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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Poor crisis communication hurts us all — especially those at risk

UNC Police 08282023
Federal Bureau of Investigation agents stand next to a UNC Police car on Monday, August 28.

At a press conference about five hours after the shooting on the University’s campus, UNC Police Chief Brian James confirmed his forces had initially detained the wrong person.

“That was based on, just a description we were given of the suspect and that person being in close proximity of the incident,” James said.

Wrongly detained because he “fit the description” – we’ve heard that before. 

In the press conference, James said they “very quickly” determined he wasn’t the suspect, but it didn’t feel that quick to us, especially when his face was circling on the news and around social media. It was terrifying for us, and we can only imagine what it felt like to him.

We watched blurry footage of his arrest from our locked-down classrooms and then we heard rumors of his handcuffs being taken off, but we don’t know his name, what he was doing or if he’s okay now. 

All we really know is that he fit the description – an Asian male in a gray shirt – and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As a community, we need to remember him, as well as what his detainment foreshadowed. His wrongful detainment began the cycle of racism and misinformation that has plagued conversations about our campus surrounding this tragedy. 

James did not bring up the fact that law enforcement handcuffed the wrong person on his own – a question from a reporter prompted him to admit this. And we haven’t heard anything else about the wrongful detainee since. Neither the police nor the University have apologized publicly, and they should. 

About 90 minutes into the lockdown, UNC Police released a picture of a different man on X. They didn’t give a name, just that he was a person of interest in the “armed and dangerous person situation.”

Students, their loved ones and interested bystanders alike acted fast; the internet found that the man in the photo was a graduate student here at UNC. They also found his LinkedIn and X account, and then they started commenting. 

The photo remains on the police department’s X account and a top response – though notably not the most liked or reposted – reads: “He studied at Wuhan University. Was there a connection?”

Scroll through the rest of the responses, or look up “Chapel Hill” on X, and there’s more of the same. Comments range from political speculation (“This feels like aborted espionage”) to blatant racism. 

Popular posts on X compared the event to the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, in which the perpetrator was also Asian. Before some of us had been let out of our locked lecture halls, we had heard strings of conspiracy theories about the suspect's connection to COVID-19. 

Far too often, a lack of reliable information from those in power leaves people to string together their own understanding of tragedies. That vacuum gets filled with divisive rhetoric, political arguments and outright lies.

The next morning, a booking report confirmed that the man in the photo was the man detained and later charged. More news is trickling in, but even as official sources begin to clear up details, wild speculation continues to gain traction across the internet. 

UNC Police acting quickly based on a loose description is what left us — and an innocent man — confused and scared. Their lack of communication left us forty minutes into the lockdown, streaming Orange County Fire and EMS radio from our school computers wondering about everything from potential hostages to a second or third gunman.

Any clarity — any at all — would've been helpful. Instead, we sat in huddled silence, questioning whether any information we saw on X or on news interviews of students could be believed. 

From that moment on, we have been trying to piece together what actually happened. Our confusion, and the way we were forced to fill in the gaps ourselves, made an already horrific situation all the more terrifying.

As the hours pass, more information is and will likely continue to be available. Understanding how difficult crisis communications at such a large institution can be, we know it will take time to iron out the details.

But in this time, we have the opportunity to be more careful and conscious than the police were able to be in the moment they detained an innocent man. We don't have to jump to conclusions, we don't have to work just based on a description. Even though we're all still scared, we know from our experience that using this fear to perpetuate misinformed and hateful narratives causes more harm than good.

It's time UNC recognizes that gaps in their communications will be filled by misinformation – whether it's malicious, divisive and racist rhetorics, or tens of thousands of students attempting to make sense of a crisis situation.

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@kidplaysmusic | @_aishabee_

Aisha Baiocchi

Aisha Baiocchi is the 2023-24 enterprise managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer on the university desk. Aisha is a junior majoring in journalism at UNC and international comparative studies at Duke University, as well as a minor in history.