Orange County

Chapel Hill police told ‘Do not engage’ with Silent Sam protesters before statue fell

Police surround the toppled remains of a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam Monday, August 20, 2018 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Demonstrators surrounded and obscured the statue with large banners before toppling it.
Police surround the toppled remains of a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam Monday, August 20, 2018 at UNC-Chapel Hill. Demonstrators surrounded and obscured the statue with large banners before toppling it.

Emails and text messages released Wednesday show Chapel Hill police were told to stand back from the Silent Sam Confederate statue before demonstrators toppled it Aug. 20.

In response to a public records request, the town provided hundreds of pages of communication related to the protest. Most came from people in and outside the town who criticized the police for not intervening.

Several emails show the town was preparing for “a peaceful rally” at Peace and Justice Plaza on East Franklin Street, not the frenzied scene that occurred later that night across the street on McCorkle Place on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

But the communication released Wednesday, first reported by WRAL, also contained phone texts that show Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue telling officers not to confront the protesters.

“Let’s give them lots of space,” Blue said in a text.

In another, Blue is told that some Chapel Hill officers are staying with UNC Police on campus.

“Yes, but do not engage w/ Crowd,” Blue said in response. “Stay way out.”

A final text notes that UNC officers are moving away from the statue.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue Harry Lynch

The next day Blue sent an email to “All Police” thanking them for their “good work during a challenging time.” The department called back over 50 officers for the protest, and public works, fire and the town’s emergency management coordinator were all on duty “to support and assist UNC as needed.”

“While some of today’s comments have been critical, you should know that I have received many comments form appreciative community members who recognize your considerable patience during a time when law enforcement is being uniquely tested,” Blue wrote.

“And I’m understandably proud of our agency’s history of protecting people,” he added, with the last two words in bold. “All who were working last night most certainly did that well.”

The town and university are preparing for another raucous night at McCorkle Place on Thursday when Silent Sam protesters plan a dance party and an opposing group, ACTBAC (Alamance County Taking Back Alamance County), plans a twilight vigil for the toppled Confederate statue.

The university is asking people to say away from McCorkle Place. Starting at 5 p.m. Thursday, the town will restrict parking and loading zone access on Henderson Street, and the 100 and 200 blocks of East Franklin Street.

Mutual aid agreement

The Chapel Hill Police and UNC Police departments have been criticized since the statue was felled for not stopping the protesters who pulled it down. Blue, in particular, has been the target of an online meme calling him a communist and questioning his duty to uphold the law.

Blue did not respond Wednesday to a request for an interview.

However, UNC Police typically take the lead in on-campus operations, with Chapel Hill police and others serving as backup and leading the response when campus protests move to Franklin Street.

Chapel Hill and UNC police have a mutual aid agreement for emergency situations and special events, such as NCAA and Halloween celebrations. Otherwise, UNC Public Safety patrols university-owned or leased land, and Chapel Hill police patrol the town.

For example, Chapel Hill officers helped with the August 2017 rally that brought hundreds of people to the campus, Blue has said, but only by directing traffic and protesters off campus and on Franklin Street.

Standard practice

UNC has declined to provide emails and texts from Chancellor Carol Folt, UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken and other university officials related to the Aug. 20 protest, citing the ongoing investigation into what happened and how it was handled.

UNC Board of Governors member Thom Goolsby has been critical of the police response on Aug. 20, saying the officers were “highly derelict” in their duty “by standing back and allowing these outside criminal elements to riot and destroy state property.”

Goolsby opposed a resolution passed by the Board of Governors on Tuesday. The resolution directs two board members and staff to hire an outside firm to review the preparations and the response to the Aug. 20 protest. A report from that assessment is due to the board by Nov. 15 — just shy of the 90-day deadline that state law sets for returning Silent Sam to his pedestal.

In a statement after the statue was toppled Aug. 20, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said the town’s priority was protecting public safety at Peace and Justice Plaza and on Franklin Street. The town’s role on campus was to support UNC Police, she said.

“When the crowd spilled onto Franklin Street, police officers detoured vehicular traffic,” Hemminger said. “This is our st­­andard practice in the interest of public safety. Our focus for any large crowd event is to keep people safe.”

The town is on record opposing the monument. Hemminger noted she wrote a letter in August 2017, asking that the N.C. Historical Commission move the statue to “a safer place where the story of young Confederate veterans could be told in historical context.”

In the coming days and weeks, she said, “our Police Department and management team will work to support the University in its investigation.”

Saturday’s rally

Town Manager Roger Stancil issued a news release following Saturday’s rally, noting that the town’s police and other departments, including fire and emergency management teams, communications staff, public works and transit personnel “worked closely with campus, county, and state officials to prepare for possible events.”

That planning relied on standard safety policies and protocols for managing large events, Stancil said. Police also took the added step of setting up bicycle barricades at Peace and Justice Plaza. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, Orange County Emergency Services, Carrboro Police and Fire Departments and N.C. Highway Patrol officers provided additional help.

Stancil noted that Chapel Hill Police were called to help UNC Police under the mutual aid agreement when the crowd rushed the campus police during an arrest, pinning them to the exterior wall of Graham Memorial Hall. Chapel Hill Police left the campus once the situation was under control, he said.

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Staff writer Jane Stancill contributed to this report.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950; @HeraldSunEditor
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