Last Thursday, Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies placed three of his officers on paid administrative leave, pending the results of an internal investigation into allegations that two of the officers recently posed as FBI agents during an investigation at Chapel Hill High School.
"It's a disturbing issue that we're having to deal with," Jarvies says--and deal with fast. In a telephone interview on Monday, he said he considers this to be a high-priority investigation, given that "this is a case that raises into question the integrity of the officers and, in some people's minds, the department." Consequently, he's spent a good portion of the last week trying to find out what, exactly, occurred, and what he should do about it.
It's more about more than just integrity. One area is being explored is whether the officers violated federal law by misrepresenting themselves as U.S. agents.
"It's certainly one of the many areas that are being broached in the internal investigation," Jarvies says.
The allegations, reported in The Independent last Wednesday, arose out of comments made by Erin Carter, a 17-year-old Chapel Hill High School student, who was questioned on campus in early May by Chapel Hill Police officers Bryan Walker and John Moore. The officers were investigating a suspected hacking of the school's computer network that now appears to have simply been a technical problem.
As Carter tells it, Walker and Moore showed up to question her wearing short-sleeve blue shirts with FBI insignias. And one of them, Moore, gave her a card that identified him as "task force agent" of an FBI "Cyber Crime Task Force." The card showed the FBI emblem, but listed Moore's contact information at the Chapel Hill Police Department.
The officers had come to see her because of what they'd read in her online journal, or "blog." There she'd written some chiding remarks about how vulnerable the school's computer system must be, given the rumors she'd heard of a hacking. The officers pressed Carter to reveal what she knew about the supposed hacking, she says, and she told them that she knew nothing, other than the speculation bandied about in class.
While the hacking inquiry has largely fizzled out, another, larger concern has arisen from the case. At issue is just how the police officers represented themselves: as policemen or as federal agents. Carter says she doesn't remember how Moore and Walker identified themselves verbally, but she left the questioning assuming she'd just been interrogated by FBI agents. She went home and promptly deleted the contents of her blog, leaving in its place a message announcing that "the FBI has been reading my diary."
Another Chapel Hill police officer, Steve Anson, has worked on an FBI Cyber Crime Task Force in Raleigh for the past year, and he oversaw much of the investigation at the high school. But the lawmen who questioned Carter were in fact strictly local police officers. Jarvies made that much clear in a May 29 press release on the administrative leave decision and the internal investigation. On the question of the officers' affiliation with the FBI, the release was unequivocal: "The officers who responded to the high school on that day do not work for the FBI nor are they assigned to the FBI's Cyber Crime Task Force."
So where did they get the shirts and the "FBI" card? Jarvies says that because the investigation is ongoing, he can't speak to that just yet. "I anticipate that will all come out, but I have to protect the integrity of the investigation," he says.
The investigation's integrity will likely be available for public scrutiny soon. Jarvies says the department expects to finish its investigation late this week, and then he will make recommendations for what personnel actions, if any, should be taken. A report on the investigation will be forwarded to the town government via Chapel Hill Town Manager Cal Horton.
At that point, Horton says, he'll push to make the investigation public, an unusual step for town personnel matters, which are usually kept out of the public record. He said that "because of the nature of the allegations, I believe that this likely will be a case which I will ask the council to pass the kind of resolution that's necessary so that I can reveal more than the ordinary amount of information." The information, Horton says, would include "the evaluative information and the material that would be considered by me and the police chief in determining any personnel action that might be taken."
Horton says he expects to raise the matter with the Town Council this Monday night in closed session, and that if the council decides to pass the required resolution allowing release, the reports on the case will be made available immediately.
Whatever happens in Chapel Hill, if the police officers did, in fact, portray themselves as FBI agents, the case could also draw attention from federal prosecutors. "The impersonation of an FBI agent is a violation of federal law, and it's punishable by both fines and imprisonment," John Iannarelli, a special agent with the FBI's national press office in Washington, told The Independent. "The facts of each case are different, and I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm not commenting on the facts in the case at hand. But the law, as it reads, prohibits presenting yourself to be an FBI agent, whether that is verbally identifying yourself, presenting credentials that are purported to be the credentials of an FBI agent, or attempting to create the impression that you are in fact a special agent of the FBI."
Jarvies is mindful of the possibility that federal laws could come into play, and says he has contacted the U.S. Attorney's office in Greensboro to let them know about the department's investigation. He has similarly informed the FBI's lead agent in North Carolina, he says, and will be providing the findings of the investigation to Orange County District Attorney Carl Fox. "I'm trying to cover every base I can think of," Jarvies says.
Carter, for her part, says she's glad the matter is being investigated, but that she has mixed feelings. A message posted on her former blog site last Friday offered her latest take on the situation: "Wow. So much has happened. I heard that the officers are suspended while under investigation. I feel a little bad; they seemed like they'd be nice guys once they took off their fake uniforms and stuff. However, if I'm subject to laws, then you're subject to laws and they're subject to laws, too. I'm prayin' for a speedy recovery of their careers once they've learned their lesson and stuff. Silly cops! Wouldn't anarchy be easier?"
On Saturday, two high-ranking administrative officers from the Chapel Hill Police department visited Carter at her home to question her, but this time no one was asking her about her Web site. The officers came to gather information for the internal probe of the officers who questioned her at school, and this encounter left Carter heartened, but still a bit suspicious.
"They were talking about how much they wanted everything they have in this investigation to be open, so that the public can trust them that they're doing an unbiased job of investigating, and I think that's really admirable," she says. But the officers offered an explanation for the "FBI shirts" that she didn't find convincing. They told her, she says, that on the day she was questioned at school, Moore and Walker just happened to wear the same shirt. "It was 'casual Friday,' so they were both allowed to wear whatever they wanted.
"What an interesting coincidence," she says.