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Meet interim Police Chief Thomas Younce: from the Air Force to UNC

Former Chief Jeff McCracken resigned among rocketing tensions between police and students. While UNC searches for a replacement, Thomas Younce will lead the force.

unc police
Patrol Officer Jamison McKire monitoring near McCorkle Place Tuesday, Sept. 25.

Amidst a new age in college game-day drinking laws, tension between students and law enforcement and the need for police to maintain good optics, Thomas Younce — Air Force captain-turned-police officer — is heading UNC’s police force for the time being as interim police chief. 

Younce occupies the position until the University chooses a permanent replacement for Jeff McCracken, who resigned in July. 

Younce worked a security detail in the Air Force where he guarded heads of state and diplomats, spent time in Haiti with the justice department and then when his wife — a North Carolina native — wanted to come home, they moved to her home state, where Younce spent four years on East Carolina University's police force and 11 with N.C. State University's. He has a total of nearly 44 years of law enforcement experience. 

“I bought my first Carolina tie,” Younce said. “I’m really excited to be here.”

Younce is a friend of former Police Chief McCracken, who announced his resignation in April, a few months after an independent report commissioned by the Board of Governors found “serious deficiencies” in how UNC Police and administration handled the Aug. 20, 2018 protest that featured the fall of Silent Sam.

McCracken’s resignation occurred alongside waves of criticism toward UNC Police for tactics used during protests and other events on McCorkle Place — like the use of smoke bombs and pepper spray, and the embedding of undercover officers into demonstrators’ 2017 around-the-clock sit-in at the base of Silent Sam.

Younce said the practice of embedding undercover officers wouldn't be something he alone would pursue, but instead would be coordinated with other agencies. When asked if he would've placed an undercover officer into the McCorkle Place sit-in, Younce said he wasn't there so he doesn't know.

“It’s a useful tool. I don't know that we will embed anybody in, but I’m certain that we will coordinate with the State Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to find out where the threat is or if there's a threat,” he said. “I certainly don’t believe in embedding in political type events. That’s not our business. Now but when that political event moves into the area of crime, then it’s our business.”

Conflict between students and local law enforcement agencies intensified over the past few years. McCorkle Place has become a hot-spot for dual-sided protests, where outside demonstrators from opposing sides have met for high-tension events, requiring a heightened police presence.

During her leadership, former Chancellor Carol Folt bolstered police operations around the former site of Silent Sam. 

“Additionally, during my tenure, I have ensured (police) had additional funding to have an officer monitoring the Confederate Monument 24/7, two cameras linked for viewing at the 911-dispatch center and body-worn cameras for our officers, among other things,” Folt said in a letter to three BOG members, in response to the draft version of the independent report that found “serious deficiencies” in police operations on the night of Aug. 20, 2018.

“It is now clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that UNC-Chapel Hill did not accurately predict the number of attendees, the organization of the protestors, or their intentions,” she said in the letter. “Through this incident we have learned that methods which were successful in the past are no longer as predictive.”

Younce said police need to find a balance — the law must be enforced, he said, but it shouldn't ever appear that police are choosing sides. He compared the current situation in Chapel Hill to his experience dealing with the Ku Klux Klan when he was chief of police for the city of Wilson, N.C..

“People expect us to say, ‘No you can’t,’ but the Constitution says, ‘Yes,’ so what we have to do is protect,” he said. “We've got to protect those that are for it and those that are against it, and sometimes that’s a really balanced way of doing things. And sometimes it looks like we might be helping one or the other. Actually, what we’re trying to do is prevent something from happening.”

Being aware of what local demonstrators on all sides are up to, he said, is crucial to maintaining peace in the community. 

“You have to step back and take a look at what’s happening with those groups. You have one group that carries weapons. Yeah I’ve got to find out what’s going on, and when there’s clashes there, I’ve got to find out whats going on with the other side,” he said.

Members of the Heirs of the Confederacy brought firearms and other weapons onto campus in March. No arrests were made.

Younce, an adamant supporter of community policing, will continue to lead the force until a permanent chief is chosen. A press release from UNC said it anticipates making a hire from four finalists before the start of the academic year. 

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