Orange County

Chapel Hill police chief: Law enforcement tactics at UNC protests are of ‘great concern’

Chapel Hill’s police chief says he is greatly concerned by some of the tactics that law enforcement officers have used against protesters on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Speaking to the Orange County Human Relations Commission and reporters Monday night, Chief Chris Blue said he was “particularly saddened” that Chapel Hill police and some other departments that are committed to social justice “in many ways wound up in the middle of a very complex situation.”

Blue told about 40 people that UNC Police led the multi-agency response to the Aug. 20 protest that toppled the Confederate monument known as Silent Sam on McCorkle Place and to three later clashes between opponents and supporters of the soldier statue, erected in 1913.

Chapel Hill police and other agencies provide support to the university police under longstanding mutual aid agreements. The Greensboro police, in particular, have been criticized for deploying pepper fogger, which affected officers and members of the media covering the protests, as well as demonstrators.

Blue suggested it all could have been avoided.

“We predicted a year or so ago that the issues around Silent Sam would escalate to where they wound up,” he said.

“It’s clear that some tactics have been employed that are unique for this community, and that have not been seen before in this community, and that causes me great concern,” he said.

The Chapel Hill Police Department faced harsh criticism in 2012 after officers in riot gear and rifles forcibly removed a group of self-declared anarchists from a former car dealership on West Franklin Street as bystanders recorded the event on their phones and iPads. Blue was not in town during the incident. The response led to months of community discussion and policy changes.

Last month, Blue left a meeting of the Chapel Hill Community Policing Advisory Committee when told that some people there to talk about the campus protests did not feel comfortable speaking with him in the room. A member of the committee called upon the town to end its mutual aid agreement with Greensboro.

UNC has declined to comment on specifics of its security plans and operations, including providing the names of all the agencies that provided mutual aid. UNC Police spokesman Randy Young has said the university plans to review law enforcement’s response to the protests but has no plans to make its findings public.

But Blue said the town has not faced demonstrations like those surrounding Silent Sam before. Some protesters have scuffled with officers; some officers have pushed police bicycles into demonstrators and pushed demonstrators to the ground, as seen on videos.

“I think it’s fair to say you’ve seen police tactics, the volume of officers and a tenor of the tension between demonstrators and law enforcement that is highly unusual,” Blue said. “We’ve had events here for many years where 80,000 people are on Franklin Street celebrating Halloween. These are very different events right now.”

But the chief stopped short of saying he disagreed with the law enforcement response, which has led to 25 police arrests.

“I think the best way to answer that is to say that we will conclude what the appropriate tactics were at the end of our review,” he said after a sigh. “I think it’s too early to say, and I also will say I don’t have full information yet on everything that’s happened on McCorkle Place.”

Blue also declined to say how much Chapel Hill was told about potential police methods beforehand or whether he thought new, more aggressive protesters required a stronger response.

Last month, Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, whose department also sent officers to the protests, described law enforcement being yelled at and spit on by protesters.

“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.”

Blue said he anticipated learning more about those involved in the demonstrations.

“I think that’s part of the review too,” he said. “It concerns me that we are having a discussion about elevated tactics in a community where we have a long history of being able to work through tough issues without having to behave this way.”

Staff writer Tammy Grubb contributed to this report.

Mark Schultz: 919-829-8950; @HeraldSunEditor