The decision to send a heavily armed police tactical team into the Yates Motor Co. building last fall was made without first asking the squatters to voluntarily leave the building, the town manager and police chief said last week.
In separate hour-long interviews Town Manager Roger Stancil and Police Chief Chris Blue talked about the decision to send in a Special Emergency Response Team, the community reaction to the Nov. 13 incident and what the town is doing to prevent a similar incident in the future.
Stancil, who had recently put a hold on Town Hall interviews about the raid, said he felt comfortable talking publicly after releasing a seven-point action plan to the council last week and hiring an outside consultant, Investigative Security Services, to review department policies. The firm will be paid $7,500.
The raid, which resulted in eight people being charged with misdemeanors and about a dozen more, including two reporters, temporarily cuffed in plastic zip ties, has divided the community for nearly three months.
Police moved in the day after a group of self-described "anti-capitalist occupiers" entered the long-vacant building on West Franklin Street, intending to turn the former car dealership owned by businessman Joe Riddle into a community center with a clinic, daycare and beds for homeless people.
Police had watched the squatters move generators, pallets, food and water into the building.
They read Internet posts in which the group stated "This building is ours" and described plans "to hold it in perpetuity."
Fire officials expressed concern about extension cords running electricity into the building and the flammable nature of possible remnants of automotive fuels.
At Town Council meetings and in letters to the editor, people have criticized police for overreacting and defended police for removing people who had broken into private property.
The Town Council last week rejected its new Community Policing Advisory Committee's request for an outside investigator, saying such an investigator could not compel truthful testimony and that the town could not protect those speaking with the investigator from possible civil or criminal liability.
Here are excerpts from the interviews.Stancil, town managerQ:
Why have you hired outside consultants?Stancil:
Chris and I don't want this kind of situation to occur again. We recognize it's been a painful demonstration to us that many of the things we talk about that we need to do with the department - grow it, mature it, take it further into the community policing model - are things we need to really get serious about. We want them to look at our policies, look at our training and help us revise them to really reflect who we are now. We're a great department; we're nationally renowned for how we handle crowds. We do handle lawful protests historically very well. But in many ways, like the town organization in general, we're still operating like a village. We need to make sure we're not just relying on personal interactions and the way things used to be. The worst thing that could happen for Chris and me is to have another incident occur and we don't handle it differently and better than we handled it before.Q:
In your Jan. 30 memo, you say "the tactical decision-making process was compromised by a breakdown in external and internal communications." What was the breakdown?Stancil:
The information the mayor got, he got that totally from me. And I got my information totally from the chief. And as you know, communication is a two-way thing. When I hear information I'm always filtering it through past assumptions.Q:
But what broke down?Stancil:
The tactics of the day were never something that were communicated to me. I still believe the people on the scene were making the best decisions they could make with the information they had. Some parts of that could have been communicated differently to me so I could have informed the mayor, and informed the council.Q:
If you'd had better information would you have done anything with it?Stancil:
You know the whole challenge here is hindsight. I believe Chris somewhere in his report said with the benefit of hindsight maybe we used more force than was necessary, something like that. It's in his report. But at the moment, knowing what people knew who had to make the decision, it's hard to speculate. What I do know is that with a better flow of communication the council would have had better information about what was happening - not that they would have intervened and not that we would have done anything differently. But people would have had better information.Q:
At what point do elected officials need to know something that's being handled by the police force?Stancil:
Well ... that's an interesting question. I think one of the things that the council has a duty to do - and we're in the process of doing - is being really clear about expectations and guidance. That's their role, to set policy. I'm the person engaged to enforce their laws and ordinances and implement their policies and keep them informed. The extent to which the mayor didn't have good information, that's my responsibility.Q:
Your memo from this week, Jan. 30, called it "civil disobedience." I don't think you called it that a month ago. Has something changed in your perception of what happened that day?Stancil:
