RALEIGH Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Tuesday that he worried General Assembly police might be responding to political pressures and not public safety concerns when arresting protesters at the Moral Monday demonstrations.
His response came after the chairwoman of the Wake County GOP questioned whether it was politics that motivated Willoughby to encourage General Assembly police chief Jeff Weaver to consider issuing citations to the demonstrators instead of the weekly arrests.
On Monday night, 80 demonstrators were arrested inside the North Carolina Legislative Building after clapping loudly, singing, speaking, praying and refusing to leave when Weaver told the crowd to disperse or risk arrest.
Weaver said Monday night that he received a letter from Willoughby, suggesting citations rather than arrests, after one of the previous demonstrations led to the arrest of 151 people.
Continuing the arrests is an issue of consistency, Weaver said. Also, if citations were issued, the demonstrators could remain in the building. Arresting them, he said, provides law enforcement officers a way to disperse the crowd.
Donna Williams, chairwoman of the Wake County GOP, issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing Willoughby.
“Willoughby, a Democrat, says there is no politics in how he wants to handle the protesters who are predominantly registered Democrats and specifically protesting the actions of Republicans legislators,” Williams said in a statement. “He says his approach will reduce costs and ease the court’s caseload. Perhaps, but at what cost to justice?
“We all look to the district attorney for equal justice under the law for every citizen. We find it troubling we have to call this to people’s attention. The right to assemble is undeniable. But, break the law and suffer the consequences. The arrested want their day in court. After all, they are wearing armbands for easy identification by the police,” her statement reads.
Willoughby said on Tuesday that he had encouraged the General Assembly police to issue citations for trespassing as most agencies did in such situations.
“It doesn’t lessen the charge or the court’s ability to try the cases,” Willoughby said, “and it would probably save the Wake County taxpayers over $100,00 in police, sheriff and processing costs, and salaries.”
Since April 29, the General Assembly police have arrested nearly 700 demonstrators.
“That is more arrests than they have made in the last six years,” Willoughby said.
The General Assembly police have provided no reports or evidence after making the arrests, Willoughby added, saying he was worried that a small agency such as the General Assembly police force “may be overwhelmed by this and may be responsive to persons who are more focused on political issues than real public safety issues.”
Several dozen protesters have made first appearances in Wake County District Court. They have all used similar strategies with their lawyers contending the arrests were unconstitutional.
Weaver said Tuesday night that he was not being influenced by politics and that public safety was his foremost concern.
The first 17 arrests, Weaver said, were more than the General Assembly police force has made in the past six years.
But Weaver said he developed a strategy that he hoped would help to keep the small department from being overwhelmed as the cases move into the courts.
Weaver and one officer make the arrests as another officer videotapes the demonstrations as evidence for the district attorney’s office.
“We feel the course of action we’ve taken is the best for everybody,” Weaver said. He acknowledged that the demonstrations have been peaceful, with demonstrators willingly holding up their wrists to be bound with plastic ties for arrest.
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