car plowed into a crowd, killing one counter protester and injuring 19 others.
The driver, James Fields, 20, has been identified as a person who espoused Nazi beliefs. He was charged with second-degree murder.
The clashes continued Sunday, when the organizer of the march called a press conference. He was harassed by counter protesters who then chased him through flower beds. He ran about a half-block before police moved in and put him into a police van, the video clips showed.