Despite numerous alleged incidents of serious police misconduct over the past couple of years, Asheville City Council members voted Jan. 15 against creating an official citizen-oversight board.
Conceding that it is a “bit of a complex topic,” police Chief William Hogan nonetheless lobbied against the idea, citing several existing layers of police oversight and reiterating that state privacy laws and other prohibitions would probably render such a board toothless.
The recommendation to maintain the status quo was approved 5-2, with Council members Brownie Newman and Robin Cape opposed. Both said they needed to hear more from those proposing such a group before rejecting the idea . Although Citizens Awareness Asheville, a grass-roots group, had recently said it would create its own board regardless of what the city decided, no one from the group or the general public rose to speak in favor of a city-sanctioned citizen board during the public comment (see “Who Watches the Watchers,” Nov. 14, 2007 Xpress). Later in the meeting, however, one woman did go on record saying she supported the idea.
Haw Creek resident Fred English defended Hogan and his performance as police chief, telling Council, “I would like to know why we need a bunch of civilians watching the police when that’s your job.”
Nonetheless, several Council members—including Carl Mumpower and Vice Mayor Jan Davis—said more could be done to boost public confidence in the department. Davis, who is chair of Council’s Public Safety Committee, and Mumpower, the former chair, said the Police Department and the Citizens/Police Advisory Committee (which has no oversight authority) will work together on finding ways to strengthen the existing citizen-complaint process. Mumpower also said that the Public Safety Committee needs to evaluate the effectiveness of the advisory committee and possibly strengthen it, as well as do a better job of communicating the limitations of citizen oversight under state law. In addition, he suggested that the Public Safety Committee meet with groups such as Citizens Awareness Asheville and others “to see how we can better address their issues … and incorporate their concerns into our existing structure.”
“All of us want to see the right thing done,” noted Mumpower. “We don’t want to protect bad people. … Covering up the conduct of city employees is the last thing we want to see.”
Although the idea of a police-oversight board isn’t new, the issue has heated up in the wake of a series of incidents in which people have been shot and killed by police officers. In each case, District Attorney Ron Moore sided with the officers, noting that they are legally empowered to use deadly force to deter threats to the public’s safety or their own.
Hogan, meanwhile, noted that victims of alleged misconduct, and their family members, already have several avenues for redress. Shootings, for example, are independently reviewed by the State Bureau of Investigation, with the district attorney deciding whether to bring charges.
Any complaint lodged against the police is also reviewed by the department’s own Office of Professional Standards. And civilians alleging damages can file financial claims with the city’s Risk Management Department, noted Hogan.
Citizens also have options at the state and federal levels. They can file complaints with the state attorney general, the U.S. Department of Justice or the local FBI office. In addition, they can choose to file a lawsuit in state or federal court, he noted.
Cape, however, emphasized the importance of ensuring that investigations are independent and complaints can be filed without fear of intimidation.
Hogan responded that complainants can file a grievance in person, online or have an investigator visit them—and they will never have to face the officer in question. He added that, based on his experience with complaints to state and federal authorities, “I can assure you it’s done by the numbers. … It’s truly a criminal investigation.”
Bridging the gap
On a 6-1 vote, Council members approved a locally produced alternative design for the controversial Interstate 26 Connector and will encourage the state Department of Transportation to prioritize the long-stalled project if DOT officials sign off on the design. Mumpower voted against the plan, which he said he generally supports, because he feared more delays and cost overruns.
Produced by the nonprofit Asheville Design Center and tweaked by Figg Bridge Engineers (a Tallahassee, Fla.-based consulting firm) to help it meet DOT requirements, the plan calls for a different alignment and a smaller footprint than what the state has envisioned. It also incorporates an elevated roadway paralleling U.S Highway 19-23 (the future 1-26) adjacent to the Montford Historic District. A new bridge would span the French Broad River, and the connector would link with Interstate 240 west of the river and with I-26 north of Asheville.
Manuel Carballo, director of Figg Bridge’s Texas office, subsequently said the company presented the design to the DOT by Jan. 18, with a final decision expected within the next two months.
Conceived more than a decade ago, the connector was originally expected to be finished this year. If the DOT endorses the new plan, construction might start sometime in 2013, officials have said. At this point, there is no clear cost estimate for the project, according to Ken Putnam, the city’s assistant director of transportation and engineering. The cost will depend on the final plan chosen by the DOT. Carballo estimated that the alternate design would cost more to build, but because of the smaller footprint, it should cost less to acquire the needed rights of way.
Over the past decade, several attempts to bridge the gap between city residents’ concerns and the DOT’s designs have come to naught. “I don’t want to see us walk down another dead end,” said Mumpower. “Just like the Civic Center, I think we’re in danger of deliberating it to death.”
His colleagues, however, praised the design, with new Council member Bill Russell declaring “I think that’s a phenomenal gain for our community.”
On the road
After two years of deliberation and consultation with Merrimon Avenue business owners and residents, City Council held off on approving a proposed new zoning designation and vision for future development along the busy commercial corridor—which is also a gateway to various residential neighborhoods.
Council members said they need more information before they can make a decision on the proposals. On a 5-2 vote with Mumpower and Davis opposed, they decided to address the issues in a future work session. (Council has revived such nonvoting meetings, which were dropped during the previous term.)
Mumpower, however, took a dim view of the whole project, declaring, “This has been a flawed process from day one. I think we’ve misused those who have been involved.” And indeed, more than a half-dozen people—mostly business owners—chided Council for what they said felt like two years of work wasted.
The general idea is to make Merrimon more friendly to mixed-use development and to address such concerns as pedestrian safety. Cape, however, emphasized that Council merely needs to know more about what’s envisioned for the thoroughfare and doesn’t intend to undo the progress already made.
“We are still going to look at what everyone has done,” she reassured the audience.