UNC Police chief ignored student gun concerns before incident

UNC Police chief ignored student gun concerns before incident

An officer leads a Thomas Bruefach to a van, while other officers guard them at a protest over Silent Sam on August 25, 2018.

By Ari Sen

Shortly after noon on Tuesday, a group of anti-racist activists released a letter detailing a Feb. 6 meeting of the Joint Governance Council, a body consisting of representatives from undergraduate and graduate student government, with UNC-Chapel Hill Police Chief Jeff McCracken. In the meeting, McCracken said law enforcement officers “didn’t check anybody” for weapons before large protests over Silent Sam in the Fall semester, including neo-Confederates with avowed pro-Second Amendment positions.

The previously unreported statements, made in response to a question by Graduate and Professional Student Federation Vice President Michelle Hoffner O’Conner, show McCracken was aware of student concerns but failed to publicly act on them before an armed group came to campus.

In response to O’Conner’s question, McCracken initially said “They all have guns,” referring to the pro-Silent Sam demonstrators.

McCracken later said that’s what he believed O’Conner was implying with the question and would search people if they knew they had a weapon.

But Calvin Deutschbein, a GPSF senator and anti-racist activist, said he saw pro-Silent Sam demonstrators carrying guns at a protest in August of 2018.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve seen guns on far right on campus that I’m aware, but it is the first time someone managed to get pictures,” he said.

Deutschbein, who was present at the meeting, said he interpreted McCracken’s comments as confirming that neo-Confederate demonstrators brought guns to campus at prior protests and events. He also added the comments were indicative of the political nature of on-campus policing.

“Michelle did pretty well, but she didn’t push to the next obvious step of ‘Why do you choose to allow people you know to have guns on campus?’ which is the question he didn’t want to answer and the question he successfully avoided,” Deutschbein said in a Twitter direct message.

Deutschbein also said he reached out to McCracken after the meeting with follow-up questions but received no response.

Lindsay Ayling, a Ph.D. student and anti-racist activist who was also present at the meeting, said she didn’t believe McCracken was implying knowledge of neo-Confederate demonstrators carrying weapons, but she viewed the comments as dismissive of a genuine concern.

“I think he was being sarcastic and kind of trying to pretend that the problem of armed racists wasn’t a real problem,” Ayling said.  “He was dismissive and patronizing and he was patronizing throughout that entire interview.”

As of the publication of this story, McCracken and O’Conner did not respond to requests for comment and clarification about McCracken’s comments, nor about Saturday’s gun incident. UNC Spokesperson Kate Luck said McCracken’s comments “speak for themselves.”

The letter comes a little more than a week after an event on March 16, when a group of armed neo-Confederate demonstrators—including a twice-convicted sex offender— marched down Cameron Avenue onto the UNC-Chapel Hill campus carrying weapons. In a statement six days after the incident, UNC-Chapel Hill Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz pledged he would convene a campus safety commission composed of students, faculty and staff, meet with campus groups and review the incident.

“By now, many of you have heard accounts of a disturbing incident that took place on campus Saturday when Confederate supporters walked through campus with a handgun,” he said in the statement.  “Fortunately, UNC Police prevented the situation from escalating and asked that individual to leave campus. To be clear, weapons, especially guns and the threat they convey even when holstered, have no place here and will not be tolerated.”

Despite it being a felony to possess a firearm on a college campus in North Carolina, police made no arrests in the case. No Alert Carolina message was issued to students, though most were on Spring Break at the time. The campus was not placed on lockdown, as it was in 2015 in response to reports of a man on campus carrying a rifle.

Officers only asked the group to return to Chapel Hill town boundaries, where carrying a gun is legal. In a statement to Town Manager Maurice Jones, first reported by Chapelboro, Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said a supervisor informed UNC Police about the armed group.

“A member of the group asked where the boundaries of campus were and she told them,” Blue said. “She also noted that some members of the group were carrying firearms and she informed them of the prohibition of weapons on campus. A CHPD supervisor informed UNC Police of the group’s presence and their plans to visit campus.”

The Heirs to the Confederacy scheduled a Facebook event for a demonstration on March 16, shortly after a Feb. 23 rally, in which a group of neo-Confederate demonstrators clashed with a group of anti-racist demonstrators.

Deutschbein said Defend UNC planned a counter-demonstration for the event, but the event turned into a bake sale and parachute party after the neo-Confederate’s canceled.

Despite the cancelation, a group of pro-Silent Sam demonstrators decided to come anyway.

