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Report: Graham police use of pepper spray during infamous incident was justified

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Pepper spray at Graham protest

Alamance County sheriff’s deputies use pepper spray on protesters at the courthouse in Graham in 2020. The “I Am Change” march was part of a push to get people to register to vote and led to a confrontation between police and protesters.

GRAHAM — Law enforcement in this small town ignited national outrage in 2020 when officers used pepper spray on a march that included children as young as 3. Video of a disabled woman seizing violently went viral.

A report recently made public through a civil rights lawsuit provides a glimpse of how Graham police evaluated their own performance shortly after the event.

The conclusion: They did nothing major wrong.

“The plan for this event was well prepared and adhered to throughout the event,” the after-action report states. “In reference to the force used by all officers, there was no indication that either physical force or chemical agents were used excessively.”

The report makes no mention of the children at the march, several of whom vomited in reaction to the chemicals.

Graham police used pepper fog, directed at the ground, in three waves that day. Sheriff’s deputies also deployed pepper vapor. The first use was aimed at moving march participants off of Graham’s Main Street following a moment of silence for George Floyd, the Black man who was killed by Minneapolis police.

Not everyone could hear the officers’ directions, including some parents on the sidewalk with their children. The crowd responded with a mix of defiance and confusion.

The News & Observer of Raleigh asked two professors who study policing at mass demonstrations to review Graham’s after-action report. Both said the absence of any discussion about children was a signal that Graham police had not seriously grappled with what happened or with the community reaction.

“If children were pepper-sprayed and that did not get addressed in the after-action report, then something is wrong with that report,” said Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University who has written a guidebook on policing demonstrations.

The best after-action reports, the professors said, involve extensive community feedback, both during the information-gathering phase and upon completion. After an especially high-profile incident, departments will often hire an outside consultant to do an independent review.

Raleigh, for example, paid consultants $105,545 to compile an after-action report following May 2020 protests in the city. Charlotte did the same following protests there in 2016.

But Graham did not initiate an open review or hire an outside consultant. Three march participants who expected an invitation from the chief told The News & Observer they never got one.

The report was completed about two weeks after officers used chemical irritants to force marchers out of the road, said Tony Biller, an attorney Graham officials hired to handle matters related to the march. Though a police spokesman pledged to release the report, that never happened.

Graham police don’t typically release those reports. “Those are internal reviews,” Biller said. He did not explain why he believed these documents are exempt from the state’s public records law.

After-action reports can be a tool for building community trust, said Damon Williams, board president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Most of them become public,” he said. “They’re not secret documents.”

Even before the pepper-spray incident, relations between law enforcement in Alamance County and local Black and Latino residents were strained.

The county has a particularly bloody history of racial injustice, and at the time of the march, Graham and Alamance County were facing scrutiny from civil rights groups for their aggressive tactics against people who sought to protest Floyd’s murder and other instances of police violence, as well as the Confederate monument that sits in front of the town’s historic courthouse.

In a written statement to The News & Observer, Biller emphasized the steps Graham police have taken since the march to the polls to improve public trust. Chief Mary K. Cole coordinated community meetings, launched a series of community surveys and began organizing a citizen’s advisory committee to advise her on issues including police-community relations.

The department also initiated quarterly de-escalation training and secured funds to hire six officers focused on community policing, he said.

Body camera footage that The News & Observer obtained independently after the event showed officers appearing to celebrate the use of pepper fog.

In one clip, an officer approaches Rodney King, then a sergeant and now Graham’s assistant chief, to congratulate him for being the first to deploy it. “I knew you’d spray first, I knew it,” the officer said. “I love it. I love it.” King laughed, and the two officers exchanged a fist bump.

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