A Chapel Hill police officer has been put on paid leave following questions about a tattoo on his forearm of the Roman numeral three encircled with stars.
“The pervasiveness of the concerns raised by many regarding his display of a tattoo that is associated with the ‘3 Percenters’ has caused the Department to question his ability to function effectively as a police officer within this community,” Police Chief Chris Blue said in a statement.
The Three Percenters is an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “antigovernment.” It has dozens of chapters nationwide and describes its goal as “to utilize the fail-safes put in place by our founders to reign (sic) in an overreaching government and push back against tyranny.”
The group eschews the labels “antigovernment” and “militia,” instead characterizing its members as “America’s insurance policy.” Members frequently show up in military-style gear at rallies with other far-right groups, such as Patriot Prayer events in Portland, Oregon; the Unite the Right rally last year in Charlottesville, Virginia; and a standoff with the federal government over a rancher’s grazing fees in Bunkerville, Nevada.
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The Chapel Hill police officer’s tattoo closely resembles the Three Percenters’ logo. His forearm also features a tattoo of the words “We the People” in the font of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. That tattoo is popular among members of the patriot movement, a loose network of people in favor of unfettered gun rights and small government that grew out of the militia movement of the 1990s.
The town identified the officer as Cole R. Daniels. He joined the department on Aug. 5, 2014, the town said.
Daniels was placed on paid administrative leave Monday, the police chief’s statement said. That was one week after a photograph of Daniels taken near the Silent Sam Confederate monument the night protesters took it down began circulating widely on social media.
Daniel Hosterman, a Durham photographer working on projects about white supremacy and fascist and anti-fascist organizing, posted the photograph to Twitter, and it was retweeted more than 700 times.
Hosterman said he took the photograph about 8:15 p.m. on Aug. 20. Many of the protesters that had been surrounding Silent Sam’s pedestal had left to march down Franklin Street, and Daniels was among the officers that remained near the statue, he said.
Hosterman had seen a photograph of Daniels before. He posted that image to Twitter, as well. Hosterman said the photographer, who did not want to be named, took the photo at a rally in June 2017.
Chapel Hill’s police chief did not learn about Daniels’ tattoo or its relevance to far-right groups for the first time last week. He has known about the tattoo since at least February.
On Feb. 2, Blue left a voicemail for Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who had given a presentation to UNC-Chapel Hill students and community members in August 2017 that featured a photograph of the police officer and showed his tattoo. The photograph was the same one Hosterman had seen.
Squire posted the slides from her presentation to her personal blog, and Blue later saw them. In the voicemail, Blue said, “I’m calling you to thank you for calling attention to a tattoo that one of my officers has that apparently slipped through our cracks.” Later, he said, “I would love to hear a little more about how you came across the picture depicting him and share a little bit about my thoughts on how we move forward.”
Squire did not call Blue back. At the time, she was receiving a torrent of threatening messages from people who had apparently read a profile Wired Magazine published about her. The magazine article detailed Squire’s research into far-right groups using Facebook data.
“It caused a ridiculous amount of backlash,” Squire said. Amid the drama, she did not make the time to call Blue back, a decision she now regrets. “I think it was a missed opportunity for me as an educator,” Squire said.
Blue has not agreed to an interview with The News & Observer and has not responded to a list of written questions submitted a week ago. It’s not clear from the information released so far what Blue did back in February in response to learning about the tattoo and its significance.
Support for Three Percenter ideas has been associated with violence. For example, one of the men charged in the bombing of a Minnesota mosque ran a Three Percenter group, according to Reveal, and an affiliation to the Three Percenters was an issue in an Oklahoma murder trial, the Oklahoman reported.
Daniels will be on leave until the town completes its investigation, the statement said. The scope of the investigation was not specified.
Here is the chief’s full statement.
“The Chapel Hill Police Department placed Police Officer Cole Daniels on Administrative Leave with pay on Aug. 27, 2018.
“The pervasiveness of the concerns raised by many regarding his display of a tattoo that is associated with the ‘3 Percenters’ has caused the Department to question his ability to function effectively as a police officer within this community. Therefore, the Police Department initiated an administrative investigation in accordance with our Town’s Personnel Ordinances and policies and procedures. Daniels will remain on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. Consistent with our Council-Manager form of government, and our Town’s Disciplinary Process, any potential serious disciplinary action will be taken in consultation with the Town Manager’s Office and the Town’s attorneys.”