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Crackdown on Chapel Hill: Bad feelings still linger over infamous 1990 police raid

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CHAPEL HILL — Thirty-two years ago, local and state law enforcement, some wearing masks and carrying automatic weapons, swarmed a block of downtown, forcing Black people to the ground for an illegal search.

On Wednesday, elected officials voted unanimously to apologize for the town’s role in violating the public’s constitutional rights during the raid and for the harm the incident caused to Chapel Hill’s Black community.

Mayor Pam Hemminger read a resolution before the vote, giving a hug when she finished to James Williams, the county’s former chief public defender who worked with town staff to bring the resolution to the council.

The resolution, Hemminger said, allows the town to “open up our past, our true past, shine a light on it, acknowledge it, learn from it, and hopefully, never repeat the same things again.”

It is an important first step, Williams said, thanking the raid’s victims for filing a lawsuit and seeking justice “for the harm they suffered.”

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On Nov. 16, 1990, around 45 officers from multiple agencies sealed off the 100 block of North Graham Street around 9 p.m., using a blanket warrant issued just two hours earlier to search every pedestrian, home, car and business. Some officers wore camouflage and black masks and carried automatic weapons with laser sights.

The warrant said police were looking for five people identified during drug trafficking surveillance. However, they searched between 60 and 100 people that night, many of whom later said that they thought the masked men, who did not identify themselves, were attacking or robbing them.

Williams said the stories and the emotions that were evoked by victims show they still suffer from the terror of that night.

“This was an act of racial terror that took place on Graham Street that night,” Williams said. “People were subjected to armed, assaultive behavior simply because they were Black.”

The planning for Operation Readi-Rock started at least a month prior before officers descended on North Graham Street. The area was the last remaining piece of the town’s historic Black business district. Today, it is home to the Midway Business Center — named for the former district — along with small businesses.

Most of the rank-and-file officers involved in the raid weren’t told what was happening until the last minute, said Bill Massengale, an Orange County attorney who represented the victims. They arrived at Graham Street in a moving truck and spilled out onto the street alongside three SWAT teams, he said.

“Police activity that night was a siege,” Massengale said. “If they went to arrest several people, they didn’t need to do the siege of the street, and by and large, everyone there was just having a usual Friday night on the block. There was drug dealing going on, but it wasn’t anything that (required) what happened.”

In one search of a house and pool hall, officers arrested 13 people on drug and weapon charges. They also seized a .25-caliber revolver, a pair of brass knuckles, between $700 and $2,000 in cash and a small amount of crack cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.

Chapel Hill Police Capt. Ralph Pendergraph, who became police chief in 2000, said after the raid that the warrant was written with help from the state Attorney General’s office. Chapel Hill town officials, the district attorney and the magistrate who signed the warrant also were involved, Williams said.

The warrant violated the public’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, legal experts said later, as well as the state constitution’s requirement that search warrants be issued for a specific person and based on probable cause that a crime was committed.

Although some argued there was a legal precedent, Carl Fox, who was Orange County’s district attorney and later a Superior Court judge, said he didn’t see legal justification for a warrant applying to everyone on a public street when he was asked about the Graham Street warrant in 1990.

He advised the raid’s planners to “bring me some law that supports this if you decide to do this.” Fox said in a recent interview.

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He later dismissed the charges from the raid.

“It was outrageous,” he said. “Clearly, any and everybody can get addicted to drugs, and it’s a diverse population that’s involved in drugs ... so I thought that part alone was extremely discriminatory. But to indiscriminately get everybody down and handcuff them and zip-tie them and put them on the street like that, that was appalling.”

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Witnesses said whites were allowed to leave the area, but Blacks on Graham Street and in a local pool hall were ordered to lie face down on the ground or stand against a wall with their hands up.

“It wasn’t something that I could ever imagine happening in that situation, but obviously it did,” Fox said.

Massengale said he didn’t understand “how terrifying the raid was” until days after when a man named William Barnett reached out to his office.

Barnett was handcuffed and taken to the police department, where the officer told the magistrate there was no probable cause to charge him with a crime Barnett then tried to get his fingerprints and mugshot back from the police department but was refused, Massengale said.

“William was afraid that if in fact he couldn’t get his fingerprint cards (and mugshot), he would end up in a photo lineup and be picked up by mistake,” Massengale said.

The lawsuit filed after the raid accused officers of violating the rights of 38 people, none of whom were charged.

Williams noted that what made the incident “so horrendous” was that the plans didn’t come from just one person — and they came from the top.

“This had approval up and down the chain of key people, key officials, including the town attorney, including the town manager, including the chief of police,” he said.

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In 1993, Orange County Superior Court Judge Knox Jenkins ruled that the town and police were not legally liable because of qualified immunity, but that the raid’s militaristic approach to policing did raise significant concerns.

“When police begin to look — and act — like storm troopers or secret police, we all have reason to be concerned,” Jenkins said in a 1993 story.

The case was appealed to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which also found constitutional issues. The court dismissed parts of the lawsuit, but said the allegations against the town could be heard in court.

The town eventually settled the case, paying $200,000 to the victims.

But Massengale said justice was not served. Even after the lawsuit.

“I think it should never have happened,” he said. “I think that the Superior Court should not have dismissed the case, and I think the Court of Appeals was absolutely clear that it goes way beyond the bounds of anything that’s in the Constitution.

“There was never another search warrant like that issued in North Carolina.”

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