Over a year since the Asheville Police Department’s response to spring 2020’s racial justice demonstrations — including the destruction of a protester medic station — drew national headlines, the consequences for policing in the city continue to play out. During a Sept. 28 meeting of Asheville City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Chief David Zack announced the implementation of departmental policy changes recommended by an after-action report from the protests.
The report, requested by Council in July 2020, was released in March and details how the APD handled the demonstrations that occurred May 29 through June 6, 2020, after the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd by a white police officer. The document outlined 11 recommendations and 17 action items for APD to address.
Among the policy changes Zack presented included mandating that body-worn cameras be in use throughout protest events; designating a resource manager to coordinate with supporting agencies, such as the National Guard and Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office; and developing standard procedures for communications between the city, media and community.
Zack also said that heavy police presence during the demonstrations may have “incited the emotions of many protesters.” He said that “when practical, APD will employ a ‘softer’ approach” to large-scale events by reducing the number of officers, using concrete or plastic barriers and foregoing the deployment of SWAT or riot control units unless necessary.
In response to criticism over its actions at the protester medic station, the APD’s policy now states that officers “will not destroy personal or abandoned property unless it poses an immediate danger to officers” or the public. Zack said that disciplinary action had been taken against officers who participated in the destruction of property, but he did not disclose who those officers were or what punishments had been administered, citing state privacy requirements.
And while the report found that the decision to use tear gas against protesters on May 31 at the Jeff Bowen Bridge was “both within agency policy and best practices,” it noted that officers violated departmental crowd control operations and chemical munitions policies during that action. Zack said APD will now give clear and consistent warnings before those munitions are used. APD also loosened a requirement for the Asheville Fire Department to be present before tear gas is used for crowd control; the new policy states that the AFD must only be notified prior to use.
Council member Kim Roney said she felt that the department was “moving in the wrong direction” with its chemical munitions policies and questioned whether the APD should be allowed to use tear gas for crowd control at all. Roney asked that Zach present the changes before the full Council so that members could specifically discuss the use of those munitions.
“I think where the department is now is, actually this is the less aggressive — whether you accept that or not — way to deal with the situation,” responded City Manager Debra Campbell. “We assure you that we’re going to practice the best practice and going to be very selective in its use and going to continue to follow [Federal Emergency Management Agency] guidelines and state guidelines. “
City Attorney Brad Branham also noted that Council is limited by the city’s charter in terms of regulating what tools the police department can use and how they can use them. He said that those decisions are designated to the city manager, rather than Council.
“Can we clarify on the public record that we are creating policies that chemical munitions can be deployed against people of all ages and abilities in the city of Asheville?” Roney replied. “We deployed chemical munitions on children, elders and people of different abilities, and the policies in front of us now ensure that that can be used again.”
“APD uses chemical munitions to protect themselves, property and private citizens. That is not a contained deployment. That’s why warnings are given for persons to leave. If people do not heed that warning, I don’t know what to tell you,” said Zack. “APD has to have the ability to respond. And if there’s some persons in the crowd who are elderly, of course that’s unfortunate. We don’t want to see that happen.”