Using an undercover police officers to keep tabs on the August protests at Silent Sam was “necessary because of extraordinary circumstances that included the very real potential for a violent outbreak at any time,” UNC-Chapel Hill’s two top public safety officials say.
Though rare, the assignment of an undercover is a “standard policing practice” used on other university campuses when “threats associated with public spaces are credible, crowds have formed, tensions are high or unknown individuals with questionable intent are on campus,” said campus Police Chief Jeff McCracken and Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety and Risk Management Derek Kemp.
Officials released the statement on Twitter early Thursday evening, a week after campus activists who want Silent Sam taken down used social media to identify and out the campus police officer who’d monitored them.
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The officer, Hector Borges, posed as an auto mechanic named “Victor” and chatted up protest leaders from Aug. 22 into early September.
Some activists suspected from the outset that “Victor” was actually a policeman. But on Nov. 2 they were able to confirm and capitalize on that when they spotted him in uniform, working security on McCorkle Place after a fire and explosion at the Davie Poplar.
Protest organizers Maya Little and Lindsay Ayling, both Department of History Ph.D. students, told The Herald-Sun this week they objected to the undercover work because Borges created a fake backstory to ingratiate himself with the protesters and infiltrate their group.
They also said the tactic by its nature “has a chilling effect on free speech,” and noted that other officers in uniform and plainclothes had kept watch without in their view crossing a line.
Kemp and McCracken said they issued Thursday’s statement at the behest of Chancellor Carol Folt, who’d “asked us to clarify the role of campus police officers” at Silent Sam “in light of misinformation that has been in circulation.”
Despite the use of the word misinformation, they didn’t dispute any element of the students allegations about Borges’ work at the statue.
They did say officials “have been and remain concerned about our students getting caught in the middle of violent conflict similar to that experienced” in August in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a march by white supremacists triggered violence and one death.
But in citing the risk of violence, they opted to remain ambiguous about whether they most feared a threat from students or off-campus interests, a threat to the statue or a threat from a counterprotest.
McCracken is on record as having warned Folt in August that it was “only a matter of time” before someone tried to topple Silent Sam. Folt responded by joining UNC system President Margaret Spelling in asking Gov. Roy Cooper for help securing both the campus and a state review of whether the monument should remain.
The request for security aid yielded a detail of N.C. Highway Patrol troopers who were in reserve on campus the night of Aug. 22, when the first and largest of the protests against the statue unfolded.
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But the move to involve Cooper and raise questions about Silent Sam’s future later drew criticism from Board of Governors members who said it “exuded a weakness and hand-wringing that does not accurately reflect the board’s opinion about how the potential of campus unrest should be treated.”
The Kemp/McCracken statement also maintained a studied ambiguity about the question of what sort of information Borges was trying to gather.
“Our officers do not monitor the content of any protest beyond the public safety implications[,] nor do they create reports about students or their law-abiding activities,” they said. “Police officers are there to protect participants’ safety and listen to their concerns. It was never our intention to create a situation that would suggest otherwise.”
Unsurprisingly, Little and other protest leaders weren’t buying the university’s explanation.
“It is dishonest to suggest that UNC police sent an undercover officer to spy on us simply for our protection,” they said in a statement Little emailed to The Herald-Sun. “When police offer protection, they announce themselves. They do not adopt aliases and invent false identities. Law enforcement goes under cover when it seeks to build a case against suspects.”
Free speech, they added, cannot exist “when police departments employ the same tactics to monitor an anti-racist vigil as they would to bust an international crime syndicate.”
UNC’s tactics have drawn both notice and criticism from a national free-speech group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
On Wednesday the group published an article on the dispute from lawyer Adam Goldstein, who said the university’s use of an undercover officer, though “legal,” was “bad for free speech” and can feed “the sense that police and student activists are adversaries.”
“The use of undercover officers to keep tabs on people engaged in First Amendment activities ... creates a serious risk of chilling speech,” Goldstein said. “We at FIRE believe undercover officers should not be used to infiltrate groups engaged in First Amendment activity as a general surveillance technique.”