I was born in Greenville, NC and got two degrees from East Carolina University. My family has long and close ties to the school and the community, so it pains me a great deal to state that university authorities and local police grossly over-reacted to, and in fact inflated hysteria when they responded to reports of a man near campus carrying what two 9-1-1 callers claimed was an “assault rifle” in a backpack.
The so-called “assault rifle” turned out to be nothing but a golf umbrella, but hysteria over the ignorant 9-1-1 caller’s paranoid delusions kept the 27,000 student university and local elementary schools miles away on lockdown for hours.
Reports of a man carrying a gun near East Carolina University’s campus caused an uproar Wednesday.
The university was placed on lockdown for several hours, as police officers with weapons drawn canvassed the campus.
ECU officials sent out alerts to faculty, staff and students around 10 a.m. after getting two 911 calls reporting the suspicious man.
They looked at surveillance video on a busy thoroughfare through the heart of campus, and spotted a man with what appeared to be a gun sticking out of a backpack.
After an intense search, the Greenville Police Department caught up with the man and learned he didn’t have a weapon – it was an umbrella.
Here is a still photo from the surveillance video that launched a hours long mass panic and a thousand tweets.
The search was complicated because authorities were attempting to chase leads on Facebook and Twitter… yes the next best thing to trying to get accurate information from Gawker or TMZ or the Washington Post.
“Through Facebook and Twitter, things started to develop. Obviously, a bunch of rumors were going around. So honestly, I think people on campus didn’t know what to believe,” said student Matt Edward.
“When you do things that cause fictitious information to go out, it hinders the actual efforts of police agency. It actually delays us, and that’s finding the person we’re looking for,” said Sgt. Carlton Williams with the Greenville Police Department.
The man in question in the video was walking down Reade Circle crossing East Fifth Street, and then turned west to follow East Fifth Street downtown, towards the main Greenville Fire and Police Department headquarters. He was not on East Carolina’s campus, and was actually last seen walking away from campus.
But even if he was carrying an assault rifle over his shoulder and chose to walk laps around the police station, which was only three blocks away, he would not have been breaking any laws.
Wearing a slung rifle over your shoulder or protruding out of a pack is not a crime. He would not have been brandishing the weapon, and while he was in control of it, he would not have been using it in any threatening manner. As much as some wish the opposite were true, merely owning a firearm and having it in public view is not a crime, even with North Carolina’s bizarre (and hopefully soon to be repealed) “going armed to the terror of the public” charge.
This hysteria, both caused and magnified by authorities, ate up untold man-hours of educational and law enforcement time. I completely understand that no university town wants to become the scene of the “next Virgina Tech,” but at some point, the hysterical responses to such wild goose chases become a threat to the safety of the public all of their own.
Can you honestly argue that police officers should be scampering over the rooftops of residential homes with sniper rifles when there hasn’t even an allegation of a crime?
As a parent, do you want police officers storming your child’s bus with drawn weapons?
Do you want police with assault rifles swarming school campuses and neighborhoods… over nothing that approached being a threat of violence, but instead merely hinged on the suspected appearance of a legal item possessed in a non-threatening manner?
The practice of absurd overreactions by authorities, designed to provide ass-covering excuses in case something does go wrong instead of scaling to actual threats, has to end.