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Officers discuss police and trust in the aftermath of Silent Sam

campus safety listening session .jpeg

At a sparsely-attended listening session on Monday, Sept. 30, 2019, officers and Campus Safety Commission members discussed a lack of trust in the police following Silent Sam-related protests. 

Conversations about trust and the University police continue in the aftermath of Silent Sam. The Campus Safety Commission held a listening session Monday to discuss concerns with campus police officers. 

The meeting was open to the public. Four UNC Police officers were present, along with two members of the commission. A total of seven people attended the meeting. 

The Campus Safety Commission was created in April by Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to address the lasting impacts of protests on relationships between University police and members of the campus community. The commission's 20 members include students, faculty and community members. 

In the meeting Monday, commission members Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor, and undergraduate student De'Ivyion Drew talked with police officers and other campus security personnel about existing attitudes of mistrust toward University police and the future goals of the police department. 

Baumgartner and Drew also voiced concerns shared by members of the campus community in previous listening sessions.

Chief of Police David Perry said he disagreed with the use of the phrase "crisis of trust" to describe the environment on UNC's campus. Perry said that, compared to other tumultuous situations on college campuses throughout the country, the phrase was too "high of a level" to match the action of University police surrounding Silent Sam.

"I've seen students interact with police in a positive way, I've seen them go out and discharge their duties, I've seen them do things that doesn't rise to the level, in my mind, of a crisis of trust," Perry said. "So, I think that's a misnomer, that kind of paints the picture unfairly against the men and women who are out here doing the work for the campus community."

Sgt. Ray Oliver attributed the mistrust from students to a lack of communication from UNC Police to the general campus community. However, Oliver said he is hopeful new University police leadership will allow for a better dialogue.

Oliver specifically referenced Chief Perry, who assumed his post in September.

"Chief Perry's here. He's very vocal, he's out there, he's talking to people," Oliver said. "I think that's a good thing because one way to help build trust is to have a dialogue with the community up-front when things happen, before things happen, after things happen."

Oliver said the lack of communication led to a one-sided narrative of police action, told by a small and vocal group on campus. He said, by speaking with individual students, he's been able to alleviate concerns through honest dialogue about events on campus.

Officers said several years ago, University police had more open channels of communication with the leadership of demonstrations or protests. This helped events run more smoothly, officers said.  

"For some, perception is reality, and if you see somebody interacting or talking with someone you're like, 'Oh they're buddy-buddy, they're allies,'" Perry said. "But unless you hear the whole story, or you understand the rationale behind proactive communication (and) where you position people, if you don't hear the planning and the thought process that goes behind that, then you leave people to come up with their own opinions and their ideas behind it." 

Officers admitted there were missteps in the handling of Silent Sam demonstrations, and Perry said transparency about those failures could have fostered more trust on campus.

Officers said they have a different perspective during protests due to the nature of their job, which is to create and maintain a safe environment for students. 

"I remember one incident in particular. I had a bunch of people in front of me yelling, screaming at me anti-police stuff, and the whole time they're yelling at me, I'm actually looking at this person behind them, who was just doing something that looked a little shady," Officer J. McKire said. "... They're yelling at me, but the whole time I'm looking behind them, making sure they're safe." 

Oliver said his own experiences cause him to feel empathetic toward students' feelings, but the nature of his career requires him to uphold the law equitably for everyone. 

"I've been an officer for two years now," Oliver said. "I've been Black for 33."

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