Who watches the watchers?

A group of citizen activists say they’ve had enough and are poised to establish a police-oversight board—whether or not the city approves.

Eyes on the police: Community activist Gene Hampton will announce the formation of a review board and Copwatch program. Photo By Jonathan Welch

At press time, Citizens Awareness Asheville was planning a Nov. 14 press conference at Eaties Cereal Bar to formally announce the formation of an oversight board, a Copwatch program (in which citizens monitor police activity, often via video recordings), and a hot line for people to report harassment by the police.

A preliminary version of the group’s statement doesn’t mince words.

“Citizens Awareness Asheville is a coalition of victims, survivors of murdered victims, community activists and those who have been brutalized with beatings, unwarranted tasings and harassment by some of the sworn officers of the Asheville Police Department,” the statement reads. “In the last three years, while the ranks of sworn officers [have] remained the same, the citizen complaints of brutality and killings by police officers have increased.”

The group is also circulating a petition demanding that the Asheville City Council grant formal recognition to the new police-oversight board.

Spokesperson Gene Hampton, who will present the announcement, says the review board will have five members—one each from north, south, east, west and central Asheville—and will work in conjunction with the Copwatch program.

“We’re setting this up external to the city’s regime for now,” Hampton explains. “The Copwatch program and hot line will serve to collect information and concerns. Then the board can decide what to do with them, be that going before City Council or pursuing legal action. We envision that once the effect of this program is seen, the state and city will condone and approve the board.”

The group will also monitor the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, though it will be based in and focused on Asheville.

Personnel records at issue

Under Article I, Section 3 of the North Carolina Constitution, noted Hampton, “The inherent, sole, and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and police thereof” belongs to the people, and in forming its board, Citizens Awareness Asheville is simply exercising that right.

Similar boards established in other cities often have some authority to access personnel records not available to the general public. Under North Carolina law, City Council would have to ask the General Assembly to grant the new board that authority, which is normally limited to the police chief and the city manager, who can share information with City Council.

UNCA political-science professor Dwight Mullen visited Chicago recently to research how its police-oversight board has worked.

“The relationship is extremely antagonistic,” he reports. “Ironically enough, the aldermen and the review board are currently suing the Police Department over access to personnel records—which is just what we’re talking about here.”

That access, says Mullen, is crucial. “To have teeth, a board like this really needs to be able to see personnel files. Otherwise it’s really just an advisory body.” But Mullen adds that he hopes an Asheville board could avoid some of the pitfalls Chicago has encountered. “I don’t think that kind of animosity is very constructive in the long run, and we should avoid that if at all possible,” he says.

In a separate effort, Mullen says he plans to meet with others in the city to try and hammer out a proposal for an official police-oversight board.

Reason not the need

That proposal, however, seems likely to face some opposition on City Council. It will first have to go through the Public Safety Committee, whose chair, Council Member Carl Mumpower, also doesn’t mince words about the idea.

“I’m strongly against it,” Mumpower told Xpress. “We have ways within the system to hold people accountable. The police chief is accountable to the city manager, and the city manager is accountable to Council. We need to work through that chain of command. Creating another bureaucracy will not be helpful to the community.”

Council member Jan Davis, who also serves on the committee, said he’d be open to studying the possibility in the future, but that currently he opposes the idea.

“Council is the review board—and our responsibility goes deeper in many ways than a citizens’ review board,” said Davis. “There are already checks and balances in place—including with the State Bureau of Investigation—without adding another layer. You also have to consider the morale factor.” (The committee’s third seat was held by Council member Bryan Freeborn, who lost in the Nov. 6 election. His replacement has not yet been decided.)

Police Chief Bill Hogan also feels that a review board isn’t needed. “There are a host of alternatives, many of them stronger than anything a citizen-review board could do,” he told Xpress. “People can go to the SBI if they want to report a criminal violation by a police officer. They can go to the FBI or the Justice Department to report misconduct or abuse by police or any government official.”

North Carolina, notes Hogan, “has very restrictive laws when it comes to personnel matters,” and even if a board were granted access to personnel files, it’s unlikely that it would be able to share that information with the public. “I don’t think such a board would be able to do all the things its proponents want it to do,” said the chief.

