Dozens of police vehicles poured into Graham, surrounding the Alamance County Historic Courthouse and its controversial Confederate statue during the last weekend in June.
Mixed in with local law enforcement were officers from Elon University’s Campus Security and Police. As part of a mutual aid agreement among neighboring departments, Campus Police had been called in to aid the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office in enforcing a contentious order.
The order banned protest gatherings and denied demonstration permits in Graham, which led to the American Civil Liberties Union filing both a lawsuit and a temporary restraining order against local officials. A federal judge granted the restraining order on Monday, July 6.
In response, student activists hosted a “Protest to Defend the Right to Peaceful Protest” on Thursday, July 9. There were familiar cries of “no justice, no peace” as more than 30 people gathered in front of the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office.
The dozens of cars that drove by had a mix of responses during the three-hour protest. Some drivers were honking horns in support and shouting, “thank you,” while others were raising middle fingers and screaming, “blue lives matter.”
The sight of Campus Police enforcing the ban in June had sparked an outcry from Elon University alumni, faculty, staff, and students, who demanded an end to the institution’s participation in the mutual aid agreement with the Sheriff’s Office and the Graham Police Department.
“Seeing the badges and logos of our police in Graham made me feel the need to speak out against the institution and this policy,” says Kirstin Ringelberg, a professor of art history at Elon University, who has participated in several protests in Graham. “It indicated symbolic, if not literal support, for what was happening.”
Ringelberg’s email against the agreement, sent to all faculty and staff, received more than 40 replies of support.
“I expected the issue of policing to be more divisive among faculty and staff,” Ringelberg says. “I’m a little bit surprised about how supported I felt.”
Elon University is not alone in being part of a mutual aid agreement with local law enforcement, and it is not the first to face criticism as a result.
Meredith College, N.C. State University, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, Wake Forest University, and Western Carolina University are among other universities in the state to have such agreements. N.C. State’s campus police department has also been fielding calls to withdraw from its mutual aid agreement with the Raleigh Police Department.
Sgt. Joel Thomas, the community liaison for Elon Campus Police, declined to comment about the controversy—only confirming the department’s involvement by stating “we do participate in a county-wide mutual aid agreement.”
Elon has been in a series of mutual aid agreements since the 1990s, according to an email from Senior Vice President Gerald Whittington.
The current agreement in Alamance is in effect from January 1 to December 31, 2020, and encompasses police departments from Burlington, Elon, Mebane, Graham, Gibsonville, Haw River, Elon University, Alamance Community College, and the Sheriff’s Office.
“Mutual aid agreements are extremely common in North Carolina because we have a lot of smaller departments,” says Eric Tellefsen, a law enforcement expert who has led trainings for seven of the nine departments in Alamance. “It allows you quick access to additional officers if you encounter a crisis. When you have these active agreements, you can immediately get those resources because the legality is already dealt with.”
The system in Alamance, which is written into state legislature, is one of five types of mutual aid agreements used in the U.S.
According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, this specific type of agreement is made between “neighboring jurisdictions and involves a formal request for assistance. Mutual aid is activated less often than automatic mutual aid but covers a larger geographic area.”
“It allows a department to handle larger crises and events without having to come up with the funding to hire more officers,” Tellefsen says. “Without mutual aid agreements, you’re either going to have to do without the appropriate amount of security or with a huge bill.”
Kelly Blackwelder, chief of police at the town of Elon Police Department, manages 20 full-time employees, and only 12 of them are patrol officers.
“Not being in an agreement would negatively impact our ability to provide safety services to the Elon community,” Blackwelder says. “It would cripple us because then everything we would need to do would have to be done in house with our limited resources.”
Since taking over as chief in January 2019, Bleckwelder says she has issued two formal aid requests. Both involved Elon University’s Campus Police.
Universities and local departments regularly rely on assistance from one another when hosting large events, such as sports competitions and graduation ceremonies.
“It’s necessary to have additional manpower when events bring thousands of people to campus, because I don’t know any university departments that could deal with that on their own,” Tellefsen says.
In practice, this means any of the signatory agencies can issue a formal request for assistance and the other departments would be obligated to respond by lending officers, equipment, or supplies.
“Through the agreement, officers from other agencies have assisted Elon University Police at athletics events, visits by dignitaries, and emergencies,” Whittington says in the same email. “Though mutual aid has been helpful to our campus in the past, we will continue to critically assess the value and wisdom of each individual request from member agencies going forward.”
The event that brought Elon University’s mutual aid agreement into the limelight began on June 27 when Graham Police filed a request to Doug Dotson, interim director of Campus Police, regarding crowd control assistance.
“We anticipate a crowd size of 500–1000 people congregating primarily around the historic courthouse and the Graham Police Department,” the request stated. “We are expecting those with opposing views to show up as well.”
