Campus News

Six steps forward

Ten months into the job, UNC Police Chief David Perry is rebuilding community trust. Here’s how.

Last fall, before the need for social distancing, Chief Perry greeted students near the Pit. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Last fall, before the need for social distancing, Chief Perry greeted students near the Pit. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

David Perry reported for duty as assistant vice chancellor and UNC Police Chief on Sept. 3, 2019, during an especially difficult period in the University’s history. In the preceding months, according to the Campus Safety Commission’s recently released annual report, the University “experienced a series of uncomfortable events, social and community unrest and discord involving neo-Confederate nationalists, UNC students and anti-racist activists around the removal of Silent Sam, a Confederate monument which symbolized the University’s historical connection to racist and oppressive behavior.” The unrest drove a wedge between the University Police and the Carolina community. Chief Perry’s mandate? Reform campus policing and restore community trust.

In less than a year, while managing the unprecedented interruption to campus life due to the COVID-19 pandemic and mass protests against systemic police racism, Chief Perry is making progress, thanks to his unwavering focus on community-oriented policing.

“It is a new day,” says Perry, who could often be seen cruising campus on his Segway and chatting with students before the transition to remote learning. “We are reflecting on some of the mistakes of the past and owning those. We have to. The UNC Police did make mistakes, and they were painful lessons. But we will never go back that way again.”

The Well asked Chief Perry to detail some of the changes he has made since taking office. But first, here are Chief Perry’s opening remarks during a June 17 panel discussion, “Race, Law Enforcement and Black Males: Actions Required to Shift the Paradigm,” held on Zoom and sponsored by the North Carolina Translational and Clinical Science Institute, or NCTraCS.

‘Shaken vigorously’

“Sometimes when in a deep sleep or slumber, one has to be shaken vigorously to be fully awakened. It feels like the world has been shaken vigorously in this moment. I’m speaking as a Black man first and as a police executive second. The past several years have been deeply troubling — troubling in terms of African Americans being treated inappropriately by law enforcement, being stopped, being racially profiled. I’ve been a police executive in the field for more than 25 years, and I’ve been through that experience, so I can speak firsthand to what that feels like. But then as a representative of law enforcement and the badge and to see these inappropriate, horrible acts committed by law enforcement officers under the color of law is deeply troubling. It is deeply troubling because this is a very honorable profession, and I got into it for those reasons — to protect and serve.

It has been my calling to address those issues, to make sure that when things are not right they’re made right. It should be every police chief’s mission to use gentle relentless pressure to address those inappropriate staff within their agencies and use every means possible to root them out.

I have three children, so this is personal to me. It’s always been personal. I do not accept the notion that there are just a few bad apples. I don’t accept the notion that malpractice happens in professions and people lose their lives in other professions. There is no other profession in this country that gives people the right to detain, to arrest and to restrict people’s movements and, when justifiable, use deadly force. That’s only for law enforcement. So, I don’t accept that notion.

I want leaders to be bold. I want them to do the jobs that they’ve been called to do. And if they’re not doing those things, then the citizens of this country need to speak up. They need to know how to ask specific questions about these law enforcement leaders and get them out of these leadership positions if they’re not doing the things that are important to protect all people.”

Ten months, six changes

Making recruitment inclusive

“When it comes to hiring, we’re not doing it the way we used to. In the past, there was a group of four or five internally, within the department, who would read the applications and make the recommendations. I immediately eliminated that method and invited campus partners into our interview as part of a roundtable discussion with these candidates so they could get a bird’s-eye view of that potential employee, ask questions and make sure that the potential hire meets the needs and expectations of our community members.

The old way leads to implicit bias. The old way takes away community input and involvement. I’ve always been the final approver when it comes to hiring an employee, but I’d rather have an inclusive process where everyone feels like they have some ownership of an officer we’re bringing into the organization.”

Connecting with the community

“I believe in being closely connected to the campus community. My first three months were dedicated to attending multiple meetings, attending every free speech event that we had on our campus — just trying to learn the rhythm of campus and learn of this new culture that is being established under Chancellor Guskiewicz. Every day I’m out on my Segway to keep my finger on the pulse of the campus. It’s devastating not having our students here, because they’re the lifeblood of our campus. That’s why we’re here. It’s challenging right now.”

