Police quietly prepare for a riot

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by Eric Ginsburg

Behind the scenes, the Greensboro Police Department has been preparing for “civil unrest,” assembling a little-known team to respond about a year ago.

There is no mention of a “civil emergency unit” on the city of Greensboro’s website. Marikay Abuzuaiter, the chair of Greensboro City Council’s public safety committee, said she had never heard of it, and committee vice-chair Tony Wilkins doesn’t think he has either.

“If I’ve been briefed on that I don’t recall,” Wilkins said, “but we get so many documents that I’m not going to say I’m not aware of it, but it doesn’t ring a bell.”

The unit’s existence came to light through documents obtained by Triad City Beat in a public records request. Internal police emails repeatedly referred to the civil emergency unit, or CEU, but police spokesperson Susan Danielsen remained tight-lipped about the team in a Dec. 3 email to Triad City Beat.

“We will decline the interview about the CEU,” Danielsen wrote, offering no explanation.

Greensboro police respond to a protest earlier this year.
Greensboro police respond to a protest earlier this year.

After Triad City Beat responded by filing additional public-information requests regarding the unit and scheduled an interview with Capt. John E. Wolfe who oversees the special operations division, Danielsen canceled the interview with Wolfe but provided a statement and agreed to answer additional questions via email.

“The mission of the civil emergency unit is to protect lives and property by maintaining community order during incidents of civil unrest through a contingency that uses specially trained and equipped personnel,” Danielsen wrote. “The unit can respond to civil disorders, natural disasters, search for [an] at-risk missing person or any catastrophic event that cannot be handled by the normal allotment of on-duty officers.

“The need for a unit with this capability was illustrated during GPD’s support to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte,” she continued. “Members of the unit are all volunteers. They train together monthly. Again, the mission of the unit is to protect lives and property.”

In subsequent emails responding to follow-up questions, Danielsen said the civil emergency unit “is flexible and scalable,” adding that about 90 people in the department are trained to handle “civil emergencies” and that “the group may be used in whole or in part depending on the circumstances.”

Danielsen said that assignments to special teams, including the civil emergency unit, are part of personnel records and thus couldn’t be released. She confirmed that for training and administrative purposes, the unit is under the command of Capt. Wolfe, and when deployed would be “under the operational control of the incident commander,” which would be pre-designated.

“If you are asking who heads the CEU as part of its organizational structure during its employment, the CEU does have a team leader,” Danielsen wrote. “If you are asking for the name of that officer, it is protected from disclosure by law.”

Greensboro police “saw the need for specially trained people” while providing support for the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, Danielsen said.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Civil Emergency Unit is used to “provide security, traffic control and crowd control during large events,” according to the city-county website.

“The unit is also utilized during times of natural or other emergency situations,” it reads.

A Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Greensboro.
A Black Lives Matter protest one year ago. Top: Greensboro police respond to a protest after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

But Greensboro’s unit wasn’t pulled together until more than two years after the convention, and more closely aligned with the timing of confrontations between police and protesters in Ferguson, Mo. after an officer shot and killed teenager Michael Brown. Danielsen said that the Greensboro Police Department wasn’t motivated by events in Ferguson or other clashes between police and Black Lives Matter or other protesters.

“GPD, like many other police departments across the nation, watched and learned from events that unfolded in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities,” she wrote. “However, the decision to staff and train a CEU came from the DNC.”

Danielsen photographs Black Lives Matter protesters last year.
Danielsen photographs Black Lives Matter protesters last year.

In August 2015, the Charlotte CEU was deployed to quell protests after the charges against officer Randall Kerrick in the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell ended in a mistrial, according to NBC Charlotte.

Internal Greensboro Police Department emails obtained by Triad City Beat in a public-records request regarding the purchasing of a long-range acoustic device, or LRAD, earlier this year uncovered the existence of Greensboro’s civil emergency unit. The LRAD purchasing request appeared in a document titled “Civil Emergency Unit Equipment List” that also lists requests for “individual personnel equipment” including 40 shin guards, 40 elbow pads, 100 gas-mask bags, 50 gear bags, 100 forearm protectors, 100 baton snap rings and 100 baton o-rings.

Capt. Wolfe
Capt. Wolfe

In an April 30 email, Capt. Wolfe said that the personnel equipment was the only gear he was “interested in procuring at this time.” It totaled almost $17,500, and the department also purchased an LRAD 300x for $13,000 a couple months later. The LRAD has several functions, according to the department, one of which is crowd control.

