CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WGHP) — He learned about it through his radio.
He was sitting in his office on what up until that moment, had been a normal day on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Those first radio transmissions were just a prelude to what was to come.
On August 28th, a gunman shot and killed a professor in a laboratory building just a few hundred feet from a central, historic and popular gathering point on campus called “the quad.”
“So I had to jump in the car and head there,” UNC-Chapel Hill Campus Police Chief Brian James told me during a recent visit to his office in the university’s Public Safety Center, a small building next to the large UNC medical complex on South Campus and almost directly under a large Carolina Blue water tower emblazoned with the letters “NC” intertwined.
Within two minutes of the initial 911 calls, campus police officers had entered the building, found the victim and realized the gunman was still at large.
“At that point, we knew we had an emergency on campus, and I notified our communication center to activate the alert, and they’re able to do that from the communication center,” James said.
The alert was in the form of a push notification that appeared on the cellphones of those on campus who had subscribed to receive them.
It read, in part, “remain sheltered in place. This is an ongoing situation. Suspect at large.”
Multiple surrounding law enforcement agencies, from North Carolina State University Campus Police to the Carrboro Police Department, received the alert as well and through mutual aid agreements sent officers to Chapel Hill.
“I certainly wanted all the resources I could get initially to stabilize the situation,” James told me.
After about three hours, a suspect was arrested off campus in north Chapel Hill, the lockdown was lifted, and James, for the first time in his career, appeared in television newscasts across the country.
Today, a little more than six weeks after the tragedy, James still can’t talk about the criminal investigation. But he is talking about his department’s response that day and how to prevent something like this in the future.
But first, let’s rewind the time back to the 1990s. Brian James joined the Greensboro Police Department after growing up in the city and graduating from Page High School and North Carolina A&T State University.
He worked his way up to the point where he became chief of his hometown’s police department in 2020 before retiring in May of 2022. He started at UNC about a month later.
“It (the new job) kind of gave me a chance to do something that I already knew something about,” he said.
But it was a big transition.
In Greensboro, James ran a department that currently has a $91 million budget and 800 employees, 700 of whom are sworn officers.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, the campus police department’s budget is $12.5 million. There are about 120 employees. They include 61 officers, 30 security guards and 15 part-time security guards.
Even so, his experience makes him uniquely qualified to assess and lobby for his department’s needs after a major campus emergency.
Among them, an effort to better familiarize the outside law enforcement agencies with the campus so they’ll know exactly where to go and (based on public critiques of the August 28th response) send out more frequent push notifications to the community.
James says he noticed an improvement in both of those areas when the campus was locked down 16 days later after a man threatened a campus employee with a gun in the student union.
Also in the works are plans to merge the university’s seven surveillance camera systems for easier and faster video retrieval. The university is also spending $80,000 to buy 22 license plate reading cameras.
“We want to make sure that we have something in place where if someone comes on campus and commits a crime, at least we have an opportunity to follow up and identify the person who was operating that vehicle,” he told me.
James says he’s well aware of student complaints that after getting the alert on August 28th, some professors just continued teaching as if nothing had happened. The university does offer active shooter training for students, faculty and staff, but it’s not mandatory.
“So fortunately, I would say that from everything that has happened, it has renewed an interest in safety and security,” he told me. “We want to seize this opportunity to get back in front of our students, faculty and staff and say, ‘Hey, these services are available through the police department.’ We are strongly encouraging our faculty and staff to take advantage of it.”
James says he would support university leaders if they decided to make training mandatory. But there’s a caveat.
“It’s hard to get in front of that many people in person,” he said. “We would have to look at other platforms like, for instance, if we offered it (as) virtual training.”
Despite all this, James does face a challenge at UNC similar to what he faced in Greensboro: how to protect and serve thousands of people in a very public place where you can’t place metal detectors at every entrance.
“It is,” he told me when asked if the UNC-Chapel Hill campus is safe. “(But) it doesn’t mean that you’re immune to anything happening on campus. And we always have to be cognizant of any threats that may come to campus, and it’s only done through planning, through communication and making sure we have the right resources in place to prevent that.”
Then perhaps, his radio won’t pick up transmissions like those broadcast on a Monday in late August.