Published: Jan 15, 2012 02:00 AM
Modified: Jan 14, 2012 02:04 PM
On Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011, a riot gear-clad force of Chapel Hill police officers charged into the Yates Motor Co. building on West Franklin Street.The Special Emergency Response Team, or SERT, aimed loaded assault rifles at unarmed, unresisting civilians both inside the building and out. Officers forced them onto the pavement and handcuffed them, including two journalists.
The police were acting on poor intelligence and, by all accounts, had made only cursory attempts to learn more about who and what was in the building, even though it was wide open and easily accessible. Prior to the raid, officers had not instructed or even asked the people inside to leave. The department did not clear the area of pedestrians and passersby, who were numerous; if the violent resistance officers considered possible had in fact erupted, many bystanders could have been injured or killed.
Considering all that, it's disappointing that Town Manager Roger Stancil's investigation report on the incident concludes that if the police had to do it again, they should do it exactly the same way, except perhaps for treating the two reporters differently.
"The actions of the on-scene police commanders on November 13 were the best decisions that could be made given the information available at the time," Stancil's report declares.
The only actual recommendation the report makes is that the town should update its media policy.
Given that the police went in with body armor and heavy artillery in an operation to round up a handful of bookish anti-capitalists, not one of whom was charged with anything more than a solitary nonviolent misdemeanor, that is an astonishing conclusion.
There were no feasible alternatives to brandishing loaded assault rifles while families strolled nearby on West Franklin Street? Really?
We had hoped the report would address the many legitimate questions raised here and elsewhere, and answer them. If there are convincing answers, by all means, let's hear them. We're open to being convinced.
But the manager's report doesn't even acknowledge most of the questions, much less answer them.
There are those who think we're making way too much of this. The police did exactly what we pay them to do, they say, so quit harping about it.
Another line in Stancil's report highlights exactly why this is a big deal.
"The Chapel Hill Police Department has a long and proud history of effective policing in our community consistent with community values," the manager says.
He's exactly right. The Chapel Hill Police Department has indeed shown itself over and over again to be intelligent, restrained and engaged, a department that understands its community and reflects its progressive, tolerant nature. We wouldn't trade our cops for anybody's.Which is exactly why the heavy-handed show of force - so disproportionate to the actual threat and based on such apparently flawed intelligence - was so surreal and shocking. It was dramatically out of character.
As we've said before, we're not out to cast blame, but to understand, and to urge the town to use the incident as an opportunity to draw some valuable lessons. But if we refuse even to engage the questions, we refuse the opportunity to learn and grow.
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