Chapel Hill: Time for Appointment of an Independent Public Safety Review Commission

Many questions remain unanswered in regard to the Chapel Hill Police Department's deployment Sunday of a heavily-armed Special Emergency Response Team to clear a private building in Chapel Hill that had been occupied by a group of protesters. Seven people were arrested and charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering.

I submitted a petition Monday afternoon to to the Chapel Hill Town Council calling for the appointment of an independent commission to review the events leading up to yesterday's deployment of the SERT unit. Residents of Chapel Hill are divided, one camp outraged by what they deem to be an unmeasured response by a SWAT team and the other yielding to the professional judgment of the CHPD. Neither side has the facts to which the public is entitled in order understand the events that led to yesterday's display of lethal force by the Chapel Hill Police Department.

The Council will not be considering petitions until its next meeting on Monday November 21st 2011 at 7:00pm in the Town Hall Council Chamber: 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Chapel Hill. The meeting is open to the public and the Calendar for the meeting is posted online.

The full text of the Petition is posted at NealsWay, where residents may elect to sign as co-sponsors of the Petition.



Thanks so much for posting this here, Jim! (And it's great to see you getting involved in local issues, too.) In Joe Schwartz' article in today's Independent (not yet online, unfortunately) he talked about the existing Community Police Advisory Committee that Chapel Hill has recently established and said that this issue would go before them at their next meeting in December. Are you proposing that the Town create an additional review board, or would you be satisfied for the existing committee to look at this?

Here's the Indy article I referenced above (which mentions Jim and the petition) and a relevant passage.

Events such as this are the reason that for three years, peace advocates, concerned citizens and the NAACP had urged town officials to establish a Community Policing Advisory Committee. In March, the town council approved the committee, which is charged with advising the police department on policy, not with reviewing individual grievances.Committee members said they want to wait until after they are briefed to issue a response. Blue said he will debrief the committee about the incident at its Dec. 14 public meeting.- "Chapel Hill: cops vs. anarchists and no one wins"

I think Jim is right that this incident seems beyond the scope of this committee. Though it seems crazy to me to need a committee to review what almost everyone knows (at least in retrospect), which is that the police action was unnecessarily forceful and overly broad. The two things I have thought of that I would like to come out of this are:1. The Town should make a goodwill gesture by dropping the charges (or encouraging Riddle to drop charges, if he pursues them), and 2. The Town should put systems in place to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen again. This might include:

  • improve relationships with local communities so that folks like "known anarchists" and "random black men walking down the street" don't seem as alien and dangerous,
  • develop tactics that address problems in a more targeted fashion instead of blanketing an entire area with force and detaining everyone inside (there is a history of CHPD doing this before), and
  • consider working with some community liaisons (maybe form other Town departments) that could have approached the squatters for potential negotiation that would not have set-off their anti-police biases and cultural issues.

Sorry to disagree :-("Though it seems crazy to me to need a committee to review what almost everyone knows (at least in retrospect), which is that the police action was unnecessarily forceful and overly broad."It only seems this way because nothing serious happened.  There's no way of knowing unless you go back in time and try it a different way.   Hindsight is a funny, powerful thing.  No one can tell what may have happened with a different approach:  its impossible.  Given the history of police actions and the number of injuries that have happened throughout history, to be making such a big deal out of a situation where nothing happened except a few people were arrested seems like overkill to me."The Town should put systems in place to ensure this kind of thing doesn't happen again."The funny thing is you're talking about anarchists getting arrested, and I think this should refer to anarchists trashing buildings and forcing the police to make arrests.  In an ideal world people who care about Chapel Hill would be convinced to actually participate in local government rather than using pointless violence.  The problem is the philosophy of anarchism is fatally flawed in that it doesn't recognize the representative and participatory nature of local government.  Not to mention I don't think this particular group cares about the Chapel Hill community one bit; they're only out to make a political point."consider working with some community liaisons (maybe form other Town departments) that could have approached the squatters for potential negotiation "I don't see how that could possibly work given the anarchists goals. If they wanted to participate in a peaceful demonstration there's a 24 hour-a-day non-violent protest right on Franklin St.  I don't see why everyone else who commits breaking and entering should be arrested, but anarchists should get a free "get out of jail free" card.  If you're suggesting this, then the community would need to review existing laws to make exceptions for breaking them to make a political point.I'm all for 1st ammendment rights, and believe government should bend over backward to make all reasonable accomodations for them, but the model for this is the Occupy movement, not anarchy.

I suspect all of us break the law on a regular basis--driving too fast, passing on the right, walking against the light, etc. Why are those who, for humanitarian reasons, break the law against property viewed as anarchists and being subjected to such vilification? They aren't doing this for their own purposes. They want a community center, affordable housing from a piece of property that has been sitting empty for years. Shouldn't the goal of the law breaking be part of the dialogue? Why are personal property laws treated so differently than other laws?

