Asheville City Council took no additional public comment on the city’s more than $180 million budget at its June 19 meeting, but the Rev. Amy Cantrell still managed to make her position known. During remarks about Asheville’s new comprehensive plan, the founder of the intentional community and homeless support nonprofit BeLoved Asheville praised Council’s vision on community values such as interwoven equity while criticizing its lack of funding for those same values.
“As a faith leader and a person of conscience, I cannot stand for this budget,” Cantrell said. She then proceeded to take a seat, calmly and cross-legged, in front of the podium in Council chambers. There she remained, even when approached by two police officers and asked to move, as city Chief Financial Officer Barbara Whitehorn gave her final remarks on the spending details.
The one-woman sit-in represented the culmination of community protest over the budget, which included a teach-in on June 12 and a rally outside City Hall before the meeting. Cantrell and other advocates had argued against a $2 million increase for the Asheville Police Department, suggesting that the money should be moved to community programs such as fare-free transit, participatory budgeting and opioid overdose and abuse prevention. They also critiqued a lack of transparency in the budget process, particularly the APD’s strategy of meeting with small groups of Council members in an apparent effort to avoid public discussion of its funding.
Whitehorn acknowledged some of these concerns in her statements to Council. “We do want more public transparency in the budgeting process, and that includes providing more details early on about the police budget,” she explained about her department’s goals for the next budget cycle. Whitehorn also expressed a desire to involve the public in strategic planning for use of a possible tax influx that could come as a result of the sale of Mission Health to the for-profit operator HCA Healthcare.
No additional changes, however, made their way into this year’s budget as Council decided to adopt the ordinance in a 4-3 vote. Mayor Esther Manheimer, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, and members Vijay Kapoor and Julie Mayfield all voted in support of the budget. Members Brian Haynes, Sheneika Smith and Keith Young voted against the plan; all three had shown hesitation about the APD funding increase during previous work sessions, but only Haynes had gone on record saying he would not pass the budget.
Reading from a prepared statement, Kapoor noted that he didn’t agree with all aspects of the budget but recognized the need for compromise to address serious issues in the city. About policing specifically, he said, “While I would prefer that we spend this money elsewhere or not spend it at all, the fact is we need more police officers in Asheville to deal with the level of service calls APD receives. Right now, our officers are being pulled from other locations in the city to respond to calls downtown.”
Smith countered by saying Council would be funding a police increase without accurate information about how the department was functioning. She added that in other cities, expanding police presence has failed to reduce crime and caused “a lot of negative interactions around low-level crimes.” Interjecting from the audience, Asheville Fraternal Order of Police President Rondell Lance exclaimed, “What a ridiculous statement for someone to make.”
Council went into closed session after the budget vote, but Cantrell remained on the floor. Speaking with Xpress from her seat, she shared her hope that community voices would sway Council members to make changes in next year’s spending. “Rather than putting the onus on the police to clean up community problems, we should be giving them dignified work to do,” she said. “We should be putting our money toward the root causes of problems that we know we can face and solve together if we have the funds.”
Shortly after that statement, Cantrell was again approached by the police. With hands unhandcuffed but behind her back, she was escorted out of Council chambers and into the elevator. She was subsequently arrested, charged with second-degree trespass and released later in the evening.
A matter of words
Upon returning from closed session, Council embarked on what Manheimer called “a do-over” of three controversial motions on policing policy adopted at its May 22 meeting. Young had introduced those motions to Council’s agenda without prior notice and used the parliamentary procedure of “calling the question” to cut off public comment and force a vote. After those mandates each passed 5-2, with Kapoor and Wisler dissenting, they attracted intense scrutiny from police advocacy groups such as the N.C. Police Benevolent Association and the N.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.
The three resolutions presented on June 19 each rescinded one of the previously passed motions and replaced it with slightly different wording. Instead of directing interim City Manager Cathy Ball to implement written consent, search rationale and regulatory stop policies herself, the new language authorizes her to work with the APD to develop those policies. Haynes, however, emphasized that “although the wording may have changed in those [resolutions], the expectations have not.” Addressing Ball directly, he continued, “The policies should reflect the original intent of the motions passed by a 5-to-2 majority.”
Roughly 30 speakers, some coming from an overflow room, offered their comments on the resolutions. The majority consisted of citizens and activists speaking in support of the measures, but police and several citizens also provided critiques. Law enforcement representatives focused on the specific wording of the written consent mandate, saying the current language would leave them vulnerable in certain situations.
“The new resolution that’s being proposed gives the police absolutely no wiggle room whatsoever,” said Rick Tullis, an officer with the APD. “There are a multitude of calls for service that the police answer that call for police to possibly ask for consent where it’d be too dangerous to go back to a car to retrieve a form or to turn your back on somebody to retrieve a form.” Lance added that the FOP would be happy to approve of the language if the words “when safe and practical” were amended to the written consent resolution.
Kapoor, who met with representatives from both police groups and the NAACP to discuss the policy, expressed his sympathy for the law enforcement perspective. He offered the theoretical example of a domestic violence dispute where an abusive husband might refuse to give written consent for a voluntary search, thus preventing an officer from entering the home and checking for weapons. “This resolution allows the chief to consider circumstances where she, as a nationally recognized law enforcement expert, believes not allowing verbal consent to suffice would put the public or officers at unnecessary risk,” Kapoor said.
“I’m going to go ahead and call b.s. on that,” Young responded, referencing the police’s ability to conduct searches without consent under their “community caretaker” function. He also roundly rejected the need for qualifying language in the written consent resolution. “From this point forward, if I see ‘ideally’ in a policy for this, we will back here again and again,” he said. “‘Ideally’ exercising my rights is not an option for you to decide.”
Council decided not to make any changes to the language as they passed each of the new resolutions unanimously. Ball and Chief Tammy Hooper of the APD will now work out the details of the policies; at Council’s May 22 meeting, Hooper told Young, “We’re not adopting a written consent policy,” citing the department’s use of body cameras to record consent.
After the meeting, Kapoor emailed Xpress to share his disagreement with Young’s interpretation of police powers. The N.C. Court of Appeals, he said, noted in the 2017 decision State v. Huddy that the community caretaker exception has never previously been applied for a residential search in the state. “It’s clear that these situations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and my point is simply that it’s reasonable in some situations to allow verbal consent to suffice,” Kapoor wrote.
Council’s next regular meeting will take place on Tuesday, July 24, at 5 p.m. in Council chambers.