APD announces policy changes in wake of 2020 protests

May 31 Asheville racial justice protests
ON THE STREET: Asheville residents marched onto Interstate 240 during protests for racial justice on May 31. Photo by Nick Levine

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.”


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3 thoughts on “APD announces policy changes in wake of 2020 protests

  1. Mike R.

    Asheville is really, really fortunate to have David Zach as Chief of Police. He is an experienced “cops cop” but also knows how to manage and appears to be doing a great job rebuilding the force.

    Councilmember Roney’s opposition to the use of tear gas as a final option to control crowds is not well thought out. Tear gas, which should be deployed with restraint and only as a last effort to maintain crowd control and protect officers, provides a non-lethal but effective method to disperse crowds. Should that option not be available to police, the next method would likely involve guns. Even if only rubber bullets are used, the image of police firing at demonstrators with guns and more importantly, the much higher probability of serious injury or death makes this approach one to avoid.

  2. Gordon 1820

    David Zach has thought this through. and proposes a strong policy. He deserve Councils support. There has to be some way to disburse unruly crowds without harm to the activists or the local merchants and pepper spray does this effectively. This City belong to everyone who lives here and not just those who are unhappy with the latest hot topic. When the Proud Boys show up in Asheville will Ms Roney be so welcoming. Who will Ms Roney call when she needs help? Why should businesses in downtown Asheville have to be subjected to so much property damage because a crowd cannot help how ‘angry’ they are at the world. Ms Roney needs to step out of her bubble occassionally.

  3. Dean Blair

    The idea that APD should not have all the tools necessary to enforce the law is in essence a demand to NOT enforce the law to its fullest extend. Laws that Asheville City Council members should have sworn to uphold. When laws are not enforced, those who don’t respect the law to begin with are free to disregard any authority with impunity. When a mob violates a lawful order to disperse, they forfeit their right to cry foul when LAWFUL force is escalated to disperse them.

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