UNC police did not show favoritism to white supremacy groups, new report finds

An outside investigation into the UNC-Chapel Hill police department says that in most cases police did their jobs appropriately and did not act favorably toward neo-Confederate groups.

The department has faced scrutiny over how it handled a number of incidents involving Confederate and anti-racist protesters, including students.

The investigation, released Tuesday afternoon, looked at UNC-CH officers’ actions and inaction during four incidents. Each was sparked by tensions between activists arguing over the Confederate monument Silent Sam on UNC’s campus. The statue was toppled by protesters in August 2018.

The only incident where officers were in the wrong was when they failed to arrest an armed member of a “Confederate heritage’” group who came onto campus openly carrying a gun, according to the report. At the time, two campus groups criticized the officers’ inaction, claiming they’ve been sympathetic to Confederate protesters.

“The situation was dangerous and constituted an open and flagrant violation of the state campus firearms laws,” the report says.

While the inaction of the officers on the scene was a “breakdown in procedure and practice,” the report found no evidence that it was motivated by “favoritism towards the white supremacist cause.”

The review was conducted at the request of interim UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and performed by attorney Chris Swecker, the former assistant director of the FBI.

The investigation included more than 45 interviews, a review of documents and analysis of police body camera video. The goal was to assess the incidents and make constructive recommendations to improve campus safety practices and address the perceptions of UNC police bias.

“Carolina has a history of navigating tough issues together and over the past six months we have made significant progress in the realm of public safety,” Guskiewicz said in a letter to the campus community. “We must nurture an environment where all members of our community can live, learn and work without fear.”

In addition to the campus firearm incident, the review also looked into the arrest of several Silent Sam opponents and students on Sept. 8, the arrest of graduate student and activist Maya Little who was charged with inciting a riot and assaulting an officer on Dec. 3, and the vandalism of the Unsung Founders Memorial in March.

In the case of the two incidents involving the arrests of students and activists, the report defends the officers’ actions.

“Police officers are trained to take unlimited verbal abuse, but if they are assaulted or obstructed, arrests will follow,” the report says.

According to the report, “barriers and police commands were ignored by a small but active group of counter-protesters, officers were assaulted and lawful police actions obstructed.”

It also says the primary role of campus police during special events like protests and counter-protests is to “develop and execute plans to ensure the security and safety of the public, while to the greatest extent possible enable the free expression of first amendment rights of the participants on all sides.”

The review found that during those events, the UNC-CH police effectively discharged their duties.

The campus police officers’ discretion also was examined, particularly addressing the fact that neo-Confederate demonstrators were protected by police and escorted to and from the site of their protest. The report said that was a “logical and necessary strategy to prevent violence,” especially given the disparity in numbers between them and the anti-racists demonstrators.

How should UNC police improve?

While officers had proper motivations, the report found there were “serious shortcomings” in their procedures and offered 24 recommendations for how the department should improve and adjust its practices.

Handling protests and arrests

Since the fall of Silent Sam, supporters and opponents of the statue have faced off on the UNC campus. They’ve often been met with heavy police presence.

A rally on Sept. 8 ended with several anti-racists activists, including a UNC student, being arrested after a chaotic scuffle with police.

One UNC graduate student was arrested for interfering with one of the arrests and assaulting an officer. That student was convicted of assaulting two officers, but the report found that a campus police officer provided false testimony in the criminal trial.

The report concluded that the officer was “honestly mistaken” and the real problem was the department’s failure to investigate the arrest, which meant the officer didn’t have all the facts before testifying.

On Dec. 3, 2018 hundreds of people protested in the streets of Chapel Hill and gathered at the base of the Silent Sam statue on campus to oppose the recommendation made by the UNC Board of Trustees to build a new $5.3 million building on campus for the Confederate monument. The protest was organized amid a growing strike of graduate student teaching assistants.

