Tuesday night’s snowfall hadn’t yet begun, but Asheville City Council faced an avalanche of criticism from local residents at its March 13 meeting.
Continuing for about two hours, comments from members of the public dominated the Council’s first regular meeting since body camera footage surfaced showing former Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman (who is white) beating Johnnie Jermaine Rush, a black Asheville resident. Speakers called for reducing police funding, reparations for Rush and the resignation or firing of multiple city officials, including APD Chief Tammy Hooper, Mayor Esther Manheimer and City Manager Gary Jackson.
Robert Zachary, the head of the Healing Love Institute, said the March 13 meeting marked the first time he’d been in Council chambers since around 2011.
“One reason I don’t come is black folk don’t come nowhere that they don’t feel nobody is going to listen to them,” he said. “… I’m not really convinced that you are listening today, because I’ve been in this city for 15 years, and this kind of stuff has been going on for this long. … I wonder if I should really say anything or if I should just shut my mouth and moan for 10 minutes.”
Before public comment began, representatives from the Racial Justice Coalition, a joint initiative of 14 Asheville organizations, delivered a list of recommendations to City Council that the coalition believes would improve police accountability.
These include establishing an unbiased policing hotline that city officials would respond to within 48 hours; investigating every use-of-force incident as a criminal case first and an administrative case second; improving representation on the city’s Civil Service Board, which has the power to reinstate fired officers; and involving people of color in police training so that officers understand their experiences.
“There is a need to humanize each other and typically, as we’ve seen in the case with Mr. Rush, people of color are dehumanized and devalued by officers,” said Racial Justice Coaltion co-chair Gerry Leonard.
Recent City Council candidate Dee Williams pointed to “21st century policing” as a possible solution to the problem. In 2014, President Barack Obama created a task force on 21st century policing that recommended ways to build trust and collaboration between communities and law enforcement agencies.
Racial disparity, Williams said, is especially stark in Asheville.
“Blacks in Asheville — economically, socially, medically — fare worse than any blacks in the state of North Carolina, and our children are also dead last,” Williams said. “This is not a good place for people of color who look like me, both black and brown, to live. … This is a tale of two cities.”
Ian Mance, a staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who leads the organization’s Open Data Policing initiative, teamed up with Williams last year to deliver a presentation to City Council on traffic stops. He appeared at the March 13 meeting to give Council members an update on that data. “At the time I told you that African-American drivers in Asheville were about 50 percent more likely to be searched, 100 percent more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts,” Mance said.
Since then, Mance continued, the gap between how white and black drivers are treated during stops has grown larger. Last year, 11 percent of black motorists stopped by the police were searched, he said. “That is the highest search rate of black motorists anywhere in the state of North Carolina of any city the size of Asheville or larger,” he said.
In 2017, he said, the Asheville Police Department posted its most racially disparate stop and search data in the 15 years the department has reported the information. “Black drivers made up 46 percent of all people searched last year by Asheville police officers despite again being found with contraband less frequently than white drivers,” he said. Black drivers also made up about a quarter of traffic stops despite representing about 12 percent of the population.
Mance encouraged City Council members to prohibit low-level discretionary stops by police and to consider implementing a written consent search policy used by Durham and Fayetteville.
“I think Asheville’s numbers are clearly trending in the wrong direction,” Mance said. “By many metrics they’re worse than anywhere else. This is an opportunity to take a second look, and I urge you to do so.”
Sharon Smith, an activist with Black Lives Matter, called for an economic boycott of Asheville.
“We have a city that preys on black people in order to benefit itself economically, socially and politically,” Smith said. “…We know what the story is. The trick is what are you going to do about? We’re not tolerating it anymore. Just don’t come to Asheville. We don’t want you here until we get what we want.”
Nicole Townsend, a regional organizer with Southerners on New Ground, asked Council members to stand up for their marginalized constituents at the state level. “Is Asheville finally going to finally stand up and be a model for the South?” Townsend asked. “Or is Asheville going to continue to hang rainbow flags and pretend that everybody here is treated equally? We are watching you.”
City Council also heard from members of the law enforcement community. Diana Loveland, who said she has worked as an officer with the Asheville Police Department for more than 18 years, defended Hooper, calling her the most productive chief she’s seen in her tenure. Loveland told Council that Asheville police have welcomed recent reforms, including policies supporting deescalation and a stringent use-of-force policy.
“You’ve prejudged officers,” Loveland said. “They have prejudged officers as a whole, and we are not a whole with Hickman. We do not condone or approve or support his actions.”
Rondell Lance, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police and a candidate for county sheriff, said the video is not representative of the people at the Asheville Police Department.
“The job that these men and women are willing to step up and do, put their lives on the line for the community,” Lance said. “That doesn’t mean they make the right decision every time. Sometimes they don’t, and they should be held accountable. They need to be held accountable. But when you got good men and women doing a good job, you need to recognize that and you need to let them know that you support them.”
Council member Keith Young, who addressed attendees before the beginning of public comment, wants more African-American officers in the police force and would like to see a program that promotes minority recruitment with substantial pay.
“You want to see change? Come on, join up. Like Uncle Sam says, ‘I want you,’” Young said. “If you don’t see the change you want on the police force, what if we could pay $40,000?”
Council member Sheneika Smith also chimed in, saying that the city will have to work with law enforcement to bring about transformative policing.
“But right now in this space … I will not run to the bedside of my officers because we will not switch the focus from Mr. Johnnie Rush or the communities that are most affected by this traumatic event,” she said.
On March 14, the day after Council’s meeting, the government transparency advocacy organization Code for Asheville posted a petition calling for reform on Change.org. “We support the request by Code for Asheville that the Asheville City Council require the regular release of critical data and policies related to public safety and the police department and that Asheville join with other cities that are already using data to bring about positive systemic change,” read a portion of the petition.
In other business
City Council unanimously approved closures that would affect a portion of Peachtree Street and two rights-of-way — one near 85 Deaver St. and the other at the end of Deaver Street south of Howard Street.
Council also heard a presentation by Anna Priest, the executive director of the Asheville Museum of Science. The museum recently moved to a new location in downtown Asheville. The average museum, Priest said, receives nearly 25 percent of its budget from municipal support. AMOS currently receives about three percent, which includes recently reduced state funding.
Council member Julie Mayfield said the presentation landed on a night when the community’s focus is in a different place, but it would be worth a followup. “It seems that this is an important piece of Asheville and that certainly the way that the funding is structured now is not in line with many of other leading museums in the state,” she said. “I hope that we can in some way, either in this budget cycle or a future budget cycle, consider how to address that concern.”
The next regular City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, April 10, at 5 p.m. in Council chambers on the second floor of City Hall at 70 Court Plaza, Asheville. City Council will meet in closed session during a specially called meeting at 4:15 p.m. on Friday, March 16, in Council chambers.
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