Danielsen said via email that the only equipment that has been purchased for the civil emergency unit is “personal protective gear to prevent officers from getting injured by flying objects,” and also said that the LRAD is not part of the CEU, but that the team “is only one of the units that may need the ability to clearly communicate over long distances.”

A brochure provided to the department prior to purchasing the LRAD explains that one of its functions allows police to deter protesters or crowds.

“When LRAD’s deterrent tone is used at close range, protesters sense audible discomfort, cover their ears and move away,” it reads. “Just the act of covering ears with hands reduces the sound pressure level by approximately 25dB and could prevent protesters from throwing projectiles.”

The LRAD
The LRAD

A Nov. 10 draft of the rules for operating the LRAD —sent by Capt. Wolfe — states that the device would be the responsibility of the team leader of the civil emergency unit “or his designee,” and would “be stored and inventoried as part of CEU equipment.”

Danielsen said that, “working drafts are subject to change” and emphasized again that multiple units may need to use the LRAD’s communications features. The standard operating procedure for the device hasn’t been finalized yet, she said.

An internal Sept. 28 memo to Wolfe from “Corporal EA Goodykoontz, Civil Emergency Unit” proposes incorporating an ATV component into the CEU and further explains the unit’s functioning.

“The CEU is comprised of several sub-components with specialized training in each section,” the memo reads. “The CEU has a medic team, arrest team, mobile field force team, grenadier team, and a bike team component.”

It is unclear exactly what “grenadier” refers to and Danielsen couldn’t be immediately reached for comment to clarify, though it potentially refers to someone responsible for utilizing tear gas or smoke grenades.

The memo argues that incorporating ATVs, an enclosed trailer and a vehicle to pull the trailer into the civil emergency unit would create several benefits including blocking intersections, supplying hydration or equipment and “handling munitions storage for grenadiers.”

And one of the ATVs would be equipped with a mount for the LRAD system, it says.

A Nov. 2 email from Cpl. Goodykoontz to Capt. Jonathan Franks — who championed the LRAD’s purchase — and Capt. Wolfe said the unit wanted a Yahama ATV that is heavier and could support the LRAD as well as two Polaris ATVs.

“We are looking at acquiring the following things from the ATV team and turn them over to the CEU for use with your approval,” Goodykoontz said.

Because Triad City Beat obtained the email and preceding memo as part of a public-records request pertaining to the department’s LRAD purchase, any response email from Franks or Wolfe that didn’t explicitly mention the LRAD wouldn’t have been provided. The city has not yet provided any documents from subsequent public-records requests filed on Dec. 4 about the civil emergency unit.

According to a Bureau of Justice Assistance with the US Justice Department report on the Democratic National Convention, Charlotte’s civil emergency unit in Charlotte made good use of bicycles, motorcycles and four-person Kawasaki Mules.

“These vehicles were paramount to controlling crowds,” it reads, adding that among other things, they were used as physical barricades to direct crowds, made the squad look bigger, and were “outfitted with additional response equipment to respond/attend to civil unrest situations.”

Though Greensboro City Council members Abuzuaiter and Wilkins were either unaware of or couldn’t remember hearing about the civil emergency unit, the two other council members on the public safety committee had, but neither said they knew many details. On Dec. 10, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson said she’d learned about it within the last week — after Triad City Beat filed formal requests for information about the unit — and said she wanted to look into the matter to learn more.

“I just know it exists,” she said.

Barber and Abuzuaiter
Barber and Abuzuaiter

Councilman Barber said it’s part of a larger plan for thinking about how Greensboro would react to “occurrences like we’ve seen around the country,” and made vague references to recent “race related” incidents in other cities but declined to specifically mention unrest in places like Ferguson and Baltimore following officer-involved shootings. Barber added that it is important for the department to be proactive and develop a plan rather than just being reactive.

Part of the plan Barber referred to has involved intentional meetings between city leaders and well-publicized public forums, but the other side — the one with riot gear, munitions and a civil emergency unit of up to 90 officers on a team that trains monthly — remained in the shadows for a year, only emerging now reluctantly.

  • Billy Jones

    This is great reporting Eric but I encourage you to take this one step further and report on the revisions to the newly amended Chapter 9, Article 1, Greensboro Code of Ordinances (Civil Preparedness and Emergency) that give Mayor Vaughan absolute authority and do away with the previous body that included Guilford County and other municipalities within the county in case of emergency.

    By making herself stronger within the City itself she has weakened the City’s overall ability to deal with real emergencies.

    And yes, I have the freaking documents.

    • Billy Jones

      PS. A larger and better plan already existed that would have allowed cooler heads to prevail in case of an emergency. Vaughan’s new plan did away with that.