UNC unprepared for toppling of Confederate statue, report says

Published 5:27 pm Friday, February 1, 2019

By Emery P. Dalesio and Jonathan Drew

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Police and administrators at the University of North Carolina were unprepared for demonstrators who tore down a campus Confederate memorial last summer but likely didn’t conspire to allow the statue’s sudden removal, a report released Friday found.

Because of a miscommunication between top leaders of UNC-Chapel Hill and campus police, officers didn’t install barriers around the statute nicknamed “Silent Sam” as they had ahead of previous protests. The statue was decried by opponents as a racist symbol but defended by supporters as a marker of North Carolina and Southern heritage.

“Enough red flags existed prior to Aug. 20 to suggest that Silent Sam would be forcibly removed,” said the report from lawyers hired by the statewide university system’s governors.

But an underprepared and outnumbered police presence was also undercut by inadequate information-gathering about the size and possible intent of demonstrators and outdated crowd-control training that made it “difficult if not impossible” for officers to protect the monument, the report said.

The report said investigators found no evidence that police and campus administrators effectively stood aside as demonstrators tore down the symbol that university and political leaders had said was a magnet for agitators and a public safety threat.

“We did not find any evidence of a conspiracy among or between police, administrators and demonstrators to topple the statue that evening. Instead, we found that the protesters were infinitely more well-organized and prepared than originally expected,” the report said.

Before the rally, police monitored social media but felt the hundreds of online RSVPs were inflated. They also didn’t think the demonstration would be restive because pro-Confederate groups didn’t plan to attend.

“In hindsight, many of these predictions fell short of reality,” the report’s authors wrote.

The campus police force deployed 22 officers about 6 p.m., before the protest. Later, after a call for assistance, the town of Chapel Hill sent six of its officers. No more than the 28 officers were close by when the statue fell, the report said.

Chancellor Carol Folt’s office expressed misgivings about putting up barricades on the first weekend of the academic year, but said the decision was ultimately up to police, the report said.

Still, Derek Kemp, vice chancellor for campus safety, told the police chief that Folt “did not want barricades to be used on Aug. 20, 2018, because of what it would look like to students and their parents,” the report said.

Several officers said they felt uncomfortable that no barricades were being used. They said their superiors told them the decision came from Folt’s office, according to the report.

After starting off campus, the estimated 200 to 350 protesters carried large banners on poles toward Silent Sam. When officers sought to arrest a demonstrator wearing a mask, a scuffle ensued, which officers now believe was a diversion to allow the banner carriers to encircle the statue.

After an hour, most protesters marched back off campus to create another diversion, the report said. Some protesters remained encircling the statue, and officers later said they would have had to use violence to break through.

Soon, the larger group of protesters returned and began throwing things at police who “only had their regular uniforms to protect them,” according to the report, which claimed two officers were hit with frozen water bottles. Riot gear was staged in a nearby parking lot and wasn’t easily accessible.

Fearing for the officers’ safety, a captain “gave the order to ‘pull out,'” the report said. Within minutes, protesters had tied a rope around the statue and toppled it.

In the days after the protest, the police expressed frustration: “Many of the officers felt that they had been set up to fail and were placed in a dangerous situation to which they were unprepared to respond,” the report said.

Folt’s last day as chancellor was Thursday. She was forced out by the university system’s governors after she unilaterally ordered the removal of the statue’s stone base last month.