UNC to install license plate readers, as it explores security measures after shooting

The chief of police at UNC-Chapel Hill indicated Thursday the university would install license plate readers and additional surveillance cameras, the first public, concrete suggestions of how the university would improve security following a fatal shooting on campus last month.

UNC Police Chief Brian James provided the university’s Board of Trustees an overview of his department’s response to the incident during a meeting Thursday, also listing several ways he hopes to improve the university’s readiness and response to any future incidents that may occur.

James said his department is “in the process of getting” license plate readers through Flock Safety, a private company. The readers could be combined with surveillance cameras to help provide “real-time access” to all of those technologies during emergencies and day-to-day operations at the university, he said.

Marty Kotis, a member of the Board of Trustees, told The News & Observer that the cameras had been ordered prior to the shooting but had not arrived to the university to be installed yet. Kotis said the cameras are set to be installed within the next four to six weeks.

UNC Police Chief Brian James speaks about Monday’s campus shooting during a press conference at the Carolina Inn on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com
UNC Police Chief Brian James speaks about Monday’s campus shooting during a press conference at the Carolina Inn on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, in Chapel Hill, N.C. Kaitlin McKeown/kmckeown@newsobserver.com

Flock license plate readers are used by thousands of law enforcement agencies across the country, including some in North Carolina and the Triangle. The company has been criticized, notably by the American Civil Liberties Union, for the vast amount of data it collects and the lack of regulation surrounding the technology.

The cameras are connected to state and national crime databases and are used to identify license plates that are connected to people who may have committed a crime. The cameras also collect information about the type, make, model, color and unique features of vehicles, but the company says it does not photograph people inside the car or use facial recognition software, The News & Observer previously reported.

North Carolina law requires law enforcement agencies to delete data obtained by the readers after 90 days with few exceptions. Agencies implementing the readers are required to adopt policies regarding the technology that are consistent with state law, including requiring audits on an annual or more frequent basis.

James said the readers would help his department “better secure campus.”

Tailei Qi, who is accused of fatally shooting professor Zijie Yan on Aug. 28, was a graduate student at the university. James said at a press conference on Aug. 29 that police believed Qi drove to campus on the morning of the shooting, then fled by foot after allegedly killing Yan in Caudill Laboratories, leaving his car in place. He was later arrested in a residential area off campus.

Streamlining on-campus cameras

James also offered suggestions related to on-campus surveillance cameras, including ensuring more areas of campus are covered by cameras and streamlining and consolidating the university’s camera systems.

“We have a number of different camera systems on campus, and we’re trying to look at a way that we can consolidate that to, more or less, simplify access and create quick access” to cameras during emergencies, James said.

James did not address which areas of campus lack cameras or say specifically where he wants to see them installed. When The N&O previously requested surveillance video of Caudill Labs from the day of the shooting, the university’s public records office said no such records existed.

“We just want to ensure that we have cameras in the places that they need to be, and try to just prevent or reduce the number of blind spots that we have on campus,” James said.

James also said he wants to maintain and enhance his department’s relationship with other law enforcement agencies, including the State Bureau of Investigation and local agencies in Orange County. James said he would like to offer training exercises for officers in those agencies to come to campus and become more familiar with its layout.

More than a dozen law enforcement agencies, including other campus agencies from N.C. Central University and N.C. State University, responded to the Aug. 28 incident.

James also highlighted his department’s preexisting and ongoing efforts to assess the security of campus buildings through surveys that include ensuring classroom and building locks are functioning properly, as well as offering emergency training for anyone on campus that requests it.

How the university solicited feedback

The university does not currently require faculty or students to participate in active shooter training. James told The N&O last week that “it is absolutely best practice to have as many people trained as we possibly can,” but said any mandates for training would need to be decided by university leadership.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said at a faculty council meeting on Sept. 8 that the university “will assess whether more required trainings should be considered,” with input from faculty and others. No changes to training at the university have been announced.

In the days immediately following the Aug. 28 shooting, the university established a phone hotline for community members to contact with concerns or questions about the incident.

Darrell Jeter, the university’s director of emergency management and planning, told trustees Thursday that the hotline received 203 calls while it was open, with about half of those coming from parents and about one-quarter coming from students. About 20% of calls were related to the university’s response to the incident.

The university also provided an online portal to field feedback on its response to the shooting. The portal, which launched minutes before a second gun-related incident locked down the campus on Sept. 13, closed last week.

The News & Observer has requested the responses through that form from the university’s public records office, but the request has not yet been fulfilled.