Several hundred demonstrators face off with police at a barricade around the boarded up base of the Silent Sam Confederate statue at UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday night. TRAVIS LONG

The protest started out quiet but then protesters began pushing on barricades surrounding the statue’s pedestal and officers put on riot gear, the News & Observer previously reported. One student was arrested at the scene.

The report found there was sufficient probable cause to stop and question the student because they were pushing on the barricade. That student then “flailed their arms and initially resisted” an officer, which led to a proper arrest, according to the report.

The report found the motivations and actions of the officers to be proper, but identified key problems with their police work. The biggest errors were how police made the arrests during the events the lack of a follow up investigation in both cases and the officer’s false testimony in court.

Some of the report’s recommendations include:

  • Improving protocols and training for arrests in crowds and protests

  • Deploy videographers and observers during special events for accountability, presence all video footage from events where arrests are made and install additional cameras at McCorkle Place

  • Establish and document criteria that constitute unlawful assembly

  • Create a policy mandating appropriate documentation and investigation of arrests during special events and prioritize those incidents

  • Establish Honor Code provisions and a clear policy for visitors regarding compliance with police commands and noninterference with lawful police actions

Unsung Founders Memorial

There were also issues with the case of the defacement of the Unsung Founders Memorial, UNC-Chapel Hill’s monument to people of color who helped build the university. The report said the problems were due to the inexperience of a single police officer.

The officer failed to conduct a field investigation when he came across two individuals who were vandalizing the monument at McCorkle Place and didn’t notice what they were doing. However, he later followed up on the investigation, which resulted in their arrest and later conviction, and solved a similar crime in the process. For that, the report says, the officer should be commended rather than criticized.

The report made the following recommendations:

  • Conduct additional training to reinforce the need to treat incidents involving historical monuments and other “sensitive areas” of campus with urgency

  • Conduct additional department-wide training on police tactics involving investigative stops and field investigations using federal and state case law.

Guns on campus

The campus police officers who were called to the scene where armed individuals were gathering to protest at UNC should have handled the situation differently, according to the report.

The officers should have immediately identified, questioned, run a criminal background check on the man openly carrying a gun on campus and others who reportedly had a variety of weapons.

But the report blamed their inaction on “confusion by the command staff.” It says the command staff called off the officers who were ready to make an arrest.

At the time, the university explained that police asked members of the group to leave, but did not make an arrest because of confusion about the jurisdiction.

Ultimately, the campus police should have investigated the situation, similar to what they did after Silent Sam was torn down, and arrested the armed intruder, the report says.

The report made several recommendations including:

  • Establish a policy for zero tolerance for and immediate arrest of armed intruders walking on UNC’s interior campus

  • Address other scenarios including armed intruders in vehicles and on sidewalks bordering campus

  • Adopt the model procedures for field investigations established by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and train officers accordingly

  • Establish and document policy on strict and consistent enforcement of all laws on campus

Guskiewicz said all recommendations in the report will be carefully reviewed and noted that some already have been implemented.

“I thank Mr. Swecker for his thorough and methodological approach, and I am confident that his review will lead us to a better place,” Guskiewicz said. “I would also like to thank the members of our University Police force, who are committed to providing the campus community with a safe environment that enables us to fulfill our core mission of teaching, learning, research and service.”

Guskiewicz also created a Campus Safety Commission in the spring to listen to the community, assess campus policing and make recommendations to improve the campus climate.

The UNC police chief Jeff McCracken retired just as the campus safety review started. He was replaced by David Perry, who started as chief of police in September. Perry is UNC’s first black police chief and has said he’s focused on community policing and rebuilding trust.

“We have already made progress with many of the recommendations in the report, including improving and enhancing our policies, implementing new internal controls and increasing our efforts to hire and retain the most talented officers,” Perry said in a statement Tuesday.

Perry said the university’s work to restore and enhance trust with the community is just beginning and it will take time.

The full report is posted below.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer on the investigative and enterprise team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named a 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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