A selfie of two Rocky Mount police officers inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots sparked a confrontation Monday night at the town’s municipal building.
Outside, critics of the officers’ actions shouted “Silence is violence!” and supporters of the officers shouted “First Amendment!” Inside, the Rocky Mount Town Council meeting, which could only be watched via livestream due to coronavirus crowd restrictions, proceeded with no public discussion of the officers’ fate.
“I understand this is a very significant issue for our community but the Town is required to provide a due process based inquiry,” Town Manager James Ervin wrote Tuesday in an email.
Sgt. T.J. Robertson and Officer Jacob Fracker have been placed on paid administrative leave. In a statement released Sunday, town officials said that federal authorities have been notified that the off-duty officers were inside the Capitol that day. Robertson maintains that he and Fracker did nothing that broke the law.
“An internal review will be conducted and it will include all aspects of the participation,” Ervin wrote. “While that process is ongoing, the Town can’t comment on what is included or how it is being done as we are restricted by law in personnel matters.”
“I don’t have all the facts,” Vice Mayor Jon Snead said by phone Tuesday. “It’s an ongoing investigation on several different levels.”
The photograph, taken by Fracker, shows the men posed in front of a statue of John Stark, a Revolutionary War officer from New Hampshire. Fracker is making an obscene gesture.
Robertson said Sunday that the photo was sent to a coworker who had asked about their well-being. Capitol Police let them inside the building about 2 or 3 p.m. and told them to stay in cordoned-off areas, he said. He and Fracker obeyed those instructions and neither saw nor participated in any violence, Robertson said.
In a Facebook video taken at a Black Lives Matter event at the Rocky Mount Farmer’s Market in June, Robertson, in uniform, dances with Bridgette Craighead, founder of the Franklin County chapter of Black Lives Matter.
That playful image stands in contrast to a Facebook post Robertson made Nov. 7, four days after the U.S. presidential elections. Referencing claims of voter fraud, he wrote “A legitimate republic stands on 4 boxes. The soapbox, the ballot box, the jury box, and then the cartridge box. We just moved to step 3. Step 4 will not be pretty.”
“My statements stand. Our Republic is founded on the sanctity of the individual vote. I’m willing to fight for that right and any other,” Robertson wrote in an e-mail, referencing his U.S. Army service. “If that requires strong words or actions I do not apologize for it.”
Robertson said he served as a sniper in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He shared with The Roanoke Times a photo of his honorable discharge from the Army Reserve in 2009. He went back overseas in 2010 working for defense contractor DynCorp. He was wounded while working for DynCorp in Afghanistan, which he said is why he did not rejoin the Rocky Mount Police Department until 2014. He wrote that he misspoke Sunday when he initially told The Roanoke Times he was deployed overseas in 2010 through the U.S. Army Reserve.
There’s no contradiction in attending the Jan. 6 Trump rally and supporting Black Lives Matter, as supporting the Constitution also includes supporting rights of Black Americans, he wrote. “You can absolutely support BLM and still vote Republican. I do.”
“It is a difference when your job is to escort and police Black Lives Matter at their protest and ensure that they are doing it peaceful and it doesn’t get out of hand,” Craighead said. “But then for you to turn around and attend a deadly riot, I don’t respect that at all.”
Craighead and others who joined her to protest at the municipal building Monday night had intended to address council members directly, but the meeting was closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Craighead said she first received a copy of the photo Saturday. She wanted to ask council members and town officials when they knew about the photo and why no action was announced until after she shared it on Facebook. “They don’t do anything unless they’re forced to.”
About 25 people responded to Craighead’s call. They were met by about 25 people who came to show support for the two policemen.
“There were two types of people that went to D.C. last Wednesday. There were people that went with the intent to cause trouble and then were people like T.J. that were there to make a peaceful point,” said Brittney Perdue, 29.
Perdue has been a friend of Robertson’s for 15 years and worked with him as a Franklin County fire-EMS volunteer. He and Fracker are not rioters or domestic terrorists, she said.
Craighead and Perdue both said that the dueling protests Monday night grew heated when one of the officers’ supporters began yelling over Craighead’s friend Kasey Smith as she spoke to a television crew.
“I showed up to ask what’s going to be done about these two officers,” Smith said.
“At one point it got really intense,” Craighead said. “We were pretty much face to face.” She wondered why Rocky Mount police officers present at the meeting inside the building did not intervene.
Craighead said she called for calm and by about 8 p.m. the confrontation had settled. The protesters left without getting their questions answered.