As for the Copwatch program, Hogan said, “Anyone’s free to videotape anything.” His department, he added, is looking to establish more trust in the community, especially through educational seminars.

“It is troubling that there’s this mistrust out there,” he said. “We all work better when there’s a dialogue. My door is always open to any concerns or complaints.”

Council member Robin Cape, who seemed open to the general idea during a Sept. 27 forum on dissent sponsored by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she’s reserving judgment until a proposal comes before City Council.

“My role here is one of support,” said Cape. “I’m waiting to see what the community brings forward to us on this.”

A recurring theme

This isn’t the first time there’s been a push for a police-review board in Asheville. In 2003, a number of incidents—including allegations of unjustified beatings and a racially offensive e-mail circulated among police officers—prompted the formation of Asheville Justice Watch, which mounted a similar campaign. But that attempt floundered after then City Manager Jim Westbrook pointed out that revealing personnel records would violate state law, and City Council declined to pursue the matter further.

The issue arose again after Oakley resident Kyle Ann Ross was wrongly tasered and arrested by Officer Matthew Lawson in March 2005. Lawson was later fired, and Ross launched a drive to create an oversight board, appearing in local media and at City Council meetings (see “Shocked,” Sept. 12 Xpress).

Citizens Awareness Asheville was formed this summer in the wake of a series of controversial incidents. A Buncombe County Sheriff’s deputy arrested activists Mark and Deborah Kuhn on charges of flag desecration that were later dropped (see “Flag Fight,” Aug. 1 Xpress), and activist Jonas Phillips was arrested for holding an anti-Bush administration banner on a freeway overpass (see “Signed Off,” Aug. 29 Xpress). The charges against Phillips are still pending.

Then, in early October, Rita Logan and Adrienne Peterson lambasted the police at a City Council meeting, asserting that their husbands had been slain in unjustified shootings.

Hampton says Citizens Awareness is simply trying to ensure accountable law enforcement, which he believes will help the police as well.

“We’re not looking to punish here,” Hampton emphasizes. “I think that, as with most organizations, it’s 20 percent of the people causing 80 percent of the problems. This will help to ensure everyone’s safety and more effective policing.”

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6 thoughts on “Who watches the watchers?

  1. Rob Close

    …revealing personnel records would violate state law…

    Actually, there exists in state law a place for Cities to empower its employees to have access to these records.

    Read the whole law yourself @:
    http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/HTML/BySection/Chapter_160A/GS_160A-168.html
    Suffice to say, here are the exceptions that are relevant. Asheville could hire some citizens to be a review board, pay ‘em $1 a year and say that their job is supervisory authority. Or we could make Dwight Mullen our Ombudsman, and he could examine the files with some Academic aspect included. Creativity, people! And check the laws yourself – power concedes nothing!

    (c) All information contained in a city employee’s personnel file, other than the information made public by subsection (b) of this section, is confidential and shall be open to inspection only in the following instances:

    (3) A city employee having supervisory authority over the employee may examine all material in the employee’s personnel file.

    (c2) The city council may permit access, subject to limitations they may impose, to selected personnel files by a professional representative of a training, research, or academic institution if that person certifies that he will not release information identifying the employees whose files are opened and that the information will be used solely for statistical, research, or teaching purposes. This certification shall be retained by the city as long as each personnel file examined is retained.

  2. I just want to applaud these community members for stepping up their pro-activism and organizing themselves to help bring about a fair, balanced, and safer community for all.

  3. Now those of us who don’t trust those people will have to start a group to watch THEM!

    Will it ever end?

    Maybe we should just let the police do their job?

  4. Rob Close

    nah, that’s called a slippery slope argument ralph. logical fallacy. doesn’t work, sorry. :)

  5. I was not completely less than facetious, Rob ;-)

    But… seriously… I believe the oversight in place already through the city government and city council is more than adequate.

    Let the police, police.

  6. Nam Vet

    I have been impressed with the APD lately. They are a citizen-friendly bunch who do not need much oversight. Police risk their lives for us. They deserve our thanks for a job well done. Thank you Asheville Police Dept!

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