by Brian Postelle
It’s been about seven months since Bill Hogan came on board as Asheville’s new police chief. Chosen from a pool of 89 applicants by City Manager Jim Westbrook, Hogan arrived in Asheville after five years spent heading up the Rocky Mount, N.C., Police Department.
In response to some community members’ desire for more public involvement in choosing a successor to outgoing Chief Will Annarino, city residents were invited to participate in a Q-and-A session with the two finalists in April. Even so, however, the city took some heat, with some members of the public scolding city officials for waiting until only two candidates remained before collecting citizen input. Others complained that the city hadn’t done enough to publicize the session.
But citizen concerns about the APD predate Hogan’s arrival; last June, he took the reins of a department that’s no stranger to controversy. Although Annarino retired amid praise from city leaders after a 10-year stint as chief, community activists charged that Annarino’s department had repeatedly overrreacted to peaceful demonstrations, using aggressive force and making unnecessary arrests.
So last month, Xpress decided it was time to check in with Asheville’s new chief. Wearing a suit rather than the uniform he typically uses when appearing before City Council, Hogan opted for a couch across the room from his desk as he described his initial efforts to get acquainted with this city.
Hogan: “These first six months, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get to know the community. I’ve met a lot of folks, had the opportunity to speak at a number of neighborhood associations and civic associations [and] to meet with the officers — the men and women of the department. I’m very positive about all that; it’s a great community. I’m just really delighted to be here.”
That said, however, Hogan cut to the chase, describing what he sees as the APD’s most important initiative.
Hogan: “Certainly a concerning issue is the drugs: a big priority for the department. We’re putting a lot of resources in continuously developing strategies on how to impact on this problem. Some great strides [have been made], and we’ve got more to go. We created a drug-suppression unit, and they have had some great results. They’ve worked very closely with patrol officers in the various districts. In the first three months we made 256 arrests, and 75 of those were actual drug-dealer arrests. I think that, in and of itself, indicates we do have a problem. It’s not citywide, but it is located in certain neighborhoods. This is crack cocaine distribution, sales, usage — all that.”
The issue has also been a source of friction on City Council. Some city leaders, stressing the need for more enforcement in problem areas, favor a million-dollar plan to hire more police officers. Others on Council prefer a broader-based approach that would also try to address the social causes of drug abuse and drug dealing. After months of sometimes heated debate, however, City Council passed a budget back in June that reflected the latter approach. The budget also earmarked $250,000 for new officers, however, and Hogan said he’s working to fill seven newly created staff positions, as well as vacancies left by other officers’ retirement, with an eye toward bringing the force up to full strength (183 officers).
Hogan, meanwhile, made waves last month when he withdrew his department from the Metropolitan Enforcement Group, a 17-year partnership with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department and the State Bureau of Investigation to combat drug-trafficking. In a follow-up interview in January, Hogan said he sees the move as a response to Council members’ call for channeling more energy and resources into addressing Asheville’s street-level drug problems. The newly created in-house “drug-suppression unit” uses a mix of patrols, surveillance and undercover work to “destabilize” drug activity on the street, Hogan told Xpress.
To achieve a real and lasting impact, however, Hogan believes both enforcement and outreach are needed. On the one hand, he’s been assessing the workload and personnel needs, as well as hoping to step up recruitment and training efforts. But Hogan says his department also needs to foster stronger relationships with neighborhoods and build trust. To that end, he expresses interest in a program that has also begun gathering broad support on Council: Operation Weed and Seed, a U.S. Justice Department initiative that first helps local law enforcement rid communities of drug dealers and then focuses on bringing in support programs to help foster healthier neighborhoods.
Hogan: “We can do the enforcement piece of it, but a lot has to do with poverty, school dropout, the family unit and how certain families just have disintegrated, in terms of taking the responsibility to raise kids and give them a sense of purpose and value and dreams of what they can be. Kids grow up, in some families, without ever being nurtured that they can be a success in life or even know the importance of education — and how education opens up the doors of opportunity.
“I don’t want to put an indictment on those in poverty, because there are some families who live in a low-income situation who nurture their kids, and those kids flourish. But oftentimes, the kids you see that are involved in drug sales … dropped out of school, [thinking] this is a quick and easy way to make a lot of money, compared to what they could do otherwise.
“So I think there are a lot of social issues that kind of come into play with this, and it makes it so difficult to wrap our arms around. The citizens have to get involved with each other and get involved with the Police Department and other social-service agencies to make a difference. That’s the long-term challenge.
“Putting in resources to help those neighborhoods, and putting in resources to enforcing the law … you can’t make those kinds of improvements when you’ve got a lawless community, or you’ve got people coming in from the outside taking over the street corner selling drugs.”
That kind of holistic approach, says Hogan, is also needed to deal with other chronic downtown issues, such as homelessness and prostitution. But while he recognizes that achieving real solutions will require the involvement of other social agencies, Hogan emphasizes the importance of strong enforcement efforts.