I didn't call them anarchists as vilification, they probably are anarchists.  "The takeover of the building came after some who attended the anarchist book fair diverted a march that was scheduled from the Nightlight Bar & Club on West Rosemary Street..." Of course, attending an anarchist book fair doesn't make one an anarchist, but its a pretty good guess.  Chapel Hill has a great record in finding financing for public projects, and if this group actually wanted a community center they might have tried talking to the town council, or doing something, anything towards that ends before taking over a building.  Its most likely they broke in as a protest against capitalism, and then once they were in came up with a list of possible uses for the building.  There is zero evidence that anyone involved in the break-in tried to achieve any of the goals they mentioned through conventional means.For example, they said they wanted to turn the building into a community center.  Why would that building be a good spot for a commuity center when the Hargraves Community Center is two blocks away!  What possible justification is there in taking over a building that's not fit for human habitation as a community center when there's a modern community center on the next street over? They obviously were unaware of Hargraves, and the community center is just a cover story.The main problem with the group is the fact that they didn't work with the community to achieve their goals before resorting to breaking and entering.  The group says they wanted to help the homeless.  Did any of them do anything at all to work with a Chapel Hill volunteer organization that helps the homeless?  What most likely happened is a group of anarchists (or people with anarchist leanings) decided to break into a building, they watched a movie, partied, danced, and then dreamed about possibile justifications to turn the event into a protest.  If any of the people who broke in want to work with others in the Chapel Hill community on affordable housing, or homelessness, or a new community center, I'm sure the many existing  groups would welcome them.  Instead of smashing up Greenbridge or breaking into empty buildings they could actually accomplish something.  Just remember, though, that anarchists aren't known for cooperating with local communities.

Here's an article from the Chapel Hill News that explains what the anarchists believe. You may not like it, but their definition is far more sophisticated than the connotations of 'no common government' or 'violent overthrow': 

I agree, when I drive 60 in a 55mph zone, I'd be very upset if I was forced out of the car with an automatic weapon.  But if I painted my car to say:  "I am an anarchist. I don't believe in the rule of law.  I believe that violent resistance is sometimes necessary.  F#$% the police"  then I cannot reasonably get upset when the police officer takes more precautions than usual for their own safety when pulling me over.  The group from Sunday are not being called anarchists, they ARE anarchists. They assigned that label to themselves.  And they have the right to free speech, the right to not be beaten up, the right to due process.  But they do not have the right to break the law and not be arrested.  And as a citizen I feel I have a moral obligation to not ask my police force to put themselves or others at unnessary risk just for the sake of nice visuals.  I think the anarchists made a really interesting point about vacant property downtown. But the price of making that point was being arrested. They knew that. To compare them to people who are unnessarily harrassed because of their race, (in the post talking about relationship with the community) I find extremely offensive.

--Jenny Cook

Excuse my bluntness, but are you f%^ing kidding me?They want a community center?  Great.  There's one on Estes and one in Northside.  Have at it.They want "affordable housing"?  I didn't see any of them offering to pay Joe rent, even at "affordable" terms . . . instead, I saw a decree that they had "taken" the building.  Just need a place to sleep . . . there's a shelter 5 blocks away.Did you really just compare traffic citations to breaking and entering?!??I assume, though, since you really just want dialogue, that you're good with me coming and spending some time on your living room couch.  Don't worry, I won't bother you, I'll just come in the middle of the day while you're at work, watch a little TV, maybe bring a dog over for company, have a few beers and a pizza (or whatever I can find in your fridge), and doze off for a good nap.  You can dialogue with me all you want while I'm sleeping.  Can I take a shower too while I'm there?  I'll even let you wash my towels when I'm done.  And I'll try not to get in your way; in fact, I'll even bring in a couple of saw horses and traffic cones to create a perimeter that is "my space".  Hey, do you get HBO?  Have DVR?  I really want to catch up on "The Wire" while I'm occupying your living room.  THANKS!!And, I'm sorry, Ruby, but I disagree.  Drop the charges in good faith?  That would imply that somehow the CHPD acted erroneously in arresting people for breaking and entering.  I do empathize with your feelings (while I may not agree) about the manner in which CHPD executed the raid, the bottom line is that that a crime was committed.  I don't turn my head when my children act out; I don't believe that CHPD/the Town should look the other way when a crime is committed.

