How far is too far?

The Yates building arrests raise several issues that Don and I view differently. Should Joe Riddle, who owns the Yates building and pays property taxes on it every year, be forced to find a tenant for it? Should police have given the trespassers more notice before coming in to arrest them? Should reporters break the law in the name of covering a story? And, having broken the law, should they be given special treatment because they have press ID?

We watched some council members at Monday night’s meeting tentatively and respectfully question Police Chief Chris Blue about why he used a tactical team armed with assault rifles to vacate the squatters who had broken into a building on West Franklin Street owned by Riddle, who lives in Fayetteville.

Donna Bell, who showed her pragmatism a couple of times Monday night, defended Chapel Hill’s finest by noting that, although residents want the police to protect them, their rights and their property, some people were “ambivalent about the force police have to use to keep us safe.” Bell, who admitted that she had protested in her day, pointed out that police needed to be prepared for a range of eventualities to prevent an officer or a civilian from being hurt or killed.

(I recall a retired FBI agent tell of hunting a fugitive in a rural area early in his career. As the rookie, the FBI agent was sent up into the barn lofts first to see whether the armed fugitive was hiding there. Every time he started up the ladder, he knew he might be climbing to his death.)

Don believes police should have arrested perpetrators only as they left the building, but that would have incentivized people in the building to stay. And as the trespassers got more frustrated, alone with their rocks and flammable materials and printouts of how to flip police cars, the situation could easily escalate. Police acted prudently by letting anyone who had a change of heart about breaking-and-entering to leave without penalty. Once the numbers inside dwindled to a manageable group, police went in and made the arrests.

Chapel Hill News employees Mark Schultz (photo credits in the N&O indicate he was inside the building taking photos of the other trespassers) and Katelyn Ferral (who admitted she had been in the building illegally) also trespassed. Schultz evidently left before police entered the building. Ferral was still on the scene and said she was wearing press ID. Freelance writer Josh Davis would not have had any press ID, and the newspaper was negligent if it had assigned him that story, instead of sending an employee. Both reportedly were detained but not arrested, which I believe was the correct response. Had they been inside the building when police entered, they should have been arrested and charged along with the rest of the trespassers.

Don says Ferral and Schultz were not breaking the law unless police had told them to leave and they refused. He also objects to police and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt labeling the trespassers as “anarchists” to turn the public sentiment against them. And he thinks I am a “tool of the Man.”

This has led to interesting discussions in our household. What do you think?
– Nancy Oates

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  1. To be absolutely clear, these protestors clearly trespassed on private property and violated the law. Some of them acted like true jackasses, calling the police foul names and generally spewing venom towards the police department. There’s no doubt it was proper for the police to intervene and clear the private property especially before a more permanent foothold was gained.

    My concern lies squarely in how that goal – removing the trespassers – was achieved.

    First, Nancy, it is not clear if the media “broke the law” by taking pictures and interviewing protestors on the Riddle property.

    Of course, I’m no lawyer but in researching open meetings/open records statutes I recall reading that there are circumstances – like documenting a crime – where the press is granted fairly broad leeway in covering a story. If the press was asked by Riddle, the property owner, to leave, that would presumably be another matter.

    So far no one has come forward to counter Katelyn’s claim she was wearing her credentials. I don’t know her well but based on my direct observation of her professionalism since she started writing for the N&O, I believe her account.

    The press serves as our community’s eyewitnesses. We rely on their generally unfettered access to record and disseminate information which informs our small-d democracy.
    I disagree with Donna’s assertion that since the press wasn’t physically harmed, no harm was done. Restraining the media from covering the story on our behalf goes against this town’s expressed values.

    Detaining the press was a mistake which the CHPD needs to review and reflect on.

    As you know, I am a big fan of Chief Chris Blue. He exemplifies the style of policing – “the Chapel Hill way” – our community both desires and has worked hard to achieve. That is one reason I’m so surprised and disappointed by the CHPD’s response to these trespassers.

    A fundamental element of our forces effective community policing methodology is engagement. While it made good sense to back off from a late night yelling crowd to avoid an escalation, it did not make good sense to disengage completely – which is what Chris and the CHPD did.

    In the ensuing information vacuum, it appears imaginations ran wild and speculation about “man traps”, “booby traps”, “fire bombs”, Oakland style vacant building occupations, barricades, riots and even car tipping created what the Mayor characterized as “overblown fears”.