Ayling said she saw Lance Spivey, the chairman of the board of directors for the Heirs to the Confederacy, among the demonstrators. Photographic evidence posted on Twitter by Durham-based photographer Daniel Hosterman appears to show Spivey standing in front of UNC’s Memorial Hall, with a camouflage semi-automatic handgun holstered at his waist, as well as several other demonstrators carrying knives, handcuffs and an extendable baton.

“They like to play games with us sometimes, they think that they’re being clever,” Ayling said of the armed neo-Confederate demonstrators showing up after canceling their event. “We don’t really see it as a game— people’s lives are at stake when violent white supremacists are coming to campus.”

In an initial statement released on Monday, two days after the incident, UNC claimed no one was arrested because police were unsure whether Cameron Avenue was part of campus. But Cameron Avenue runs through the heart of campus, past Memorial Hall, South Building and the Old Well.  

“On Saturday, March 16, members of a ‘Confederate Heritage’ group walked onto the UNC-Chapel Hill campus from the Town of Chapel Hill via Raleigh Street and Cameron Avenue,” the statement reads. “At least one individual was in possession of a handgun. They were approached by UNC Police officers on the sidewalk in front of Memorial Hall and were asked to leave campus, which they did.”

The statement continued: “Due to the immediate uncertainty on Saturday about the application of these laws to the Cameron Avenue right of way, which is maintained by the Town of Chapel Hill, no arrest was made in this case.”

But a live video purportedly posted on the Heirs to the Confederacy Facebook page and circulated widely on Twitter, shows a UNC-Chapel Hill Police officer clearly identifying the area as being on campus.

“This is campus. Anything South of that rock wall on Franklin Street is campus for one square mile,” the officer in the video told a group of neo-Confederate demonstrators. A Daily Tar Heel story identifies the officer as Lt. Timothy Tickle.

“If you’re passing through, we won’t say too much about the weapons, but now that I’ve talked to you, this is going to be your guys’ only warning, OK?”

In an interview conducted over Facebook Messenger, Spivey confirmed he carried a Hi-Point 9mm semi-automatic pistol holstered to his right hip onto campus on Saturday. The Hi-Point, known for being an inexpensive gun for self-protection, typically holds nine rounds —eight in a standard magazine and one in the chamber.

“We were told by a CHPD Officer that as long as we stayed on the sidewalks lining the streets, we could carry, so that’s what we did, and on Cameron Street, we were approached by UNC Police who informed us that we were actually on the campus and would have to leave, and we complied,” Spivey said. “I understand a lot of people are mad about that, but it was an honest mistake.”

Spivey said nine adults and two children, came to campus to “show support for the replacement of Silent Sam in his rightful place.”

Spivey also confirmed others carried concealed handguns onto campus, but refused to say who, how many others or what kinds of guns they were carrying.

Spivey said he needed the handgun because he believed he would be targeted by “Antifa” members on campus.

“It has become normal procedure for me (to carry a handgun) since ANTIFA (sic) identified me,” Spivey said. “They have made it a point to let me know that they know who I am and much about me, so I have indeed begun carrying my sidearm with me as normal procedure.”

In a blog post railing against immigrants in the county without documentation, Muslims and “Antifa” on March 12, Spivey wrote he was willing to kill for his beliefs.

“I am willing to die for what I believe; I am more so ready to kill for it,” Spivey wrote in the post. Spivey added he “wasn’t condoning violence,” except in cases of self-defense but “merely stating fact.”

“To ANTIFA (sic) and those like them, I say this: We will not surrender, we will not quit; not ever. We do not fear you; you will have to kill us to stop us, and we will not go alone,” he wrote later.

Spivey also confirmed one of the men with him was Richard “Popeye” Hayslett, who came with his wife and two children. Hayslett is a registered sex offender in Virginia and was convicted of two charges of aggravated sexual battery—once in 1990 and once in 2003—state records show.

Public records fail to list an age of the victim, but a 2002 news report from the Daily Press said police charged Hayslett with rape, forcible sodomy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor in connection with a sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl sometime between November 2000 and August 2002. The story says he forced the girl to have sex and gave her marijuana, alcohol and cigarettes.

In a video of the Saturday incident provided by Ayling, pro-Silent Sam demonstrators can also be heard questioning people about their sexual orientation and using homophobic slurs.

“I can be homophobic, I can be racist, I can be any damn thing I want to be because this is America,” one female neo-Confederate demonstrator can be heard saying in the video in an exchange with Ayling.  

Guskiewicz said in his statement he was committed to keeping students safe.

“We must nurture an environment where all people in our community can live, learn and work without fear. The increasingly heated rhetoric aimed at our community – both online and here on our campus – can make that difficult,” he said. “I am confident that we will come together to foster an inclusive culture in which all members of our community feel safe, like they belong and can flourish.”

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