In accordance with the agreement, Campus Police dispatched eight officers, according to Whittington.
The Sheriff’s Office had announced its intention to enforce the ban on June 26, saying, “no permits to protest in the city of Graham, N.C., to include the Alamance County Courthouse have been granted, nor will be granted for the foreseeable future. Any group(s) attempting to protest without a permit, will be in violation and subject to arrest.”
According to the ACLU, that ordinance is unconstitutional. In response, the group filed a lawsuit against local officials, including Alamance Sheriff Terry Johnson.
A letter from the ACLU to the Sheriff’s Office said, “Your threat to arrest people for protesting without a permit, as well as the indefinite blanket refusal to issue permits, violates the most fundamental constitutional rights to assembly, speech and to be free from unlawful seizures and use of excessive force without due process of law.”
Elon University community members were outraged to see Campus Police enforcing what they agree to be an unconstitutional order and protecting a monument they perceive as racist.
“I want Elon to be more aligned with our stated values,” Ringelberg says. “Saying we are anti-racist but then working with racists shows that anti-racism is clearly not our goal.”
Like the Campus Police, Blackwelder dispatched four of her officers to enforce the order.
“I understand the public concerns, but the fact of the matter is that our job is to protect the community,” Blackwelder says. “If another agency doesn’t feel like they can provide protection because they don’t have adequate resources, it’s important for us to follow through on the agreement and help.
“We’re not political figures. We protect life and property, and keep the peace. When we respond to those requests, we’re not supporting the political agenda behind the scenes or choosing a side. We’re just protecting the community.”
In response to the controversy, Whittington appointed the Academic Council to work alongside himself, Dotson, and the university’s legal counsel to review the “existing mutual aid agreement as well as current best practices for campus police departments when engaging with external agencies.”
According to Whittington, the goal of this group will be to “more fully understand the nature, benefits and requirements of agreements among law enforcement agencies and consider how improvements might be made.”
Owen Covington, director of the Elon University News Bureau, declined to comment while the review is ongoing.
“I want to be optimistic that the institution is seeing things differently, and that means we will actually have real change this time,” Ringelberg says. “But institutions often use committees, white papers, and task forces to delay to the point we don’t need to make any changes, or we forget the problem.”
As the controversy over the mutual aid agreement spread, other demands regarding more transparent policing were made by Elon University alums.
Zach Bocian, a 2017 graduate, helped co-write a letter to Elon University President Connie Book and other senior staff members requesting more public access to Campus Police records.
“Elon can make a change within its small bubble that can be used and repeated by other campus police departments,” Bocian says. “The accountability of transparency and a formalized public complaint system is imperative especially on a university campus, like Elon, that’s trying to diversify its student body.”
In response to the letter, senior staff invited Bocian and other alums to a conference call, during which Whittington says he hopes to have a more formal response and a status update by July 20.
Emily Sledge, a junior at Elon University and a lifelong resident of Burlington, also began a petition demanding Johnson’s resignation. In a week, over 5,550 people had signed, including Ringelberg.
“I’m frustrated and clearly I’m not alone,” Sledge says. “As a community we need different leadership. I hope the petition shows people that while this is a small community, change needs to start somewhere. Questionable law enforcement affects people everywhere.”
Johnson’s nearly 20-year tenure as sheriff of Alamance has been wrought with controversy and accusations of racial profiling.
The Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against Johnson in 2012, saying that deputies disproportionately targeted Latinos. Johnson was also accused of telling his deputies to “get me some of those taco-eaters.” A federal judge acknowledged the agency’s use of racial slurs, but ultimately dismissed the lawsuit.
Sledge says her goal is to raise support for a candidate to run against Johnson in the next election. In 2018, he ran unopposed.
She hopes a new sheriff will lead to a reallocation of the county’s resources.
“The U.S., as a whole, puts too much attention on punishment, rather than focusing on rehabilitation and education,” Sledge says. “If we put more money into education and rehabilitation, we’d be able to help more members of our community instead of punishing them.”
During the 2020–21 fiscal year, more than $38 million is being allocated to the Sheriff’s Office and the jail, according to Alamance’s Budget Ordinance.
Sledge’s call for Johnson’s resignation is being made alongside ongoing demands to relocate the Confederate statue.
Prominent local figures, including Book, presented a call to action at a recent press conference.
“This monument has long been a source of conflict in our community and it stands as a symbol of racism for many,” Book says. “We are recommending removal of this monument in a respectful manner to a more appropriate location that places it in proper historical context.”
This story was produced by the NC News Intern Corps, a program of the NC Local News Workshop, funded by the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund and housed at Elon University’s School of Communications.