    The one flier I read from the protestors spoke of non-violence and re-purposing Riddle’s property, not destroying it or surrounding properties. I’ve since read some of their FaceBook/Twitter rants which use childish and vituperative remarks but, again, don’t threaten any violent actions. The constant drumbeat of calling all the protestors “anarchists” is troubling. It is as if “anarchist” is being equated with “terrorist” and, given this country’s bent, any action is justified in subduing them.

    Chief Blue clearly said at the press conference that they were unsure about what was going on behind those banners and acknowledged that subsequent investigation of the materials they found led him to believe they were not meant to be weapons.

    Here I strongly disagree with Donna’s assertion that further engagement was useless.

    In not exercising engagement, something I’ve seen Chris, former Chief Brian Curran and many of our officers do on a daily basis, speculation held the upper hand which resulted in the CHPD adopting an aggressive stance at the furthest end of the spectrum.

    In fact, WCHL’s Aaron Keck asked Chris if there was an even more extreme option than the semi-automatic, wielding, body armored, militarized SWAT response we have seen documented by the press. From Chris’ response, it appears not.

    Though I’ve been told eye-opening accounts of events during and prior to the 1960’s civil rights movement, in the 30 years I’ve been around Chapel Hill I don’t recall any police action of this caliber for this kind of situation. When asked by the press at the news conference if the SWAT team or the kind of weaponry used had been deployed in any other similar circumstance in Chapel Hill, Chris said no.

    Unfortunately Mayor Kleinschmidt and Chief Blue did not address the reasoning behind the escalation to the most forceful stance available. The media asked a series of questions giving the department and the Town a clear opportunity to explain why less lethal options – including simply asking the protestors to exit the building – were excluded. Joe Schwartz, with the Indy, asked some of the most specific and enlightening of the bunch, yet those questions remained unanswered.

    In terms of providing clarity, the press conference left very much to desire.

    I thought the presser would be the low point of the day but that evening’s Council “review” (to be charitable) was even more disappointing.

    Kudos to Sally Greene and Laurin Easthom for asking a few questions which, like the press’ earlier ones, essentially remained unanswered. How any Councillor could give unqualified praise of the CHPD’s actions with so many questions lingering is a bit of a mystery at best.

    I expect the Community Police Advisory Board to ask the same questions and to work with Chris and his department to get some answers.

    I’m sure I’m going to get comments to the effect of “What would you have done differently?” or “Don’t you trust the police?” so here’s my $0.02.

    I trust Chris and his department will eventually work through what happened and determine if our community’s style of policing (“the Chapel Hill way”) was followed appropriately. I trust that Chris will work with the citizen oversight board to produce a report explaining the outcome of the department’s reasoning and highlighting any deficiencies. I trust that Chris will give a forthright and honest appraisal to Council.

    What would I, a simple citizen with zip law enforcement knowledge, do differently?

    By not engaging and developing a firmer idea of what was really going on inside the Chrysler building, I think the department failed to apply a core principle of that style of policing that has served our unusual community well these last couple decades.

    That lack of information resulted in a systems failure that we call GIGO in the software engineering world – garbage in/garbage out.

    Sans proper intel, speculation that these ridiculous “anarchists” would start riots, tip vehicles, launch firebombs, fortify and barricade themselves in loomed large – large enough, in fact, to send heavily armed and armored officers to the scene who subsequently subdued unarmed folks – including the press – at gunpoint on a public sidewalk.

    The Mayor and Chief both admitted that the response was calibrated by the most extreme of speculations rather than the more measured, thoughtful approach our community identifies with “the Chapel Hill way”.

    Disengagement was a clear mistake.

    As far as tactics, the CHPD was wise to wait for the building to clear. With fliers advertising the intent to make a permanent foothold within 48 hours, it was also smart to move as soon as possible before dealing with an entrenched situation. Moving on the building when only eight folks were inside also made good sense.

    Here, though, is where I differ with the tactics the CHPD adopted.

    Chris said he sent the heavily armed tactical team in to quickly quell the group before they could summon reinforcements. He also said this was the reason the CHPD didn’t verbally demand that the trespassers leave the building to be detained.

    This doesn’t make sense as eyewitness reports and Chris’ own explanation both agree that the site was cordoned off and secured on all sides. Where were these reinforcements? Who were these reinforcements? Where were they going to get access to the building?

