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Campus Safety Commission to tackle 'lack of trust' between UNC community and police

South Building

The Campus Safety Commission gathered in South Building on Wednesday morning in a collaborative effort to explore and improve campus policing practices. The group is a collective of students, faculty and staff, tasked with establishing a better understanding of the safety and security needs at UNC.

“The seed that started this commission was a profound mistrust of the way in which the police acted, especially during the Silent Sam protests, and the sense that they were not answerable to anyone. No one knew when they filed a complaint, what happened to the complaint, who was investigating the complaint,” said Lawrence Grossberg, a professor in the communications department. 

“There’s a profound lack of trust that the police are actually interested in protecting the interests of all the parties involved,” he said. 

Many members of the commission are concerned about a disconnect between the campus community and the police, as well as the ambiguities in the campus policing process.

“They feel they can not speak out for fear of their jobs. So they welcome the commission to be their voice to address their concerns,” said a commission member. 

The Campus Safety Commission, assembled by the interim chancellor, is responsible for reconciling the interests of students and campus police, bridging the gap between bodies that have been somewhat at odds in the aftermath of controversial arrests and protests on campus. 

“It seems like the biggest issue for us is that our mandate is quite ambiguous,” Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, said. 

Two guest speakers joined the commission: Derek Kemp, a 26-year Navy veteran and the associate vice chancellor for campus safety and risk management, and Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director who was contracted by UNC as a consultant in the aftermath of Silent Sam’s destruction.

Kemp and Swecker gave breakdowns of recent campus incidents involving protests, arrests and controversy to the commission.

The most recent was a pop-up protest on Memorial Day weekend, Sunday May 26. 

Kemp told the commission how two vehicles pulled up to McCorkle place in the afternoon, and out of them came about 20 members of the Patriot Front, who sprinted toward the Unsung Founders Memorial. 

Patriot Front is deemed a white nationalist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and has ties to the 2017 Charlottesville, Va. attack which left one dead. 

Kemp said the confederates carried flags, banners and a bullhorn up the McCorkle place hill, and lit a blue smoke stick to get attention. He described the incident as a “flash mob” tactic. By the time support arrived, called in by the officer at McCorkle Place — which is surveilled 24/7 — the group had completed their demonstration, ran back down the hill, piled into their vehicles and left. 

Kemp said there was an error in how the police dealt with the aftermath. 

“Where there was a breakdown was that the supervisor that day should’ve reported that incident up on Sunday,” he said. 

The incident wasn’t reported up the chain of command until Tuesday. 

Swecker said that pro-monument groups often coordinate with police before arriving on campus. They sometimes receive parking instructions.

“That presents an optic that makes it look like the police are protecting them,” he said, but argued that UNC’s campus presents a complicated policing environment, and the communication helps police to establish a safer environment for protestors and counter-protestors to demonstrate without violently interacting with each other. 

“They’re essentially the referee, umpire, no one’s going to like what they do,” Swecker said of the police. 

Swecker also went through a separate incident that occurred in September, in which UNC senior Julia Pulawski was arrested for assaulting an officer in a testy Silent Sam protest. 

There was a discrepancy in Pulawski’s January court case: Sgt. Svetlana Bostelman testified that Pulawksi was attacking another officer, Sgt. Chris Burnette, interfering with an arrest, so she ran over to defend her fellow officer, who was getting punched and kicked in the back. 

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Sgt. Burnette, who Bostelman said was attacked by Pulawski, testified that no one interfered with his arrest.

“There’s a clear conflict in the testimony,” Swecker said. “I’m not going to go any further than that with it.” 

Swecker attributed some of the confusion to the chaos of district court, where Pulawski was convicted. In light of the conflicting testimony in January, her lawyer filed a 40-paged motion to dismiss the charges. 

“The reports are pretty sketchy,” Swecker said.