Published: Nov 20, 2011 02:00 AM
Modified: Nov 19, 2011 05:07 PM
We hold the Chapel Hill Police Department in high regard. The local police have shown themselves many times over to be in tune with the community they protect and serve. They skillfully manage huge crowds. They have a long history of de-escalating delicate situations with a deft touch. They typically operate on the premise that the best way to do their job is to build relationships with the community and use force only as a last resort.Which is why the events of last Sunday afternoon had such an air of surrealism. A force of more than a dozen heavily armed officers in riot gear stormed the long-vacant former Yates Motor Company building on West Franklin Street, where some "autonomous anti-capitalist" protesters had taken up residence the night before.The officers carried not only sidearms but assault rifles, and photographs show them leveling those weapons toward unarmed civilians. They forced to the ground and handcuffed not only the handful of people inside the building but those on the driveway outside it, including at least two journalists.In the end, the frightening show of force netted a grand total of seven people, who were charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering.Looked at one way, the raid was a success. It was swift and efficient. It achieved its goal. Nobody got hurt.But the force used was so disproportionate, and so potentially dangerous - not only to those directly involved, but to the many bystanders, and indeed to anyone within a hundred yards or more of the building - that the town should take a very hard look at what led to that decision.There may be things the authorities feel they aren't at liberty to tell us, some threat they were aware of that hasn't been made public.We hope so. Because based on what we do know, it's difficult to see what led to the conclusion that there were no options other than launching a heavily armed raid with no warning.We make no excuses for the protesters who claimed someone else's property for themselves. If they think the events of last Sunday somehow validated their actions, they're mistaken. Police had a duty to remove them.But the way they did that raises a lot of questions.So far as anyone has reported, the occupants of the building weren't threatening anyone. They weren't holding hostages. They weren't harassing passersby. They weren't armed, and police had no evidence indicating they were. They hadn't barricaded the building, or even closed the garage doors; people moved freely in and out.Given all that, shouldn't dialogue have been the first step? Shouldn't authorities have tried to determine more accurately who and what was in the building, which was after all open and easily accessible? Given that the protesters were posing no threat to anyone and hadn't even refused orders to leave (police never gave such orders), why was sending a heavily armed assault team in, with many bystanders in the area, deemed Plan A?We have great respect for Chief Chris Blue and his department, and we're grateful that no one was hurt. But when police pointing assault rifles rush upon unarmed residents in our downtown, the community deserves to know the town takes it seriously enough to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation.
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