    What parameters went into the risk analysis of the adopted approach? As best as our SWAT team is trained, accidental shootings do happen during raids.

    Chris acknowledged that the CHPD had non-lethal options for dealing with the handful of protestors inside. While non-lethal approaches can be as fatal as bullets, the likelihood that a mistake in a heated moment would end in death or serious injury would be greatly diminished using CHPD’s more traditional and provably effective methods.

    Further, while the police need to take precautions to insure their own safety, they also must consider the safety of by-standers and even alleged criminals in discharging their duties.

    Chris said they had no information leading the CHPD to suspect armed resistance. By their own admittedly flawed estimation, the CHPD feared firebombs, mob violence and a prolonged stand-off by barricaded protestors at worst.

    The level of force the CHPD deployed is unprecedented, at least in the last few decades, in our community. Until our community gets a better explanation on the thinking behind the force escalation, managing this situation using the non-lethal techniques that Chris and his officers how so often demonstrated as effective was certainly the better option.

    Detaining the press after they clearly identified themselves bears further scrutiny. Where was the on-site commander and why wasn’t he/she notified of these detentions after the building was fully secured?

    Subduing unarmed folks on a public sidewalk at gunpoint also doesn’t make sense for similar reasons.

    Again, to date the CHPD and Town have never claimed that these individuals posed any significant danger to either the police or to nearby persons or properties. I’ve seen the CHPD manage some rather dicey situations involving many drunk and disruptive people. I’ve never seen them force folks milling about on a public sidewalk to the ground at gunpoint. Again, it seems like a verbal instruction should have been the starting point.

    Finally, from what I’ve already read online, it appears someone like me is not supposed to second guess our police force. I don’t know enough. I’m not qualified. I’m not tough enough.

    I am a citizen of this town. The CHPD, through its actions, reflects on me and my community. Our community, through citizen participation, elected officials and numerous CHPD administrations, has worked hard to create a style of policing that is pragmatic, practical and works for Chapel Hill.

    The handling of the eviction doesn’t reflect well on those efforts – has opened a divide in our community – a divide that can’t simply be papered over.

    Hard questions have been asked. Straight answers need to be forthcoming.

  2. John Kramer

     /  November 16, 2011

    Briefly, all I want to say is it is easy to second guess the police.

    The same people whining about how “mean and scary” they were will expect them to use deadly force in their defense if that is necessary. So, zip it folks.

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  November 16, 2011

    I’m with Don on this. From everything I’ve read, the police made a decision based more on what had been done in other communities than on the evidence in front of them. If you go back and read the reports from June when a group of self-proclaimed anarchist occupied Greenbridge, this past weekends’ event was much less threatening to the property and the people involved were not being as threatening to the police.

    This makes two attempts by this group to take over unused property and turn it into public space. Given that town council frequently pressures developers into including public space and affordable housing, I think it’s clear that there is an alignment of goals between council and the anarchists. Their methods different on the surface, but underneath, both are pressuring those who have wealth to share with those who don’t. Council uses the force and power of the law to enact their methods.

    Unlike others, I don’t think taking over an abandoned building is such a criminal offense. It’s a practice that has been followed forever. The term squatters rights is familiar to everyone. It’s only in the modern passion for individual property rights that this has become viewed as such a criminal offense. Using the full force of the police department to protect the rights of an individual who has showed disdain for this community by abandoning a prominent building in our downtown is not my idea of an appropriate use of community resources.

  4. DOM

     /  November 16, 2011

    Anyone who accuses someone of being “a tool of the Man” is simply someone else’s tool.

  5. Nancy Oates

     /  November 16, 2011

    Terri — It’s not an abandoned building, it’s only vacant. I’d like to see Joe Riddle rent out those properties, too, but if he chooses not to, well, here in America, he can do that.

  6. runner

     /  November 16, 2011

    The police have every right to use whatever force they feel is required to protect their safety when doing their job. You may not like the images, but your “feelings” aren’t important here.

    The members of the Yates building mob were committing a crime and deserve little to no sympathy. Even the press deserves no sympathy here. The picture clearly shows Mr. Shultz on private property at the time of the police action. The press could have easily done their job from the street.

    While Citizen Will is trying to be rational and looking at this in an adult manner, he is only giving more licence to these petty childish criminals. Some of these folks are the same one’s who entered Greenbridge and vandalized the place, and others have committed other property crimes in this state.