Making space for protests

“Free speech events are what universities are built on. Open dialogue. The ability to disagree. The ability to discuss issues and viewpoints. Protests are ultimately people expressing their First Amendment right of free speech, and there is nothing wrong with that.

The way that things were done over the years was with a strong show of force, almost a militaristic approach — lining officers up and almost inviting yourself to someone’s party. I had to step in and make sure that my expectations were clear, and we didn’t revert to the way we’ve done things in the past.

For instance, the kind of riot gear we’ve been seeing on TV was absolutely out. That’s not the type of image we want to portray. And it wasn’t necessary, in my professional opinion. I’ve been working and coordinating safety for free speech events for a long time. I’ve seen marches of epic proportions. I’ve seen small events. You learn. You apply best practices.

With one recent event held in response to the George Floyd killing, we weren’t invited to assist with the planning, but we knew we had a responsibility to provide a safe environment. It was my mandate that we prepared accordingly but not be overbearing with the number of officers assigned to the event. I think I was the only sworn officer you could see in that area. That was intentional. I drove my golf cart so I could give people rides, because I knew it was going to get hot that day. Four participants were glad to take me up on my offer! We had officers in the area, in case assistance was needed. If there had been threats of violence or evidence on social media that people were coming to oppose the events, we probably would have staged things a little differently.”

Making Black people feel safer

“I am availing myself to have open and frank discussions about the issue of race impacting our criminal justice system and our law enforcement agencies. I am constantly reminding my staff of the pain that people are feeling right now as a result of seeing George Floyd’s death on national television and the protests and what those things mean. I’m just telling it the way it is.

For my whole career, I’ve been a proponent of doing the right thing and weeding out the wrong elements within our profession. I’ve held chiefs and sheriffs accountable in every state that I’ve worked in, called out their responsibility to weed out bad employees, because it’s a disgrace to the badge. It hurts all of us. The actions of those officers in Minneapolis have affected the world. I wasn’t making it up years ago when I said it’s our job to do our part to get rid of people who should not be in this business.

In addition to a multitude of training opportunities to deal with cultural bias, prejudice and implicit bias, I also remind my supervisors of their important role to lead from the sergeant level. Every day constant reinforcement is needed. It really takes hands-on leadership.”

Raising the bar — and morale

“I want my officers to be visible. That’s something that had to change because of the challenges over the last two years. I saw where the officers had been beaten down, so to speak. Their morale had been significantly impacted in a negative way, so instead of them being visible and proactive, they would be parked in places where no one would see, just waiting on service calls to come in. That’s not a community-service model, and that’s definitely not my expectation.

Once they are at work, my officers have to do a good job — a great job. I am their number one cheerleader, number one advocate and number one resource allocator. I want to make sure they have everything they need to do a great job. No excuses.

The third thing I require of them is to go home and relax, connect with family, find an activity — read a book, go mountain biking, whatever it is — so they can come back and do those first two things again. It’s a change of mindset I’ve been working on since September the 3rd of last year.”

Following the Campus Safety Commission’s recommendations

“I provided feedback on all four of the Campus Safety Commission’s recommendations. They are very good recommendations, and I’m supportive of them all, especially when it comes to transparency, communicating with our local partners, sharing information and using our alerts notification system effectively and timely. I’ve been transparent my whole career with campus constituents about statistics, program services and budget, and I look forward to doing the same with the commission. We have nothing to hide. We want to be transparent.”

What’s next

“I am pained by the troubles that we’re seeing right now. But I know it’s for a reason — for a greater good — and that’s to highlight the importance of good law enforcement within our communities.

I look forward to completing my first year. I look forward to hiring officers to fill our current 10 vacancies. I look forward to putting together a strategic plan that I can share with the campus community on the direction that we’re heading. This is going to be considered one of the best campus university police departments in the country. Without a doubt, we will have that moniker very soon.”