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UNC panel recommends spending millions on ‘mobile force’ to police protests

The proposal comes in response to protests like the recent ones against Silent Sam.

Pro-confederacy protestors receive a police escort through a shouting crowd to where the "Silent Sam" statue once stood before it's toppling last week on the campus of The University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP)        (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-confederacy protestors receive a police escort through a shouting crowd to where the "Silent Sam" statue once stood before it's toppling last week on the campus of The University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Logan Cyrus / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)

A University of North Carolina safety panel has recommended a number of security changes following recent protests against Silent Sam, a Confederate monument that has stood on the Chapel Hill campus since 1913 until it was toppled by protesters in August. One of those changes includes “substantially” upgrading its law enforcement capabilities.

The law enforcement upgrade would involve a 40-person “mobile force” that would cost about $2 million a year and, requires $500,000 in equipment, according to Politico. The panel is additionally recommending that the statue be housed in a “university history center” that hasn’t yet been constructed and would cost $5.3 million to build

The panel recommended that the building housing the statue, which they refer to as “an object of remembrance” and “important artifact,” could be constructed with “fireproof materials, shatter resistant glass, security doors and limited windows.”

Over the past several years, students have held protests against the statue, holding signs that read, “Stop pretending racism is patriotism,” and “No Trump, No KKK, No Racist USA.” They argue that there is no legitimate reason to keep a statue on campus that upholds notions of white supremacy.

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In August, 250 protesters, including students, faculty, and community residents, toppled Silent Sam. People who supported the statue have also shown up, many carrying Confederate flags, to push for keeping the monument. There have been numerous protests over the years, some of which involved arrests of protesters, including students. When the statue was torn down over the summer, there was a heavy police presence.

The recommendations state that the nature of campus protests has changed, necessitating changes in police presence, Politico reported. The panel added, “Campus departments must effectively preserve public safety and maintain order on the college campuses where few limitations on public gatherings exist and crowd control tactics generally employed by law enforcement are fraught with sensitivities over any use of force by police.”

There were many arrests following the August protest when the statue was taken down. Those arrested, including students, faced charges such as public disturbance and defacing, simple assault, marking or injuring a public statue or monument, misdemeanor injury to real property, and resisting an officer. However, Margarita Sitterson, who is a student at the school and granddaughter of a former UNC chancellor, was charged with misdemeanor counts of defacing a public monument and rioting in connection with the toppling of the statue. Two graduate students were also arrested in two different demonstrations in August and September. On Monday, Maya Little, a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, led a protest against the university’s plan to house the statue on campus. The crowd chanted, “Cops and Klan go hand in hand.” There were clashes between students and police, according to NPR. Little was arrested and charged with inciting a riot and assaulting an officer.

“The only danger and violence present last night was once again caused by university police who came equipped to a student protest with riot gear and tear gas canisters,” Little said to the News & Observer.

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In its recommendations, the panel wrote of demonstrations since the statue’s toppling and removal, “During these events there was obvious evidence of preplanning and tactics that were designed to instigate violence between protest groups or draw an over-reaction from law enforcement.”

It mentioned the need for “training, intelligence gathering, rules of engagement, and written action plans” for large-scale protests.

The panel added, “The UNC PD has the primary responsibility to protect people and property in connection with athletic and other scheduled events on campus.”

The panel didn’t explain what police would do in a situation where protection of property and the need to “maintain order” might endanger people, however. Some crowd control tactics — such as kettling, in which officers block off an area and conduct mass arrests — have been criticized because, in the process, large groups of protesters, as well as some journalists, are often knocked down and pepper-sprayed. These tactics hurt protesters’ right to free assembly. A report from the Police Complaints Board about the 2017 inauguration protests, during which protesters were kettled, found that, during the arrests, “proximity to the area where property damage occurred was a primary factor,” Chip Gibbons pointed out in an article for The Nation.

In 2017, people protested in St. Louis after a white former police officer, Jason Stockley, was found not guilty of first degree murder in his 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. Prosecutors said Stockley planted a weapon on Smith to claim self defense. Now, protesters who were arrested in a police kettle during that protest are suing the city of St. Louis, police officers, and those officers’ supervisors. There were 123 arrests during this kettle, and those suing, including journalists and a scientist, say they were beaten with batons, zip-tied, slammed into buildings, and pepper-sprayed in the face.

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During the protest that resulted in the statue’s toppling, an officers’ display of a tattoo associated with the far right may have further fueled anti-Silent Sam protesters’ distrust of police. Officer Cole R. Daniels was placed on paid leave after a photo of his tattoo garnered widespread attention online, causing “the Department to question his ability to function effectively as a police officer within this community,” Police Chief Chris Blue told press in a statement.

The Black Student Movement at the UNC-Chapel Hill said, in a response, that it strongly opposed the recommendations. The UNC Board of Governors will consider their response on Dec. 14.

The Black Student Movement added that the university chose to reaffirm racist beliefs and that the leadership’s decision to mention “civil disobedience,” “violence,” “property damage,” and prioritization of maintaining order “remind us of words used by Martin Luther King Jr. in his indictment of white moderates” when he said they were “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

In a statement to ThinkProgress, the group added that the proposed mobile force would do “more harm than good” for students and stated, “In the last few years, we’ve seen time and time again how students receive harsh treatment and even brutality from our campus police when exercising their first amendment right to assemble. We find that this proposal is ridiculously expensive and unnecessary.”

The UNC Student Government also released a statement, in which student body president Savannah Putnam wrote that the Board of Trustees was “deliberately invalidating students of color” and that the university was not treating student stakeholders as actual partners. Putnam added that the student government supports the statement from Black Student Movement.

Update: ThinkProgress included additional reports of arrested students during and after the August protest where the statue was toppled.