Chapel Hill police chief told officers to ‘stay way out’ as Confederate monument was toppled; one officer put on leave amid concerns over tattoo
Police Chief Chris Blue instructed Chapel Hill officers to stand aside last week as protesters pulled down a controversial Confederate monument on the University of North Carolina campus, a review of Blue’s text messages and emails shows.
Following a public records request, WRAL News obtained about 400 pages of emails and texts sent to and from Blue on Aug. 20-21 – before, during and after the protest that led to the toppling of the “Silent Sam” statue.
Blue’s texts show he was closely monitoring what unfolded at McCorkle Place on campus on Aug. 20 and was relaying directions to his officers. It remains unclear who sent some texts to Blue and received his messages in return.
“Looks like about 200 people. Making speeches. Crowd is calm. Curt said they saw a couple of counter folks moving up from the planetarium. They [are] keeping eyes on them,” a text sent to Blue around 6:30 p.m. reads.
“Ask them to get some pics and share them,” Blue responds.
“It looks like it’s getting busy,” someone else texts a short time later.
“Counter demonstrators?” Blue asks.
“Don’t see any and not reports if any,” comes the response.
“Have you asked? UNC is seeing things we are not,” Blue texts. “I’d appreciate a periodic update. Maybe some pics?”
UNC Police officers also were at the demonstration.
“Mark is watching it on Facebook and it looks ok,” someone texts. “Moving to silent sam.”
Blue sends a thumbs-up emoji and suggests helping with traffic control.
When someone lets him know officers on bicycles are already doing that, he replies, “Ok. Monitor the masked folks. Keep our folks off McCorkle place for now.”
“Need to make sure our plainclothes guys are really looking out for counter protesters to arrive,” Blue texts at 7:35 p.m. “This thing is all over tv and internet. The longer they take with the statue the more time Folks have to arrive.”
“We connected with them. They are going to keep us posted,” someone replies.
At 9 p.m., Blue texts, “Let’s give them lots of space.” That was followed by, “Yes but do not engage w Crowd at statue. Stay way out.”
When he tells his officers that UNC officers also are backing away from “Silent Sam,” someone texts him, “Copy our folks did as well.”
“Wral shows CHPD guys too close. Back up,” Blue replies.
“Silent Sam” came down shortly after those texts went out.
Blue received dozens of emails, almost all critical, from across the country after the protest about how his officers handled the incident.
“Any police force who will stand by, watch a crime committed, and do nothing about it, have failed in their sworn duties to the people,” William Richardson wrote.
“When do you get to decide what laws you will enforce? If this is what you call law enforcement it is time for you to retire,” a man named “Danny” emailed.
Still, Blue emailed his officers on Aug. 21 to thank them for their efforts.
“I’m understandably proud of our agency’s history of protecting people. All who were working last night most certainly did that well,” he wrote.
No one was injured during the protest, and three people were charged with misdemeanor rioting and misdemeanor defacing a public monument in connection with the statue’s toppling.
Blue declined to comment Wednesday, as did UNC Police Chief Jeff McCracken.
Some emails to Blue noted that one Chapel Hill officer at the scene of the protest had a tattoo on his arm for the Three Percenters, a militia group that pledges armed resistance to any effort to curtail constitutional rights.
The officer, identified as Cole Daniels, “expressed regret that his tattoo has been associated with groups that perpetuate hatred and violence,” Blue said in an email sent Wednesday to WRAL News by Chapel Hill spokeswoman Catherine Lazorko.
“We understand the concerns regarding the negative interpretations of the tattoo and regret it was displayed. This will not occur again,” Blue said. “We also want to emphasize that the negative interpretation of that tattoo is inconsistent with the values and mission of our department. We expect employees to abide by our values in the performance of their duties for the Town.”
UPDATE: Town Manager Roger Stancil said in an email Wednesday evening to Town Council members that Daniels was placed on paid leave Monday. Concerns over his tattoo led the police department “to question his ability to function effectively as a police officer within this community,” the email says. The department is conducting an internal investigation into the matter.
“Silent Sam” has been a flashpoint for protests for more than a year, with critics decrying it as a symbol of racism and supporters calling it a tribute to fallen veterans.
Even after it fell, both sides clashed last weekend, and several people were charged. University police on Tuesday issued an arrest warrant charging a UNC-Chapel Hill student with affray in the incident, but the warrant hasn’t yet been served, so the student’s name was unavailable.
The student, the first person affiliated with the university to be charged in last week’s activities, is said to have tried to snatch flowers laid near the “Silent Sam” site by a monument supporter and was later punched in the face by that supporter.
More protests are expected Thursday evening, prompting Chancellor Carol Folt to warn students to stay away from that area of campus.
“We know from past experience that, when groups with opposing views come together in a highly charged environment, there is a real possibility for demonstrations to escalate to violence. Your safety is always our highest priority,” Folt said in an emailed message to students, faculty and staff on Wednesday.
Chapel Hill officials also urged residents to stay away from the area for safety reasons and said traffic will be restricted around Franklin and Henderson streets as a precaution.
Beginning at 5 p.m., restrictions will be placed on parking and loading zone access on Henderson Street and in the 100 and 200 blocks of East Franklin Street, officials said. Depending on the size and nature of the protests, officials said it may be necessary to close portions of the streets at times.
The UNC Board of Governors on Tuesday gave Folt and UNC-Chapel Hill trustees and administrators until Nov. 15 to devise a plan for the future of “Silent Sam,” which has been stored in what officials called “a secure location” since the protest. Folt said all options will be considered, including returning the statue to its pedestal on McCorkle Place.
Hundreds of UNC alumni have signed a petition urging administrators not to bring the monument back.
“Now that Silent Sam has been removed from a place of honor on our campus, it is our hope that you, Chancellor Folt, take decisive action to keep Silent Sam down,” the alumni wrote in a letter on change.org. “In its place, we encourage Carolina to live up to her motto, ‘Lux, Libertas,’ by dedicating sufficient institutional resources to research, teach, and learn from the reconciliation of the rich and truthful history of people whom the University enslaved and excluded, people whose unsung and uncompensated labor forms the very foundation of our University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.”
More than 200 UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members likewise have sent a signed letter to Folt asking that the statue remain down.
“The time is now for the university administration to show leadership, not bureaucratic obfuscation. Show us that you and the university do indeed stand for Lux et Libertas, not sustaining and enforcing the symbols of human cruelty,” the letter states.