The town’s police chief is expected to answer questions about recent protests at UNC-Chapel Hill at a meeting of the town’s Community Policing Advisory Committee on Tuesday night.
Officials expect a crowd for the 7:30 meeting, which has been moved to the Chapel Hill Public Library’s Room A, which can hold 84 people.
Chief Chris Blue will likely face questions about his department’s mutual aid agreement with the Greensboro Police Department, which sent 61 officers, with 30 canisters of pepper spray, to UNC for an Aug. 30 protest.
That protest was the third of four major campus demonstrations since the school year began. On Aug. 20, protesters pulled down Silent Sam, a Confederate statue, from its pedestal in McCorkle Place off Franklin Street. Since then, protesters who want the statue reinstalled and those who want the statue to stay down have repeatedly squared off at the monument’s base.
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Police have arrested at least 26 people, with eight taken into custody during a chaotic brawl Saturday night.
At the Aug. 30 protest, Greensboro police used pepper fogger, leaving protesters, journalists and some police officers tearing up, coughing and struggling to breathe. Greensboro said two officers used the fogger but have declined to name them or provide details, citing the state’s personnel law.
Fifty of the officers Greensboro sent to Chapel Hill were members of a Civil Emergency Unit trained to quell civil uprisings, officials said. Intelligence officers also attended the protest, according to email correspondence provided under the state’s public records law.
Protesters have especially complained about Capt. Jonathan R. Franks, who commands Greensboro’s Special Operations Division, which includes the Civil Emergency Unit.
Franks shouted commands to officers, sometimes with a pepper spray canister in hand. At one point, Franks responded to a protester giving him the middle finger by aiming the canister at the protester’s face, video from that night shows. Shortly afterward, another officer put his hand on Franks’ shoulder.
Greensboro has declined to identify Franks’ role, saying state law protects operational plans, “and an employee’s ‘role’ with respect to a particular event is part of an operational plan.”
The entire event, including officers’ use of force, is being investigated, Greensboro officials said. But the documents that make up that review are not public records, officials said, again citing state law.
Chapel Hill’s Chief Blue requested Greensboro’s help, asking for a “mobile field unit,” in an email sent around 4:30 p.m. Aug. 29. The same day, the two departments signed a mutual assistance agreement, which said that “While on duty, any loaned officer shall be subject to the lawful operational commands of superior officers in the requesting agency.” The News & Observer requested clarification on the command structure Friday, but has yet to receive an answer.
The agreement specified that Chapel Hill assume liability for “any act committed by the temporarily assigned officer,” as well as cover Greensboro’s travel, food and lodging costs. Receipts show those costs came to $1,596.33, including $1,275 for a rented bus. Greensboro paid its officers’ salaries. The city did not provide an estimate of that cost.
Activists in Chapel Hill, including one member of the Community Policing Advisory Committee, have criticized the tactics and behavior of Greensboro police. But Greensboro’s takeaways from the Aug. 30 protests appear to be quite different.
Greensboro Capt. John Thompson praised the department’s officers in an Aug. 31 email.
“I know I didn’t get to see everyone after the event last night, so I wanted to make sure everyone knew you did a PHENOMENAL job,” he wrote. “I couldn’t be more proud of your composure and professionalism. You set the standard for how an event like this is handled. Thank you.”
Greensboro Chief Wayne Scott responded: “I could not agree more with Captain Thompson. ... Thank you guys for representing GPD well.”
Calvin Deutschbein, an advisory committee who was pepper sprayed Aug. 30, said he plans to raise several issues Tuesday. He wants police to reconsider partnerships like that with Greensboro and to seek advice from experts in far-right extremism. Chief Blue recently placed on administrative leave an officer with a tattoo that resembles the logo of the Three Percenters, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “antigovernment.”
Additionally, Deutschbein wants to expand the advisory committee’s powers to include reviewing the public’s complaints. That was the original idea for the group, The News & Observer’s archives show.
In 2008, prompted by the arrest of a woman protesting tomato pickers’ wages, local civil rights groups asked for a rewrite of the town’s picketing rules and the creation of a civilian review board to monitor police conduct. The NAACP also lobbied the town for such a board, based on complaints about racial profiling by police in the historically black Northside neighborhood near downtown Chapel Hill.
The town sought permission from the General Assembly to share personnel files with people outside the police department, but the legislation didn’t pass.
In 2011, the Town Council created the current committee. Its nine members have the power to make recommendations to the town manager and police chief, to consult on quarterly professional standards reports and the department’s strategic plans, but they have no independent investigative authority.
Except for those charged, UNC has provided little information about the Silent Sam protests, not even releasing a list of police agencies that sent officers.
UNC Police spokesman Randy Young said the university plans to review law enforcement’s response to the protests but has no plans to make its findings public.
In part because of other agencies have stayed mum, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said he felt compelled Monday to provide an account of what happened Saturday night.
Officers came with the goal of leaving as soon as the Confederate supporters left campus, Blackwood said.
“The planned event was what we were dealing with,” he said. “We knew there was going to be a counter-rally, and our feeling was if we ended the rally as quickly as we could and took all the law enforcement out of the component, that it would be over with.”
Deputies were packed up and ready to go when Brandon Alexander Webb threw a smoke bomb, Chief Deputy Jamison Sykes said.
“His arrest, minutes after he threw the smoke, I think, is what kind of sparked everything,” Sykes said.
As Webb tried to flee, officers started running, and that prompted the crowd to start running, he said.
A UNC police officer threw a smoke canister as the crowd rushed toward the building that officers were using as a base, he said.
“We just felt like we could stop the aggression,” Blackwood said, “because they would get confused and not be able to see where the building was and how to get in it.”
The smoke canister also was a warning to the crowd to leave before pepper spray was deployed, Sykes said.
The officers who were being yelled at and spit on by protesters “exercised a tremendous amount of restraint,” Blackwood said.
“If you don’t stop them, they will continue to [be aggressive], and they will go as far as they can go,” Blackwood said. “I think that the balance was, we don’t want to put gas on them, we don’t want to put pepper on them, but we don’t want them to assault us either.”
Sykes said he and UNC Police have reached out to talk with both sides about how to have safe rallies. The Confederate supporters responded, but no counterprotesters.
“It’s not that we’re protecting one side more than the other. It’s that we have a line of communications and a point of contact that’s willing to abide by the rules, willing to discuss their plans,” Sykes said. “The whole organizational part of it is very important, and if you’ve got that kind of communication from one group and not the other, certainly, it’s going to cause problems.”
Sykes provided a copy of an anarchist pamphlet that protesters handed out Saturday.
“I think it’s time for people to understand, these are not little, innocent UNC students that are upset about what’s going on on their campus,” Blackwood said. “These are people who are looking for an opportunity to have law enforcement take action against them. They want somebody to get hurt. … They’d rather it be us than them, but they don’t care who it is.”