The harm caused by Tasers, the conduct of local law enforcement—especially in African-American communities—and the possible creation of a citizen’s oversight board were all topics of sometimes heated discussion at an ACLU-sponsored forum on dissent held Sept. 27.
The forum, at UNCA’s Highsmith Center, turned out a crowd of some 150 people. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with more than 20 local community and activist groups, organized and sponsored the forum in response to recent controversial incidents involving free speech and law enforcement, including the protests at the downtown Bank of America, the arrest of an Asheville man for holding a sign on an overpass and the since-dropped charges of flag desecration against an Asheville couple that turned an American flag upside down and pinned statements to it in protest.
Most of the questions were directed at Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan and Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, who were part of a nine-person panel that included attorneys, activists and legal experts. Both have taken criticism for their handling of some of the incidents.
Duncan said that the Sheriff’s office has learned more about the right to dissent in the past few months. “Everybody understands now that it’s within free speech to fly a flag any way you want to,” he said, drawing laughter.
Both Duncan and Hogan invited people to bring concerns directly to them.
“We are peacekeepers, that’s our first priority,” Hogan said. “If someone lets us know in advance, we can find ways to protect their right to dissent.”
Activist Clare Hanrahan said, to a standing ovation from the audience, that “it seems like law enforcement is arbitrary and selective, putting the lie to the concept of equal justice. We need real oversight of the police.”
City Council candidate William Meredith asserted that “I see a prevailing overuse of [nonlethal weapons such as Tasers]” and asked what law enforcement is doing to prevent that.
Hogan replied that the APD has an investigative process every time an officer uses force, including a Taser and that “we regulate that very carefully.” Furthermore, he said Tasers save the lives of both civilians and police.
Duncan said that law enforcement officers often use Tasers because “it gives you a great deal of control with very little injury,” adding that he himself had been tasered, something he said is required of any officer who carries a Taser.
“It’s extremely painful. You can’t fight through it … but when it’s over, the pain stops.”
That description was challenged by a number of audience members, including Larry James, a West Asheville community-watch member who held up pictures showing what he said was the badly burned skin of a man after the APD tasered him.
“The man in these pictures was badly burned because they took the cap off the Taser—he was handcuffed on the ground and they tased him,” James said, drawing applause as he asserted that the police profiled African-Americans. “I’m not feeling protected by the police department, I’m feeling threatened every time I go out. This is ridiculous.”
Hogan, looking at the photos as James came forward and put them on the table in front of him, said “I can only tell you that the Taser doesn’t make these kind of wounds.”
He also said that any shootings by the police are investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation and the findings delivered not to him, but to the District Attorney.
Several people and groups, including the Citizen’s Awareness Coalition, which formed in response to the incidents involving dissent, have pushed for a citizen’s police-oversight board. Activist Naomi Archer, who said “we need to get real about the level of oppression people in this country are facing” asked Hogan, Duncan and City Council Member Robin Cape, who was also in the panel, what they thought about setting up such a board.
“Are you prepared to create a citizen’s review board that doesn’t just have people from business beholden to the status quo, but really represents the community?” she asked.
Cape said that Council is currently investigating such a step, which would require state legislation, and that she might well be in favor of it. At present, though, “I can’t make an answer on anything I haven’t studied,” she said, adding that UNCA professor Dwight Mullen, also a member of a panel, would be going to Chicago in the coming months to study a successful police-oversight board.
“Once we get that information and study this, then yes, I will be an advocate of that,” Cape said to applause.
Hogan, however, had some concerns about an oversight board.
“I’m not opposed to looking at it,” he said. “National research shows, however, that just like a crime, whether it’s a civilian-review board or police oversight, if the result is not to your liking, you won’t be satisfied.”
He added that in some cases he had seen civilian review boards be more lenient to an officer than police administrators would have been.
Duncan said that a county ordinance had required formation of an advisory committee in 1973, but no action was ever taken. He said he is now forming the committee and wants to expand it beyond its original number to “include people representative of the community.”