Orange County

Residents ask Chapel Hill to review Greensboro police actions at Silent Sam protest

Residents called on the town and its police chief to reconsider their partnership with Greensboro police after protesters and news media were pepper sprayed last Thursday on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Protesters heaped the most scorn on Jonathan R. Franks, a Greensboro officer who appeared to have a leadership role in the police response. Throughout the night, Franks shouted commands to other officers and could be seen with a whistle between his lips. He frequently had a pepper fogger in hand.

Greensboro Police Capt. Jonathan Franks is visibly agitated after pointing a pepper spray canister at a protester’s face during a rally and counter protest over the Silent Sam Confederate monument Thursday, August 30, 2018, at UNC-Chapel Hill. Police deployed pepper spray while trying to keep Confederate monument supporters and protesters separated. Travis Long

Franks is a captain in command of the Greensboro Police Department’s Special Operations Division, according to the city’s website. That division contains a special team called the Civil Emergency Unit, which can be called on to quell civil uprisings.

Greensboro police spokesman Ronald Glenn declined to comment. The department is still looking into what happened and Franks was not available for an interview, he said.

A police officer heads back to the barricaded area around the Silent Sam pedestal carrying pepper spray on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, Thursday, August 30, 2018. Chuck Liddy

Calvin Deutschbein, a member of the town’s Community Policing Advisory Committee, asked the council and Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue to review the mutual aid agreement with Greensboro police. He also suggested making the Policing Advisory Committee a citizens review board that would have authority to examine the public’s complaints.

“It is extremely frustrating to me that those officers, rather than Chapel Hill and UNC police officers, were ostensibly providing public safety but really providing quite the opposite in our community,” he said. “I hope the Town Council and the Police Department can look at their agreement with these actors, and I hope we can prevent people from getting hurt at all.”

While police prevented any serious injuries, “there were plenty of nonserious injuries — a lot of people struggling to breathe, loss of vision for a half-hour,” he added. “I had difficulty walking the day after the protest, because my legs were deadened.”

Deutschbein also asked Blue to seek outside counsel about how extremist groups are infiltrating local law enforcement agencies. A Chapel Hill officer was put on administrative leave with pay last week after his tattoo closely resembling the Three Percenters logo was seen during the Aug. 20 Silent Sam protest.

Blue has said the tattoo calls into question the officer’s ability to effectively serve the community.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center identifies Three Percenter groups, which are spread across the country, as “antigovernment.” Three Percenters say they are “America’s insurance policy” against an overreaching government. They have attended rallies with other far-right groups in Portland, Oregon; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Nevada.

Concerns about future

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger thanked Blue, fire Chief Matt Sullivan and their officers for efforts to preserve the public’s right to protest safely. She reminded the audience that although the town works and plans in partnership with UNC for events, the university’s police force is in charge when those events happen on campus.

On Wednesday, UNC police spokesman Randy Young declined to confirm which department used the pepper spray.

“We are not currently sharing information on which department or agency used pepper fog on Thursday night,” he said in an email. “A pepper fogger was used because it was deemed necessary to maintain officer safety and order. Individual officers determine when to use pepper fogger, and it is driven by the circumstances of the moment.”

On Thursday, Young declined to even say which law enforcement agencies assisted campus police during the protest.

The Chapel Hill Police Department, meanwhile, is just starting to review what happened, Blue told the Town Council.

They are thankful that no one was seriously injured as the protests intensified “pretty severely,” he said. That was “due in no small part” to pre-event planning with UNC and other partners for a number of concerns, including people using firearms or vehicles as weapons.

But the protests have taken a toll on law enforcement, firefighters, emergency management and public works employees, Blue said.

“Events of the last few weeks do have us concerned about how we can sustain that effort into the semester,” he said. “It’s a legitimate concern.”

He welcomed continued input from the public, including at a Policing Advisory Committee meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday. The meeting is scheduled to be at the Police Department, he said, but could be moved to a bigger venue.

Blue said he expects to answer some of the community’s questions in the coming weeks.

Questions about Greensboro police Capt. Franks should be investigated, said Darren Hunicutt, a resident and UNC alumnus.

“Tensions were understandably high, but no violence had occurred, and students and community members were voicing their opposition to the Confederate flaggers” when Franks pepper sprayed the crowd, Hunicutt said. “Numerous videos ... that have circulated online showed there was no threat to the safety of the officers, many of whom were also affected by this chemical agent.”

Greensboro unit questioned

A document that describes Greensboro police units says the special team’s mission is to “protect lives and property by maintaining order during incidents of civil unrest during a contingency that utilizes specially trained and equipped personnel.”

The unit was formed following the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and was inspired by a similar unit in that city, according to Triad City Beat, which first reported the Greensboro team’s existence.

Typically, Greensboro’s Civil Emergency Unit has 75 to 100 members, according to the city, and it has a small fleet of all-terrain vehicles, which were at UNC on Thursday night.

Greensboro police have said little about their department’s deployment to Chapel Hill, but they have confirmed that Franks appears in several video clips on social media.

In one clip posted to Twitter by Meg Oliver, a CBS News correspondent, Franks can be heard explaining to other officers what to do if he used his pepper fogger. “If you see the cloud, close your eyes and hold your breath about 10 seconds,” he said.

Later in the evening, Franks ushered the Silent Sam supporters from the parking lot of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center into a barricaded area near the pedestal that once held the Confederate soldier statue.

He yelled commands to officers helping with the escort. “Hold the line!” he says in video captured by The News & Observer. Later, as officers used bicycles to form a semi-circle around the entrance to the penned area, Franks yelled, “Use your bicycle and hit them if you have to,” according to a Daily Tar Heel video.

Pepper spray and bikes

Jamie Paulen, an Orange County resident and anti-racist activist, said some people were hit with the bicycles.

“ACTBAC [an Alamance County Confederate group] was escorted in. They got to have their funeral [for the statue], and when they were escorted out a friend of mine, who’s actually a member of the media, was rammed by a police officer on his bicycle,” she said. “It tore her jeans and cut her leg.”

Paulen, a former Chapel Hill magistrate, said she supports police and welcomed the increased law enforcement presence keeping the groups separated last Thursday, especially after the violence at an Aug. 25 protest. But the actions of the Greensboro officers need to be reviewed, she said.

“Is somebody taking into consideration that maybe that department is not the right fit for the heightened emotions that are involved in this protest?” she asked.

The use of a pepper fogger angered counterprotesters the most.

A burst of pepper spray that came after Silent Sam supporters had been escorted back to the parking lot set off chants of “Who do you serve?” “Cops go home!” and “[Expletive] your pepper spray!” It’s not clear from the available information whether Franks was the only officer to use pepper spray or whether other chemicals were used.

Later, Franks pointed the pepper fogger at the face of a counterprotester who gave him the middle finger. The canister was within inches of the counterprotester’s face, News & Observer video shows.

The Greensboro Police Department’s policy allows pepper spray to be used in two circumstances. The first is when “physical restraint of a person is not reasonable or practicable and it is necessary to bring the person under control.” The second is when someone may be attacked by a dog.

Officers are instructed to reassure people that the effects of pepper spray are temporary, ask whether they have respiratory problems and look for signs of medical distress. Although protesters were seen helping people severely affected by the pepper spray Thursday, no officers appeared to offer help.

The policy also says using pepper spray “on another person in an intentional manner” should be reported and prompt an administrative investigation. A police bicycle can be used as an “impact weapon” if necessary, the department’s directives say.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
Carli Brosseau: 919-829-4627; @carlibrosseau