At over $27 million, the Asheville Police Department’s budget represents the single largest category in the city’s proposed $121 million general fund operating budget. But the scrutiny the department’s funding has received during the creation of the 2017-18 fiscal year budget (which will go into effect July 1) isn’t just tied to the relative size of the expense. Chief Tammy Hooper‘s request for $1 million to add 15 officers to create a 24/7 downtown police unit has sparked outrage from activists already critical of the department’s track record. The activists, who came together around a “$1 million for the people” slogan, charge the Asheville police with disparate treatment of racial minorities, the homeless and those living in poverty.
The activists say the money could be better spent on a variety of social programs they say would reduce crime while improving the lives of those most affected by systemic racism and inequitable treatment.
The activists’ critiques were front and center at City Council’s May 23 public hearing on the proposed city budget. Prior to the Council meeting, as elected officials and city staff held a budget worksession in Council chambers, the sounds of protestors chanting, drumming and playing music on the front portico of City Hall formed an audible backdrop to the slide presentations and discussion.
In the worksession, Hooper said an increase in crime citywide, especially a 17 percent increase in violent crime, requires an expansion of the department to ensure public safety, allow time for community policing, maintain department morale and avoid burnout. Hiring more officers will also allow the city to reduce the overtime expenses it now incurs to cover the staff shortage, eventually offsetting the cost of the new hires by about $370,000 per year, she said.
In previous meetings, Hooper has said that the department needs to hire for 20 unfilled positions in addition to the 15 new positions needed to create a downtown unit. The current police hiring request is based on training a new class of 25 recruits in February 2018, as opposed to beginning the class in August 2017 as had previously been proposed. “I can’t express enough that we need to have more resources,” Hooper said, citing a new emphasis on deescalation techniques as one example of policing strategies that take more officer time and resources to implement.
Mayor Esther Manheimer closed the worksession with a summary of the budget proposal on which Council would hear public comment. “The current budget proposal does include a half-cent property tax increase over and above the 3.5 cents for the bonds. And it is to pay for the $630,000 increase in transit. The proposed budget also includes the increased personnel in police. However, the funding for that comes from a reallocation within the police department and then $130,000 found outside the police department across other city departments,” Manheimer said.
The total proposed property tax rate, Manheimer said, is 43.39 cents per $100 of taxable property value, a reduction from the current rate of 47.5 cents. A 2017 property revaluation that saw property values rise an average of nearly 30 percent citywide will yield an increase in the amount of property tax collected despite the lower rate.
The main event
For the Council meeting proper, the chamber was full, with many attendees watching from an overflow room. Simultaneous Spanish language translation was arranged by the activist group, which is organized by Rev. Amy Cantrell. Two translators worked throughout the meeting to provide interpretation for Spanish-speaking attendees. The number of listeners varied from five early on in the evening to two by the end of the meeting, the translators said.
Nicole Townsend led off the public comments with a call to involve community members in spending decisions. She also urged Council to allow “democratic community control” of law enforcement, including hiring, firing and disciplinary action. Townsend advocated for the civilian oversight committee to be invested with subpoena power to gather evidence related to police misconduct.
Local open data activist and technology entrepreneur Patrick Conant called for more transparency from the police department. If the proposed budget is approved, he said, police funding will have increased $4 million over the last two years, which is almost enough to cover the increased costs associated with the city’s $74 million bond program.
Increasing the police budget makes it more likely that the “black- and brown-bodied people” in his community will fall into the deportation and criminalization system, Alan Ramirez said.
Recent UNC Asheville graduate Jae Slaughter said that the failure to invest in social programs like drug treatment and housing have resulted in “the policing regimen we have today.” As the grandmother of three biracial children, Martha Mosseller said she worries that her grandchildren will be at risk of an interaction with police that could negatively affect the course of their lives.
As part of the $1 Million for the People campaign, Michael Collins said, he and fellow activists have attended meetings of the Citizens Police Advisory and Public Safety committees, the Downtown Commission and City Council. They have sent emails, made phone calls, collected data and circulated petitions. The activists, he said, deserve an opportunity to work together with city leaders to address society’s worst ills.
Defending the police
Early in the hearing, Susan Watts expressed dismay at the level of criticism of police officers. She urged support for the police department, saying, “Chief Hooper should get all the money that she needs to put extra officers downtown.”
Police Benevolent Association President Brandon McGaha pointed out that about one police officer per 3,000 city residents is on duty at a given time, and that figure doesn’t include visitors. Police, he said, feel that they are held in contempt by the majority of residents. Hooper was hired for her expertise and should be given the resources she has requested to fulfill her mission, he said.
During a break in the public hearing, APD Officer Travis Haralson said it was difficult to listen to testimony accusing police officers of misconduct and racial discrimination. Every day when he goes to work, Haralson said, he puts his life on the line. Although there are some bad police officers, he said, most are dedicated to their work and to serving every member of the community, “even those who hate them.” Though it’s difficult to hear criticism of the police force, he continued, he loves his job.
Fraternal Order of Police Vice President Marty Wilson said during the break he wished more members of the community would turn out to comment in support of the police.
During the second half of the public comment period, Rondell Lance, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said the issue isn’t about the budget, “It’s about not liking the police.” Despite that negative view of the police among the public, he said, “Believe it or not, these men and women of the police department loves everybody, no matter where you’re from, no matter what color you are, no matter what your religion or faith. They will come and lay down their life on the line for you.”
