When Maya Little heard an explosion at McCorkle Place on Thursday, she walked over with a friend to see what had happened.
By chance, Little, a Ph.D. student and Silent Sam protester, found a familiar face amongst the UNC campus police officers working the case — one who had been presented as a fellow protester.
“Victor, Victor!” Little and her friend yelled, trying to catch the officer’s attention.
Little said the officer, who she'd known as Victor Hernandez, an auto mechanic from Durham, did not initially respond to their calls.
The man had rallied with protesters at an around-the-clock Silent Sam sit-in that spanned that last week of August, she said. During that week in August, Little said the man had been friendly to protesters, seeking out conversation with new people.
But now, seeing him in uniform, Little and her friend were taken aback. The two learned Victor was actually Hector Borges, a UNC Department of Public Safety officer who was undercover in the protests.
“It’s frankly disturbing and insulting that they didn’t just place someone who’s a plainclothes officer, but they placed an undercover person to infiltrate our group and get to know us,” Little said.
Chancellor Carol Folt confirmed the DPS’ usage of plainclothes officers, but she said the University leaves the specifics of peace-keeping strategy to the police.
“I look to the officers — to our police force — to determine the best way to keep people safe,” Folt said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel about the fire in McCorkle Place and campus safety. “And I think they always have a range of approaches to it.”
In the interview, Folt said these approaches can include officers being in plain clothing.
According to protester accounts, Victor was a veteran with PTSD. He said he had lingering anxiety from his years of service. Each day at the August protests, he was present, dressed in street clothes and vocal in his distaste for Silent Sam.
“He would tell other people he had to help his family, who were stuck in the hurricane in Florida,” Little said.
Little said he asked personal questions and approached students often, and she remembers spending an hour with him talking about her graduate research.
“He would kind of ingratiate himself with me or other students and just ask personal details about our lives,” Little said. “Knowing now, that he was gathering information on us, it seems a bit more sinister.”
Little said many protesters who interacted with Officer Borges are now suspicious that the DPS compiled information about them.
“If campus police is willing to put an undercover (officer) in a peaceful protest, what other campus organizations or student groups are they gathering this information on?” Little said.
Randy Young, media relations manager for UNC Public Safety, said in a statement that the purpose of assigning officers, whether in uniform or not, to the area is to ensure safety.
While protesters are enraged by what they see as a breach of ethics, constitutional law validates the actions of Officer Borges and any other officers that could be serving other undercover roles on campus.
Joseph Kennedy, a professor in the UNC School of Law, said the use of undercover officers is common nationwide, even on campuses. He said we all assume the risk that anyone we interact with might be a police informant.
“The Supreme Court has held that a police informant does not constitute a search,” Kennedy said. “A police informant could record conversations with another party and that also would not constitute a search.”
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