CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CN) — A man who says he was pepper-sprayed, doused with urine and beaten with canes during the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has sued the city and state police chiefs, claiming their officers purposefully stood down during the violence.
Robert Sanchez Turner, 33, brought the federal complaint on Aug. 31 against Charlottesville, its Police Chief Al Thomas Jr., and State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty.
Turner claims Thomas’s denial of a stand-down order “rings hollow in front of hundreds of witnesses and victims.”
“In fact, a confidential memo dated Thursday, August 24 to city manager Maurice Jones … demanded an explanation for the ‘apparent unwillingness of officers to directly intervene during overt assaults captured in many videos,” the complaint states.
This failure to step in is “even more outrageous” Turner says, as just three days before the violence, the Department of Homeland Security issued a warning to the Charlottesville Police Department. In the warning, the DHS said that a gathering of white supremacists would most likely spark a violent clash between Nazi sympathizers and counterprotesters.
“Anarchist extremists and white supremacist extremists online are calling on supporters to be prepared for or to instigate violence at the 12 August rally,” the DHS assessment warned. News of the assessment was first reported by Politico on Aug. 29.
Turner claims police stood 10 feet from him as he was assaulted and “did absolutely nothing to stop the assault or anything to apprehend [his] known assailants.”
The City initially revoked the permit for the Unite the Right rally. Jason Kessler, a white supremacist organizer, conferred with the city and its police in the days before the deadly event. Police reportedly told Kessler they would be at Emancipation Park with barriers and a heavy police force.
But that changed in short order, Turner says. He claims police “affirmatively told Kessler that they would no longer be honoring their word and protecting the counterprotesters and the rally goers from violent conflict.”
With legal representation from the American Civil Liberties Union, Kessler sued the city and won and the permit was reinstated.
The alleged stand-down order from Thomas was spurred by the police chief’s dissatisfaction with the turn of events and a “need to prove that he was right all along,” the complaint states.
“In a deranged twist of logic, Chief Thomas, together with Colonel Flaherty issued a ‘stand down’ order for all police officers under their command to refrain from intervening, confronting, or offering any help when faced with violent hate crimes unfolding before their eyes,” Turner says in the 32-page lawsuit.
By standing down, officers effectively “unleashed hell on peaceful protesters and minorities expecting the police to do their jobs and protect them. Instead, the police followed orders from Chief Thomas and Colonel Flaherty,” according to the complaint.
Turner has no beef with the frontline officers, calling them “heroes” in the complaint.
“Heroes of this magnitude would not have stood down without being told to do so, in whatever manner that order was communicated,” he says.
Thirty-five people were injured in the Aug. 12 violence. Heather Heyer, a 31 year old paralegal, was killed by a man who drove his car through a packed square of protestors.
Alex Fields Jr., of Ohio, has been charged with second-degree murder.
Abundant video footage of the violence and testimony from hundreds of people show that “law enforcement did absolutely nothing in the face of gross, unconstitutional violence” Turner says in the complaint.
The city is still reeling more than two weeks later. Last Wednesday, Aug. 30, Mayor Mike Signer issued a statement apologizing for criticizing the police chief on Facebook in the days after the violence at Emancipation Park.
“Despite repeated requests, I was not allowed into the city’s command center [run by city staff] and was instead asked to be in the emergency operations center [where fire, rescue and other stakeholders] were monitoring,” Signer first posted online.
But a closed-door session on Aug. 30 between Singer, Thomas and City Manager Maurice Jones showed a chastened mayor, regretting that he confused operational boundaries.
“In the deeply troubling and traumatizing recent weeks, I have taken several actions as Mayor and made several communications that have been inconsistent with the collaboration required by our system of governance and that overstepped the bounds of my role as Mayor, for which I apologize to my colleagues and the people of Charlottesville,” Singer said. “These actions included an ill-advised Facebook post that impugned the reputations of [Jones and Thomas] for which I sincerely apologize.”
Turner seeks punitive damages for deliberate indifference, failure to intervene, denial of due process, supervisory liability and state-created danger.
He is represented by Jessica Sherman-Stoltz with Nexus Caridades Attorneys of Verona, Virginia.
The City of Charlottesville and its Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.