Iman Mustafa, a nurse and family therapist, expressed compassion for the hard jobs done by Council members and police officers. The problem lies in corrupt officers, she said. She urged Council to invest in programs that benefit people rather than in expanded policing.
More points of view
Purl’s Yarn Emporium owner Elizabeth Schell represented a group of 31 downtown business owners who signed a petition opposing the expansion of the police department to include a dedicated downtown unit. Concerns over crime and policing, she said, were rated lower than many other issues by downtown residents and business owners in a recent survey. Safety concerns downtown would be better met with improved coordination with police, she said. If downtown hotels need additional security, Schell continued, they should dedicate a portion of the room tax to funding that service.
Just Economics Executive Director Vicki Meath stipulated that her comment was made as a private citizen and not in her professional role. “I am very angry,” she said, noting that the current budget process was the least transparent she had witnessed. The $620,000 increase in the budget for expansions to the transit service, she said, represents a full year of expenditures, while the policing increase only represents a half of a year. In the following year, she pointed out, tax payers will be on the hook for the full yearly cost of the expanded police force. The process of shuffling money from one category to another, she said, was “a shell game.”
Society needs to invest in people, Maxwell Reed said, rather than in a suppressive force to lock people away. A massive increase in incarceration in the United States in recent years, he said, has not resulted in less crime. “The school to prison pipeline is a real thing,” Reed said. “People living in poverty is a real thing. We need to solve the problems at the root of the crime.”
Her group, $1 Million for the People, Cantrell said, wants “Council to reallocate existing resources to the people.” Under the current proposal, she said, data has shown that the people who will pay the social costs of the increased policing are “black- and brown-bodied people and people who are poor.” Cantrell stressed that she loves all people, regardless of the uniform or the badge they wear, and her critique is of a broken system.
“If want to preserve longevity in this style of government, you need to increase transparency in your operations,” said Jake Swett. The area’s tourism industry depends on the working class, he continued, and, “If we don’t start to see real sustainable change in our government here, I can’t even speak to what will happen.” Angel Archer was even blunter: ” I hate talking to you all. I don’t believe for one second that you are going to do anything positive.” As a fourth-generation native of Asheville, Dewana Little said, she sees people of color being pushed out of the city. People like her are stopped in the street and bullied. “Please, no,” she said, “Find something else to do with that money.”
“This budget is a disaster,” said former City Council member Chris Peterson, decrying increases to city charges and fees, the salaries earned by top city employees and incentives given to beer companies. To the mayor, Peterson said, “You don’t deserve to be in that chair. You don’t know how to budget.”
Adam Olson gave an unusual testimony: He used his three-minute comment period to read a passage that outlined the characteristics of pigs.
From the candidates
Three City Council candidates spoke at the meeting.
Vijay Kapoor repeated his call for a five-year projection of city expenses and revenues to increase transparency, especially as it relates to bond-related taxes and spending. He also urged Council to deploy $320,000 earmarked for hiring an out-of-state consultant to perform a diversity study to local resources. City Manager Gary Jackson responded that no local service providers had responded to the city’s request for proposals, and that performing the study is necessary to comply with requirements related to minority contracting.
Dee Williams said the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Reform Committee she leads wants safety for all people, including the police. But to see change, she continued, “We’ve got to have a set of data that we can agree on. We’ve seen the data all over the place.”
Modern policing, Williams said, “is nothing more than slave catching and protection of property that folks who are landed gentry own.”
Speaking of racial inequality in Asheville, Williams observed, “There’s a tale of two cities that’s going on. You don’t see folks of color downtown anywhere. Our children do worse than any black children in the state in the school system. We have nothing to be proud of in this city except that some folks have not given up hope.”
Kim Roney said Council had missed an opportunity in choosing not to vote on suggestions brought forward by attorney Ian Mance as part of his presentation to Council on data he said showed racial disparities in Asheville’s policing. Roney advocated for giving the resources requested for police expansion to the people.
Translator Luis Serapio spoke at the end of the public comment period, calling out Council members for not making an effort to connect with members of the Spanish-speaking community.
Manheimer thanked community members for their comments. “It’s exciting for us to see so many new faces,” she said, noting that in previous years only a handful of people had commented at City Council’s public hearing for the proposed budget.
Council member Brian Haynes broke with his peers on the Council in expressing opposition to the proposed increase in the police budget. A number of downtown businesses and residents indicated the police expansion was not a high priority, he said, and many people feel over-policed. He urged the city to focus on making better use of the officers already on the force and to filling present vacancies. Finally, Haynes said, “I support this movement.”
Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler reported on efforts to reconsider the role and format of the Citizens Police Advisory Committee in light of that committee’s request. Wisler proposed forming a “blue ribbon commission” with 12-15 members to consider the possible formation of a Human Relations Commission. The HRC’s mission could include advising City Council on policing as well as concerns such as inequality, racism, oppression of underrepresented groups, disability rights and gender issues. Council members will nominate candidates for the blue ribbon commission, and some seats will be chosen from among community members who apply. With a round of nods, Council indicated agreement with the plan Wisler outlined.
At Council’s June 13 meeting, Wisler said, Council will appoint its nominees, with the goal of beginning the blue ribbon commission’s work by August 1; recommendations will be delivered by November.
Council will also vote on its proposed 2017-18 budget at its June 13 meeting.