    And yes, the OWS movement in Chapel Hill is part of this by being complicit and sympothetic to their cause. In fact, several of the Yates protesters are now back ocuppying Freedom and Justice Plaza, just where they were prior to Saturday night.

    There’s not splitting hairs here. These people are criminals and deserve puinishment.

  7. Thank you runner. I don’t approve of the occupation of the Riddle building and tried my best to be clear on that.

    There have been calls from local officials to “force” Riddle to do something with that property which I opposed. As much as I’d like to see something done in that space (I asked the BOCC to consider it for the new southern library), as long as Riddle maintained the property so that it didn’t threaten the safety and property rights of others, paid his taxes, etc. he had every right to let it sit there unused. The property wasn’t abandoned, it was underutilized (though the CHDPC was busy working on an art installation). That condition didn’t give the occupiers free rein to remake the property. They took a risk that Riddle wouldn’t intervene and will have to answer for their miscalculation in court.

    The police don’t have unlimited leeway in responding to community problems. You are not alone in suggesting that adopting the most forceful stance available was prudent but that kind of logic leads to justifying inappropriate militarized responses. While I only have casual knowledge of the CHPD’s internal policies, I was shocked to see the level of force deployed without warning because the CHPD actually has a process which encourages verbal challenges, engagement and downplaying force when possible. That process seems to have been rewritten in this case – and I want to know why.

  8. Former US Senate candidate Jim Neal has prepared a petition for Council asking for an independent evaluation of the raid. He raises the same questions the local press, I and other citizens and folks throughout the nation have.

  9. Terri Buckner

     /  November 16, 2011

    If the police can do anything they want, use as much force as they want in the name of their own safety, we are always in jeopardy of becoming a police state. It means we don’t live in a police state through the good graces of the police. That sounds extremely dangerous to me. It also sounds counter to the foundational principles upon which this country was born. But it is a trend that gathered force on 9/11, and I know there are many national politicians who have built careers upon pushing it forward.

    One thing this situation should have made clear–the liberal image of Chapel Hill needs to be reconsidered. And those who call the CH Town Council liberal, should really take a second look. I’m glad Lauren and Sally were at this week’s meeting to offer some semblance of reasonable concern.

  10. Insightful and useful analysis, Will. Thank you for the effort you put into it and into our town.

  11. Interesting reminder of previous CHPD SWAT misstep, the broad drug sweep in Northside 1990 – a reason CHPD began to change course. While the author is correct, using a tactical team has happened before, the use of one for this kind of situation is unprecedented in the last coupe decades.

  12. I am thankful I did not vote for this Mayor, but given the reaction of the Mayor and Council to this KGB-like police action and then today seeing one of those those grotesque red busses in front of East 54, I am becoming reconciled to the fact that as our town’s beauty has faded, so too is our previously deserved reputation as a politically enlightened community. Very sad. We are no longer a University town. Welcome to the ‘burbs everybody.

  13. WJW

     /  November 16, 2011

    To Mr. Field:

    “KGB-like police action”. Really, are you that historically ignorant to not be able to make a distinction between a possibly over aggressive police display of our local police and the secret police of Russia that was instrumental in killing millions of dissidents??

    Why not go the whole nine yards and call them nazi’s? That would really advance your point.

  14. John Kramer

     /  November 16, 2011

    Well said, WJW. What a bunch of whiners.

  15. John Kramer

     /  November 16, 2011

    “I think it’s clear that there is an alignment of goals between council and the anarchists. Their methods different on the surface, but underneath, both are pressuring those who have wealth to share with those who don’t. ”

    You know, I think Ms. Buckner’s front yard looks abandoned. And she has more than me and should share. Therefore, I am going to camp out there indefinitely. This whole idea of private property is just too restrictive and selfish.

    So, Ms. Buckner, are you saying it would be fine with you if the occupiers moved into your front yard?

    It would be extremely not okay myself, but based on your comments, I can only believe you would be fine with it.

    How interesting.

  16. DOM

     /  November 16, 2011

    Nancy –

    I am so tempted sometimes to write and ask you to use a modicum of editorial discretion when I see inane, nonsensical comments like Mr. Kramer’s. But then I realize, this is what makes your blog so refreshing; it’s open to anyone regardless of their belief system or IQ.

    There are some local blogs (like who claim to be much more open-minded and progressive, but who filter out comments from people who disagree with their one-note agenda.

