Politics & Government

Silent Sam report finds deficiencies at UNC but ‘no evidence of a conspiracy’ to topple statue

An after-action report on the Aug. 20 toppling of the Silent Sam Confederate statue found “serious deficiencies” in the way it was handled, but “no evidence of a conspiracy” between the UNC-Chapel Hill administration and protesters to bring down the monument.

The 64-page report, conducted by the Parker Poe law firm and ordered by the UNC Board of Governors, was released Friday by the UNC system.

The analysis determined that the statue came down because of a confluence of events, including ineffective communication between senior leaders and UNC police, inadequate planning for protest events and a lack of protocol on decision-making responsibility regarding law-enforcement. The university “struggled to communicate, prepare, and execute their plans for the August 20, 2018 demonstration, which ultimately resulted in the toppling of Silent Sam.”

The report concluded that the protesters were “infinitely more well-organized” than UNC initially anticipated. “Miscommunication between University Police and UNC-CH senior leadership combined with inefficient and inadequate information-gathering, insufficient staffing, and outdated crowd control training made preventing what happened on August 20 difficult if not impossible to achieve,” the report said.

The report recommended better police training, the launch of a university police academy, the creation of a Special Operations Team and the possible establishment of a systemwide police force.

Among the findings was inadequate initial staffing plans by UNC Police for the Aug. 20 protest. The assignments for police personnel were made using Sign Up Genius, an online application, in which the police department asked for seven volunteers.

On the morning before the protest, according to the report, it became clear that more officers would be needed for the event. “Several officers noted that the 9:00 a.m. briefing left them feeling apprehensive and uneasy about the protest later that day,” the report said.

In the end, 22 police from the campus were on the scene for the event.

The study also brought to light poor communication among police and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt about whether police should erect barricades around the statue on the night of the protest. Barricades were not used as they had been during a previous protest the year before.

The report said that Amy Hertel, chief of staff to Folt, met with Derek Kemp, associate vice chancellor for safety and risk management three days before the protest. There, Kemp told Hertel the protest was likely to be a one-sided event, as opposed to a protest and counter protest. He also told her that police planned to use bike barricades at the event and Hertel questioned the propriety of using them, the report said.

“While there is significant evidence that barricades can serve as force multipliers for police in controlling crowds, some perceived barricades could also be optical eyesores,” the report said. “Hertel was also concerned that barricades might cause new students and their parents to fear for their safety on move-in weekend.”

Hertel said she would discuss it with Folt. Later that day, Hertel called Kemp and told him Folt did not want barricades put up in the days prior to the event, but the issue should be revisited on Monday, the day of the protest. According to the report, Kemp recalled that Hertel told him it was Folt’s “preference” or “desire” not to use the barricades at all.

Folt remembered it differently, the report said. “Chancellor Folt did not believe that she addressed the issue in those terms, but is confident that she did not issue a directive or order not to use barricades on August 20,” the report said.

On Aug. 18, Kemp told the UNC police chief, Jeff McCracken, that Folt did not want barricades “because of what it would look like to students and their parents on the first weekend of the academic year.” McCracken was skeptical, the report said, but did not overrule or revisit the issue -- and the next day told a police captain to cancel the barricades.

On Jan. 14, Folt announced her resignation, the same day she ordered the base of the statue removed from campus. She cited security threats, and said she had the legal authority to do so, despite previous statements that UNC lacked the authority due to a 2015 state law that prevents the removal of “objects of remembrance.”

Her announcement surprised the UNC system’s Board of Governors, which then acted to shorten her time as chancellor. Her last day was Thursday.

An interim chancellor could be announced next week. UNC’s executive vice chancellor and provost, Robert Blouin, issued a statement Friday about the report. “We appreciate the findings and recommendations brought forward by the After-Action Assessment Report,” he said. “We believe the learnings from this report will benefit not just Carolina, but other System institutions as well.”

The Parker Poe lawyers analyzed media reports and other documents and conducted interviews with police, administrators, trustees and others. The Board of Governors voted last month to make it available to the public.

According to the report, the police briefing just before the protest ended with the chief, McCracken, telling officers that their primary goal was “to protect people rather than an inanimate object if the environment became unsafe.”

The protest began in front of the Franklin Street post office, but the crowd then moved across the street and used tall banners attached to bamboo poles to surround the statue. Police, meanwhile, were distracted by several skirmishes during arrests of protesters who illegally wore masks, the report said.

“Almost every officer we talked to indicated that the event was unlike prior protests in that it was carried out in a highly organized manner and included a number of outside protesters and non-students,” the report said.

The report said protesters threw frozen water bottles and eggs, though that allegation has been disputed by some on social media.

There was no evidence the police were told to stand down, the report added. In fact, once the majority of protesters left the statue to march on Franklin Street, officers attempted to surround the statue in order to protect it. Once the crowd returned though, the officers were outnumbered, and the situation became more potentially dangerous, the report said.

Fearing for the possibility of violence, a police captain ordered the officers to “pull out” at 9:17 p.m., the report said, and monitor the situation from the periphery. The statue came down at 9:22 p.m.

Planning for the event was inadequate, the report concluded. Flyers about the demonstration called the event, “Until They All Fall,” along with an image of a crumpled Confederate statue that had been toppled in Durham. Folt told the interviewers she had never seen the poster.

The posters “should have left little doubt as to the protesters’ intention for that evening,” the report said.

However, the Parker Poe probe was careful not to put the blame for what happened squarely on police. The university was lucky no one was injured or killed at the event, the report said.

“The University Police have a responsibility to protect both lives and property, but they cannot do so in a vacuum,” the report said. “They need the support of UNC-CH administrators to ensure that correct mechanisms, staff and funding are in place to allow them to succeed at their jobs: enforcing the law. The leadership of this storied institution with the help of the UNC System must wrestle with and analyze what happened to ensure that such systemic failures do not reoccur in the future at UNC-CH and other System universities.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Jane Stancill has reported on higher ed for The News & Observer for 20 years. She has won state and national awards for her coverage of education.
Support my work with a digital subscription