UNC Police arrested Student Veterans Assistance Coordinator Amber Mathwig on Wednesday after she refused to stop sitting on the steps of a campus building that was being used for an unannounced police training exercise.
Mathwig, a UNC employee since 2015, was charged with second-degree trespass and resisting an officer. In a public statement, Mathwig said she is now temporarily barred from the Carolina Veterans Resource Center, where she works, after being placed on “investigative leave” with pay.
UNC Police Spokesperson Randy Young stated in an email to The Daily Tar Heel that the department was conducting an active-shooter scenario exercise with other local first responder agencies in an abandoned building in Odum Village. That building is next to the veterans center.
Mathwig’s arrest, made by Officer Ryan Kay around 5:30 p.m., occurred just hours after a large campus protest against police brutality.
Kay made a separate arrest last year that has been the subject of recent criticism. The Daily Tar Heel reported contradictions between claims made by him and other officers about that arrest and the content of Kay’s body camera footage, which had been subpoenaed by the student’s attorney.
In her statement, Mathwig said she noticed the training drill on Wednesday as she left the Odum Village parking lot and saw several law enforcement vehicles, dozens of officers wearing paintball-style masks, a few rifles with orange caps on their muzzles and more.
Both Mathwig and a witness of her arrest – undergraduate Roger Kennely, who works under Mathwig at the veterans center – said the location of the exercise concerned them.
When she “heard a very distinguishable ‘pop-pop-pop’ from inside the building,” Mathwig said she became convinced that UNC Police was conducting simunition round training. It “petrified” her, Mathwig stated, given the knowledge she had gained as a 10-year U.S. Navy Master-at-Arms.
“While a lower velocity than actual ammunition, simunition rounds are a projectile that can break glass and cause bruising and cuts to the skin if struck,” Mathwig stated. “In addition to 10 years of generally conducting training around policing tactics and firearms in the military, I specifically worked for a training unit for three years that conducted regular training with simunition rounds. Because of the risks associated with their use, and that they should never be mixed with actual weapons or people unaware of what is going on, these trainings were held in unused buildings that were fenced, clearly marked and had access control through one point of entry only.”
Kennely noted that he did not see a fence, sign or any other such indicator for students to stay away from the training exercise in Odum Village.
“You have no idea the potential triggers that this will cause for the veterans in the center, not to mention that we still have students on campus,” said Kennely, who served in the U.S. Air Force for nearly 11 years.
Mathwig stated that after she made multiple unsuccessful calls to University officials and Chapel Hill Police to have them stop the exercise, she settled on the steps of the building and refused to leave.
She called it “the only way to prevent this unsafe evolution from continuing to happen.”
Kennely said he watched as Kay informed Mathwig she would be arrested if she did not move. Within 15 minutes of sitting on the steps, Mathwig stated, she was placed in handcuffs and charged. Mathwig was released without bail later that night with a promise to appear in court on May 9, according to her statement.
UNC Police showed “disparate treatment,” Mathwig added, toward two students of color during the interaction. Kennely is one of the students she was referencing. She stated that both students were threatened with Honor Court by an officer. Kennely said that Kay asked for his UNC ONE Card, student identification number and name, even though he was only observing the situation.
He added that Kay told him to take his hands out of his pockets, which he did. When Kay had turned around, Kennely put his hands back in his pockets. Kay turned and repeated the command more sternly, Kennely said.
He compared this interaction with UNC Police’s handling of a pro-Confederate group that brought guns and other weapons to campus last month, only to be directed off campus by an officer with no consequences.
“I’m not under arrest, I’m not being detained, I haven’t broken any actual rules,” Kennely said. “The fact that he’s so concerned that my hands are in my pockets – but if I was someone else who clearly presented a danger to other students, I could get a handshake and walked off-campus – those two things don’t match.”
In her statement, Mathwig stood firmly by her decision and her opposition to “militarized policing” that she believes has been sanctioned and protected by UNC.
“Most of all, I know what I did was right,” Mathwig stated. “I know that I am being retaliated against after being a vocal voice for anti-racist students this past year.”
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