AP NEWS

‘Silent Sam’ protests wearing out Chapel Hill police officers, budgets

March 10, 2019

Months after a controversial Confederate monument was removed from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, protests for and against it continue.

Protesters toppled the “Silent Sam” statue last August, and former UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt had crews haul away the pedestal and other markers in January.

Yet, groups continue to congregate at the site where the monument once stood to demonstrate, and with more protests planned for next weekend, there appears to be no end in sight to such events.

Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said the ongoing protests are taking a physical and emotional toll on his officers.

“It’s been a cumulative fatiguing effort, for sure, across our community and particularly with our law enforcement officers,” Blue said Friday. “They’ve also had six months of real intense scrutiny of their work and their efforts and lots of analysis on what they should or should not have done.

“You put that on top of the normal demands of policing, that wears people down,” he added.

Fifteen officers have left the Chapel Hill Police Department since the beginning of last July, up from 10 in the corresponding period a year earlier. Blue said it’s hard to determine if “protest fatigue” has caused the increase, although he said some officers have mentioned it as they left.

″[It’s been] maybe the toughest six months that I can remember,” he said. “Having your integrity questioned, your motivation questioned, it’s tough.”

Not only is it harder to keep people, the protests have added an element to recruiting new officers to Chapel Hill.

“When your community is on the front page consistently, that can bring challenges in terms of recruiting folks,” Blue said. “I have had officers say to us, ‘You know, I can work in other communities where I don’t have these same pressures.’”

The protests have also drained the department’s overtime budget.

With almost four months remaining in fiscal 2019, Blue said, he has only 10 percent left in his overtime budget for the year. Forty-two percent of what’s been spent so far has gone to staffing up during protests.

“Per protest event, we spend anywhere between $10,000 and $14,000,” he said. “It’s money that we need to spend because we need those resources here to respond. But those are funds that were intended to be used differently.”

The police department will likely have to make cuts in other areas in the coming months to free up more money for overtime if the protests continue, he said.

Chapel Hill Fire Chief Matthew Sullivan said his department has likewise burned through close to 90 percent of its fiscal 2019 overtime budget already, but only about 11 percent was connected to “Silent Sam” protests.

“In our business, if we can’t get people to volunteer to come to work, [those already here] get told to stay at work,” Sullivan said. “There’s a human side, too – a missed birthday or a soccer game. And when you have weekend after weekend where you’re making folks come to work or stay at work, their families are feeling the impact also. That’s incredible stress on home life.”

Blue and Sullivan said they’re grateful for the sacrifices of their officers and firefighters, respectively.

“That’s what we sign up for, to be ready and to make sure this community is safe,” Sullivan said.