UA police weren’t too concerned with Border Patrol protest until videos went viral, report suggests
A protest last month against Border Patrol agents at the University of Arizona has thrust the college into a national debate about free speech on college campuses.
But an officer who first responded to the protest call in a classroom building didn’t even take down names of the students who later were charged with crimes, a newly released police report shows.
A 30-page police report released Monday by the UA Police Department details how officers responded to and subsequently investigated the March 19 protest of Border Patrol agents who spoke to a student club meeting.
The initial officer wrote that he “tried to reason with” the people who were protesting. He called the Dean of Students’ office and his supervisor for assistance, and asked the students to refrain, but didn’t take action to stop them.
The report makes no mention of the officer telling students they could be arrested or charged.
The last line of the officer’s account in the report reads, “I did not get the names of any of the protesters. NFI.” (NFI is a police acronym for “no further information.”)
Instead of taking action against the students, the officer’s supervisor, who came to assist, asked the Border Patrol agents to leave the meeting a bit early. They agreed. The supervisor walked out with the agents, while the officer stayed to make sure “everyone left peacefully.”
The initial reaction from the police appears to contrast with the department’s eventual decision to charge three students.
All three were charged with interference with the peaceful conduct of an educational institution. One of the students also was charged with threats and intimidation. All charges are Class 1 misdemeanors, one step below a felony.
A broader investigation into the incident didn’t appear to start until a few days later, as video of the protest started spreading on social media.
Two of the students weren’t charged until April 1, nearly two weeks after the incident and after video of it went viral. The third student wasn’t charged until April 4.
The department couldn’t utilize the full video posted by one of the protesters because it was deleted within a couple of days, so part of the investigation involved tracking down footage to piece together the event.
The officer also had his own body-camera footage.
On March 21, a crime analyst with the department searched Facebook for videos of the protest and found one publicly posted by Denisse Moreno Melchor, one of the students who was eventually charged.It was gone the next day.
But the analyst found parts of the video posted elsewhere online. And he found a YouTube video posted by a UA student in a nearby classroom, who commented that his class had to “evacuate” because of the protest.
“We legit felt uncomfortable having class as this happened,” the student wrote with the video post, according to the police report.
Video posted on social media of the March 19 incident showed two Border Patrol agents in a classroom giving a presentation, with people outside the door recording them and calling them “Murder Patrol,” “murderers,” and “an extension of the KKK.”
Supplemental reports from other officers came in over the next few weeks, analyzing different parts of the incident and interviews with witnesses and victims.
The names of all witnesses and victims are redacted from the report, as are other identifying details. But it appeared the department interviewed faculty members, students and Border Patrol agents.
In one part of the report, dated March 27, an officer references a press release from Judicial Watch. That’s a conservative activist group that condemned the protest and called on UA President Robert Robbins to charge the students with crimes and code of conduct violations.
The press release named one of the students, Moreno Melchor, and the police report says investigators searched her Facebook page after reading the release.
She was charged five days later. It’s not clear if the press release was where officers first found her name.
The protest and its aftermath have led to tension at UA’s campus, where hundreds of protesters last week gathered to speak out against the charges and Robbins’ handling of the issue.
The report offers some further information about the incident and investigation.
READ THE REPORT: UA police detail March 19 Border Patrol protest
Student in club felt threatened
Robbins has defended the department’s handling of the incident and said that, while it was a difficult call, he supported the decision to charge the students because the criminal justice club meeting was disrupted.
The report also provides details that show a student felt threatened by the protest.
At one point, the report notes, Moreno Melchor said to someone attending the club meeting, “Do you want me to be aggressive with you, keep talking to me and I will get hostile.”
Some perceived this comment as a threat of potential violence, the report said.
One person interviewed by police, whose name is redacted, said her event (the club meeting) was “disrupted” and said she felt “directly threatened” by Moreno Melchor.
The meeting started late and ended early, the person said.
“She did not know what would have happened had she continued talking to Moreno. She did fear physical violence after Moreno’s statement,” the summary of the interview included in the report says.
Charged student’s phone was confiscated
Critics of the university’s response to the incident said the police went too far in charging students. They have spoken out against how police have interacted with students in the aftermath, calling it harassment.
The police used various tactics to try to find and potentially interview Moreno Melchor and other students involved in the protest.
They got a warrant from a judge to confiscate and search Moreno Melchor’s phone.
An officer allowed Moreno Melchor to retrieve phone numbers from the phone while watching to “make sure nothing was deleted.”
She turned the phone over. The officer contacted a detective at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department to arrange for a forensic download of the phone.
Third person charged after unrelated call
The report also makes clear that UA police were still investigating even after they charged two students. That resulted in police finding a third student involved in the protest.
On April 4, officers responded to an unrelated call when they recognized another student from video of the Border Patrol protest.
The student, Marianna Coles-Curtis, told officers she wanted to talk to a friend parked nearby before talking to police. An officer walked with her to her friend’s car. She gave her friend her phone.
“I explained I could still get her phone if I had wanted to,” the officer wrote in his report. “I explained I was not trying to be a jerk I was just trying to do my job.”
The officer cited Coles-Curtis at that time.
Professors had different takes on disruption
Robbins previously said it wasn’t just the club meeting that was disrupted; nearby classes were, too.
The police report provides information on mixed reactions from professors in the vicinity of the protest against Border Patrol agents.
One professor was teaching a class and telling students about a Holocaust survivor who wrote about “men in uniform coming after him.”
He said his teaching was disrupted, but not because of the protest.
The professor said he was disturbed by the presence of Border Patrol agents in the hallway. He assumed the agents were there to detain or arrest a student, the report said.
“His first instinct was to protect his students, which he did not know how to do. He was frustrated he did not have any guidance from the administration,” the report said.
He said it was an “error in judgment” for the Border Patrol agents to come to campus. They should have come in plain clothes, he suggested. He believed the “responsibility for the incident was equally theirs,” the report said.
He told his class about the agents in the hallway and informed them to keep it in mind when the class took a break.
“He indicated his teaching and focus was irrefutably disrupted by the sight of Border Patrol in the hallway, especially in the context of his Holocaust teaching,” the report said.
A different professor from across the hall said he couldn’t continue to teach because of the disruption. He moved his class outside and taught in the courtyard, the report said.
A female professor also is included in the report, saying she “grabbed her class and left” and taught them outside because the protest was “distracting.”
A faculty member, who is not named in the report, also was present during the protest, the report said. He said he was there to “protect the disrupter’s rights and appeared to sanction their activities,” the report said.
Threats against charged students
Student safety concerns have arisen since the protest. Supporters of the three students who were charged have called on Robbins to investigate any threats and ensure the students are safe.
At one point, the Chavez building on UA’s Tucson campus was evacuated after a social media threat.
Police were made aware of safety threats.
A UA employee contacted police regarding Moreno Melchor’s well-being. She asked for information on the investigation.
“She indicated Moreno was shaken and receiving death threats,” the report said.
An attorney for Moreno Melchor told police at one point that her client was receiving threats. The officer responded by saying the police had heard of the threats, though none were reported to police.
Professors questioned why Robbins hadn’t publicly spoken out against threats to students.
Eventually, Robbins put out another statement saying the school took threats seriously and would investigate them.