I went back and looked at my first memo. What I realized is my basic conclusions are the same, but there were certainly opportunities where I could have said more that could have helped. I do think it (civil disobedience) is something this community needs to talk about. Camping as protest, that's sort of a relatively new technique that occurred here, you know, occupying private property. I do think we need to talk about how we deal with that in the community. Especially Peace and Justice Plaza. The council needs to think about that space in a different way than seven or eight years ago. We need to talk about what is reasonable. As the people who enforce the ordinance, we don't have a vested interest in what those rules are, we just have a vested interest in clarity.Q:
I'm sure you have a vested interested in what they are. There's a potential for things to escalate if the rules allow them to.Stancil:
Right, but we have to know what those rules are. That's really a role for the council and community to establish. ... What is civil disobedience? When you occupy somebody's property without permission and you say you're going to stay there and it's an unsafe building, there begin to be a lot of complicating factors. There's no doubt civil disobedience was a part of the activity that day, but it was complicated by more factors than we've dealt with before.Q:
At any time, was there ever a communication (to the squatters) that (said) "You gotta get out"?Stancil:
Not that I'm aware of.Q:
Was that a mistake?Stancil:
Yeah, one of the things we've tried to acknowledge as part of the communications issue is we need to find different options. I think we could have tested any number of ways of trying to communicate with the group differently.Q:
When all is said and done are you surprised that police never said, "You gotta get out"? Monday night, David Maliken, one of those arrested, says the group had a meeting, 40 or 50 of them, and by consensus agreed if police asked them to leave they would have left.Stancil:
I hear he said that. You can speculate about that, too. Would they have done that? Did they mean it? I don't know. I don't disagree if this happens again we take multiple opportunities to do that: Give people a chance to respond, test our assumptions. That's part of what we want to build up as the way we do business in this town. We need to get prepared because we have the potential for this to happen any time.Police sought meeting
In his Jan. 9 report, Chief Blue, who was running a marathon out of town that weekend, described a single attempt by police to speak with the protesters the night of the occupation "with the hope of persuading them to leave the building." A commanding officer stepped through an open garage door but left when confronted by people wearing masks and shouting insults. A half-hour later, police asked two members of the Downtown Partnership, who were planning a holiday art display in the building windows, to try speaking with the people there. They returned saying the group had told them it intended to stay in the building, and police decided to monitor the situation overnight.Blue, police chiefQ:
If you felt that your officers were at risk, why would you then ask civilians to go back in?Blue:
That's a great question, great question. A number of passersby stopped, talked to people, engaged with the people at the building with no hostility. My supervisors at the scene that night felt like, all right, uniforms seemed to be provoking a certain response but people just passing by did not seem to be met with any response that seemed threatening. Our officers felt comfortable watching Meg (McGurk, of the Downtown Partnership) approach.Q:
So you're on the phone with your commanding officer. Does he tell you they didn't ask them to leave? Did you have that information?Blue:
No, we didn't have that conversation.Q:
(Pause) Well, I think the best way to answer that is to say that it's difficult to dictate tactics being removed from the scene. We didn't discuss specific tactics.Q:
But you said you authorized the SERT team.Blue:
I did authorize him to call the SERT officers to assist him in that operation. But we didn't discuss specific tactical decisions regarding the SERT Team.Q:
How to use the team, what they should wear, how to approach the scene?Blue:
Are there protocols that say how to deploy a SERT team in different situations?Blue:
We don't have any. There's no question we have some opportunity to create policies. In our current climate, we need some policies that help guide us in some civil disobedience situations.Q:
I was there. Everybody was in the street. If there had been gunfire we would have been in the line of fire. That's what I don't understand. How can you justify a SERT team raid with heavy artillery when there are people 20 feet behind you, 50 people in the street?Blue:
The classic police answer is that these are well-trained officers. They train all the time not to shoot if there's not a safe backdrop. I get that that flies in the face of a busy street, our busiest street on a beautiful fall afternoon, that it seems our worlds are colliding. That is part of why you use that highly trained team of folks. Let's assume for a minute we all agree this was the right thing to do. I have great confidence that this is the right group of people do that, that they would be as safe as you could possibly be in a situation like that. Does that make any sense?Q:
Yeah, but if they're pointing their weapons at a building thinking somebody might be firing weapons in their direction and there are 50 people 20 feet behind them, then all those people are put at risk by the confrontation the police have now created.Blue:
(Pause) OK. ... I have heard that.Q:
Do you have an opinion about a hiring an outside investigator?Blue:
The limitations the town attorney has pointed out stand on their own face. I have not been asked my opinion. But I will say this: I would assert that there are no real material facts that are in dispute. My belief is there are folks uncomfortable with the decision making, and I look forward to having conversations about policies we can develop that will help improve our decision making and help improve our response to civil disobedience. I would submit there just aren't real significant facts that aren't out there.Q:
Except we know there was a positive interaction between an officer and the group the next morning that was not part of the report. We know a week ago activist Mike Connor gets up (at the Jan. 23 Town Council meeting) and says, "They never asked us to leave." And this past Monday, David Maliken, one of the guys arrested, says "They never asked us to leave" and that they had had a meeting that day and agreed by consensus they would leave if they were asked. Ron Bogle (the chairman of the advisory committee) says he never knew that; that's a fact he didn't have. So how can you say there are no new facts?Blue:
Well, I don't dispute those. I think we have that information now. In my report I didn't reference that officer's account because I didn't know about it. That's a problem. I didn't know about it. That was not an intentional omission from my report. Would it have informed our on-scene commanders' thinking? I don't know.Q:
So now that we have those facts, you don't anticipate any more new facts?Blue:
I do not.Q:
Was any department policy violated or not followed in the handling of this incident?Blue:
Was any action taken against any employees of the Police Department over this incident?Blue:
I can't answer personnel questions like that.Q:
About these anarchists, or people who claim to be anarchists. You see their graffiti in the West End. Is that something on your radar?Blue:
Absolutely. We do want to know about it. We do try to photograph it and figure out what it means. We're actually working on some ordinance changes to address graffiti. It's a huge problem, and it's not just the anarchists.Q:
Why were officers from other jurisdictions here for the anarchist book fair (which preceded the Yates Motor occupation)?Blue:
There are a number of communities that are concerned about activities that are occurring in other communities or that have already occurred in their own communities. I don't think anyone expected what we experienced here, but I dare say I think it informed people so that when they returned to their own communities they've thought about how they might respond to their own incident.Q:
So now we have the incident at Greenbridge (where a group of demonstrators vandalized the lobby of the condominium project last June), and this much more serious incident. What do you want to tell the town about this group of people that have now been involved in two incidents?Blue:
We're keeping a close eye on vacant properties. We've increased patrols around properties that could be subject to the same kind of activity. We try to maintain as visible (a) presence downtown as we possibly can so we can provide some deterrent value but also respond quickly if some spontaneous event occurs.Q:
In your report you say the threat was overestimated. Would you agree with people who say your department overreacted?Blue:
I like what I said in the report. I do believe we could have reacted in a less forceful way, given what we know now. No question about that. I wish that we had made a more assertive request for those folks to leave that building.Q:
Is that something you have to say to placate people because this is a college town with a long history of civil disobedience?Blue:
No, it's not. We're really proud of that long history, because as an agency our track record shows that we get it. Time and time again we have created a safe environment where people can express themselves. When I reflect back over not just two months but the 14 years I've been employed here and the 30-plus years I've lived in Chapel Hill, I'm proud of that legacy. We're not defined by one weekend.I don't say that to placate anyone. I say what I'm saying because I mean it. It's not about placating. It's about policing in a way that reflects your community's expectations. And we try very hard to do that, and when there are times to reflect and think about ways to improve, we do that.The night of this event, after these folks got bonded out of jail, left the magistrate's office and came back to Chapel Hill, there was a march. And that night we did as we've done a hundred times before. We stopped traffic and let these folks who wanted to be heard express themselves. And they marched right back down to the Yates building. That to me shows we're not defined by one weekend or one set of circumstances. Look at our body of work.