Thanks Ruby. Regarding your question- yes, I have petitioned for the establishment of an independent review commission. Such a body would not be a standing commission; it would be tasked to review and make recommendations in regard to circumstances leading up to the depolyment of the SWAT/SERT unit. Its recommendations and findings would be actionable by the Council, Town Manager and CHPD. More importantly, an independently-appointed commission would have greater currency vis-a-vis buy-in by the public.The purpose of the standing Community Police Advisory Committee is not to conduct this sort of review. It's responsibilities are to:

  • Make recommendations to the Town Manager and Chief of Police with regard to organizational matters and procedures,
  • Serve as a liaison to enhance community and police relations,
  • Participate in annual review of the Police Department’s Citizen Academy,
  • Receive, review, and consult on the quarterly professional standards report,
  • Consult and advise on the Police Department’s strategic plan, and
  • Provide an annual report to Council on a Council requested topic.

Review of the Incident of last Sunday requires a more specific mandate and unimpeachable independence- to safeguard real or perceived conflicts of interest. It would logically require at least one individual with a background in, say, criminal defense and another in law enforcement. That wouldn't include Chief Blue or any Town employee for obvious reasons. Its proceedings should be conducted in an open public forum. And it would be disbanded following the submission of it findings.I don't have a horse in this race. There are no clear antagonists or protagonists in this story. Simply put, some residents would prefer to be presented with the facts as detailed by independent eyes.  jim neal

In addition to signing the Petition (which I have already done – on whichever side of this issue we fall, no-one is hurt by the facts), I have a couple of suggestions about the Review Commission itself, Jim, which you may or may not want to pass onto the Chapel Hill Town Council, as you see fit:1)    I think that the Commission should have members and invite witnesses from both Chapel Hill and Carrboro, since the Carrboro Police Department was also involved.2)    [And my thoughts are developing as I write] Those serving on the Commission should make it a point, made very clear and very publicly, that they will base any conclusions solely on the evidence presented to them.We live in an age of multitudinous and disparate media sources – mainstream, social and citizen – all of which delight in punditry. I think folks should be encouraged to channel all of their information relating to this Commission to the Commission itself, rather than relying on the Commission to have to fish around and find it on its own.By the same token, I think this would be more likely if Commission Members themselves were to decide that they would only base their conclusions on the information presented to them, rather than reading around.3)    I think it would benefit the townships of Chapel Hill and Carrboro if this Commission were to style itself on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa.Chapel Hill, and to some extent, Carrboro, are towns divided. Much allusion was made to this fact in the recent municipal Elections. This Commission offers the opportunity, not only to get to the bottom of what happened with respect to the incident in question, but also to start the process of examining and healing those divisions.Most of the eight people arrested were from the local area. I, for one, would like to know what it was that inspired them to take such a drastic action. How is our community failing? What were the politicians who sent in SWAT do fearful of? And why? In our sleepy little towns. If there is such angst, we ought to want to do something about it.That can only be achieved, in my opinion, if there is an understanding, written down, that there will be no deleterious consequence upon participation in the Commission’s proceedings.No charges will be brought. No disciplinary proceedings should be begun. No civil actions will be brought. There needs to be complete immunity. This needs to be a forum which understands, and which then begins a process of unifying and healing; not one which divides further.Of course, the natural corollary of the last point is that those currently charged should have their charges dropped. I would not oppose this. The act of being arrested in those draconian circumstances I would have thought was lesson enough.No significant harm was done. To anyone or anything. The matters themselves warrant only misdemeanor description. Let the process of reaching out begin with this gesture. Drop the charges, and ask all to come to the Commission, tell their stories, and begin to build a real sense of community, where we may disagree, but none are left out or left behind.

I think Tim Tyson has captured my mixed feelings about this. Nobody won, everyone was put in jeopardy. But the issues the self-labelled anarchists claimed to be supporting are real and valid and need to be addressed:  "But the Anarcho-Stylin’ Dance Alliance yearned less for a community center than for a confrontation that would validate their paranoid fantasies, some of which, alas, are not entirely paranoid.  Their victory created a global spectacle that a single cop stumbling over the curb could have turned into a tragedy for Chapel Hill and a debacle for Occupy Wall Street. "

I loved Tim's post when I saw it on Facebook. I was going to ask him if we could publish it here, but New Black Man (of whom I'm a fan) got to him first. Joe Schwartz' article in this week's Indy also does a good job of capturing the complexity of this situation and the many mistakes made by both "sides": I'm still not sure what I think about Jim's specific proposal for an independent commission, but I do know that I want some answers from the Town of Chapel Hill. I understand that the police's action was taken out of fear, which was rationally based on the (limited) information they had at the time. But it was hardly the only tactic available. It's disappointing to see that when Joe Riddle tells the Town to jump, the answer is "how high?" In addition to my suggestions above, I would like the Manager to investigate where this operation originated. Who gave the order, and was it consistent with instructions from the Chief and the Manager? I'm not sure someone has to be fired, but someone has got to take responsibility.(I'm compiling this and my previous comment into an e-mail to the Town Council right now.)


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