    Keep up the good (though sometimes annoying) work.

  17. Nancy Oates

     /  November 16, 2011

    But, DOM, John’s comment may be at the core of the different way Don and I approach the incident. I own rental property, and if it takes awhile for me to get a tenant next year and the house stays vacant, must I cede my property to people who believe they have a better purpose for it? I think not, and if those people come in and take over my property while I’m out of town, I would expect the police to act on my behalf to boot them out. I agree that the method used to clear the Yates building was not what we’re used to in Chapel Hill, but Chief Blue has had a long career at the CHPD, and I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for his decision until I learn otherwise.

  18. John Kramer

     /  November 16, 2011

    Thanks, Nancy, I know some cannot stand those of us with the right belief system and high IQ, thank you for being so tolerant of those less fortunate than you and I.

  19. Joe Capowski

     /  November 16, 2011

    Nancy, you do own rental property right up the street from me, and you do an excellent job maintaining it and finding good tenants for it. But comparing your house on Coolidge to Yates/Univ Chrysler is totally apples-to-oranges. Yates is a major downtown storefront and large lot on West Franklin, an area that all town leaders, elected officials and chamber of commerce people alike, are working to promote, with more residents and more commercial activity.

    Two better comparisons to Yates are the Colonial Inn in Hillsborough and the previous Wicked Burrito, both of which are/were left vacant for
    a significant amount of time and, owner’s rights notwithstanding, the local governments did get involved in trying to get the owners to re-make successful businesses on their locations. Because of the size, location, and importance of the (now) Riddle property,
    I think that the town should put some pressure on Mr. Riddle. Everyone nearby is negatively impacted by his (albeit legal) decision of let his property sit idle.

    I have no idea what Mr. Riddle’s thinking has been in letting that property sit idle for so long. Whatever, he is doing a great disservice to our town.

  20. Terri Buckner

     /  November 16, 2011

    So Nancy, you want to boil all of this down to personal property rights? Your right to hold land under your exclusive control is more important to you than the bigger picture of quality of life for everyone even when your rights are maintained through an abuse of power? Slave owners thought that way; the European aristocracy thought that way; the colonial powers thought that way. How many times does history have to repeat itself before we learn? When power becomes heavily weighted toward a small minority, there is going to be revolution. I’d prefer dialogue to war.

    If you’re looking for something to read, I recommend The Handmaid’s Tale or The Scarlet Pimpernel. Cautionary tales, both.

  21. Scott Maitland

     /  November 18, 2011

    I would be happy to give anyone that asks a tour of all the posters on Franklin Street that discuss eradicating the police by violent means.

    I would also note that similar postings have been made for the past year.

    This was not simply having fears about what happened in other communities. There are people making violent threats right here in our town. People just are not paying attention or dismissing them as some fringe element that brings color to our community.

    I would also like to discuss the idea that power is concentrated in a small minority. One fact over looked when the inevitable 1% discussion takes place is that by the IRS records, the 1% changes by a third ever year. So unlike Terri’s discussion that seems to presuppose lack of social mobility, our 1% changes every year. I know, I have personally been at the top, at the bottom and in the middle, many times over the last 25 years.

    With respect to Joe Riddle’s property, I know personally that Joe has been attempting to find a tenant for that property the entire time he has owned it. He has had opportunities to rent it out to organizations but declined to do so because he knew that our community would not like the potential tenants. Ironically, Joe had a tenant very close to signing a lease which now may not happen precisely because of this event. I hate to break the news to everyone, but Franklin Street doesn’t make a very attractive leasing site for modern companies due in a large part of the actions of our community over the last twenty years.

    Stupid is what stupid does. I hope the demonstrators, by the way who self-identified themselves as Anarchists Don – are happy that there actions may have prevented what we all wanted to begin with – the Yates building being a strong contribution to our community.

  22. Terri Buckner

     /  November 18, 2011

    I’m well aware of the fact that many in our community believe the wealth disparity is a non-issue and that if people would just get out and work, they wouldn’t be poor. But anyone who has looked at demographic data can’t deny the fact that children who are born and raised in poverty have very little chance of becoming part of the 1%. They are more subject to illness/disease; they are more likely to smoke; they are more likely to have encounters with the police; and so forth.

    Since this discussion started, I’ve learned that there is very little chance of the Yates Bldg being used for any purpose without extensive renovations to meet building and safety codes.