When Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue deployed a Special Emergency Response Team to round up Occupy Everything members who had taken over a long-vacant former Chrysler dealership, he was unsure what officers might encounter. He decided to act quickly, eliminate the perceived threat and ask questions later.
Four weeks have passed, and we won't know the answers for at least another month—and maybe we never will.
On Dec. 15, Chapel Hill's Community Policing Advisory Committee held its first meeting since police officers rushed down Franklin Street on a Sunday afternoon pointing assault rifles at unarmed civilians and arrested eight people.
But the nine-member group, which was appointed by the Town Council in August to hold police accountable, cast doubt on its ability to undertake a meaningful review.
Committee members are concerned that, as a newly appointed group, it is unprepared to handle public comment on the incident. It initially agreed to review Town Manager Roger Stancil's "comprehensive report" on the matter and provide recommendations to Town Council but later in the meeting backtracked. Instead the report, which Stancil expects to complete in the next few weeks, will go to the Town Council first. In effect, the committee does not take the lead, but rather follows.
The council meets Jan. 9. The committee said it will listen to community response when Stancil's report is presented to council and then issue its findings. That likely won't occur until Feb. 8, the committee's regularly scheduled meeting.
Committee Chairman Ronald Bogle made it clear that the group has limited power. Not only is the group only "advisory," meaning it can't make decisions, it's composed of newly appointed volunteers.
"If you expect this board to conduct a complete, thorough investigative review of police procedures and processes, we are probably not equipped to do that," Bogle said. "We don't possess the professional expertise or the resources to do that job in a thorough way."
Town Councilwoman Donna Bell, who is a liaison to the committee, said the group is charged with asking questions that town staff should answer. "The reason we created this committee was for incidences just like this. We don't have them very often in Chapel Hill," she said. "I want to make sure this committee has the chance to do the work it was created to do."
The committee refused to comment in the days immediately after the arrests. Bogle said he doesn't want to prejudge the town manager's findings. He also did not want to elaborate on what questions he wants the report to answer before he receives it.
"I don't want to assume that he hasn't asked the questions that we would like to ask," he said.
Jim Neal, a Chapel Hill resident who ran for U.S. Senate in 2008, is circulating a petition that has at least 251 signatures, asking for an independent review of the matter. He believes that's the only way to restore public confidence.
That confidence has been eroded in part by the Town Council's decision last month not to deal with the petition nor to apologize to two journalists who were detained during the raid. Council members said they wanted to wait until after Stancil and the Community Policing Advisory Committee complete their work.
That same week, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen issued an apology for its role in the incident. Carrboro police were asked to help seal off the perimeter as the Chapel Hill SERT team rushed in.
Hours before the committee met, the Internationalist Prison Books Collective, some of whose members participated in the incident, condemned the group's work.
"We do not want nicer evictions. We are not asking for another alienating, bureaucratic process controlled by politicians to distract us from the real role of the police. Instead, we will continue to support creative resistance to capitalism and the prison industrial complex," the group stated in a press release on the morning of the meeting.
"Mayor (Mark) Kleinschmidt and the Town Council are anxious to preserve political credibility in the face of widespread criticism of this eviction, and the police advisory committee is the perfect vehicle with which to do so. Our collective aim is to expose such an effort for what it is—a farce."
It's too early to evaluate the effectiveness of the committee, but so far, residents have little reason to be encouraged.