Hogan: “A lot of the homeless here have a host of other problems. … Some are seriously addicted to alcohol, some to drugs. Some have additional mental problems. And so panhandling is not an easy fix; the homeless situation is not an easy fix.
“I had some homeless folks come to meet me shortly after I got here, telling me about, from their perspective, how many services … are provided to people that are down and out in this community. There again, it’s a balance, and I think our enforcement strategy is a balance as well.
“We have to make sure that citizens and visitors to our community feel safe in walking freely about downtown, without being accosted every few feet by somebody aggressively saying, ‘Give me money, give me money.’ If they’re coming up to people asking for money, we’re not going to wait for a call to come. However, if we get a call, we will obviously watch that area very closely and take enforcement action. I think those folks that may be aggressively panhandling, they know full well and are keeping their eyes peeled all the time for police officers. Because they know full well that if we catch them doing that, we will take enforcement action.
“We are stepping up our enforcement of prostitution, in terms of our conversations and citizens’ complaints about seeing it. I’m not going to sit here and say we are going to get rid of every act of prostitution, but we are going to enforce it every time we can enforce it. We’ve set up a number of stings; we’ve arrested a number of people. We’ve offered up those arrest statistics with the names and photographs of those arrested — the johns, if you will — to the media.
“I want everyone to know that if you do this, it’s illegal, and you risk being identified publicly that you are involved in this illegal activity. This all has to do with a quality-of-life issue.”
Hogan’s emphasis on enforcement also extends to downtown demonstrations. And though he declines to speak about things that may have happened on his predecessor’s watch, Hogan says he hopes that cooperation between activists and the police can help avoid confrontations in the future.
Hogan: “When I first came here, I opened up the door and said: ‘Anybody who wants to protest or anyone that wants to express themselves, please come and see me. Please sit down with me, and sit down with the department, and let’s work it out and educate one another. What do you want to do? And let me tell you what legally you can or can’t do.’ I’ve had some people take me up on that.
“What we will not allow any one group to do is infringe upon the freedoms and the rights of other citizens.
“So if I can tell you what’s going to get you in trouble, I’d like to tell you up front what that is. What I would like to do, if you are an organizer, is tell you what the ground rules are. And then I look to you to help the Police Department. If your folks start doing things that you know are going to cause us to have to move in or cause us to warn them that we are going to take enforcement action, that the organizers and the leaders take a role in educating the protesters what they can and can’t do.
“But if some group decides to take over the street because that’s just what they want to do, well, that impedes traffic; that impedes other citizens who have places to go. And that’s unlawful — and that’s when we step in. We haven’t had any serious conflicts since I’ve been here; I’m grateful for that.
“A lot of the role of the Police Department … we want people to enjoy life and live in harmony and maybe have different points of view — that’s fine, but do it in a way that no one gets harmed and no one’s freedoms get trampled on.
“We’re the peacekeepers; that’s all we want. The last thing we want to do is to take enforcement action. … [But] if someone says, ‘I’m not going to comply with the law of the land, and I don’t care about other citizens and whether they like this or not: I’m going to block this roadway,’ that’s when it puts us in the middle as peacekeepers having to step in. And then if they try to resist the efforts of the police, that ratchets up that whole scenario and makes it just that much more difficult.
“My point is, we want to avoid all that. And the way we can avoid all that is to have good communication and talk about these things up front. So the first thing we do, we go to a great effort to tell people they are in violation of the law. We don’t just show up and boom, take action. I’d like to avoid that whole thing, because if it becomes this defiant push/push situation, that’s generally when we are going to find ourselves taking enforcement action. When there’s a defiance that says, ‘No, we are not going to cooperate — we are going to violate the law, and we don’t care about anybody else in the community,’ that’s when we’re going to have this. We’re much better to avoid that.”
Some critics, however, have already begun questioning the department’s handling of such situations under Hogan. Asheville Justice Watch, a grassroots group formed during Annarino’s tenure, continues to receive citizen complaints about police behavior on a weekly basis, says AJW organizer Dixie Deerman.
“Things have not changed one iota,” she reports. “We haven’t seen evidence, at this point, that concerns [about unnecessary police force] have been addressed.”
Her group, continued Deerman, “would like to think that [Hogan] is better [than Annarino], but the political honeymoon is over. It is getting to the point where he is going to have to deal with this.”
During the public Q&A session back in April, Hogan said he did not support establishing a citizens’ oversight committee, as Asheville Justice Watch has proposed. Recently, he told Xpress that his position hasn’t changed, expressing faith in the systems already in place to deal with charges of police misconduct.
Hogan: “Regardless of who conducts the investigation, if citizens have a complaint that is not upheld, they will be unhappy.”
Hogan emphasizes that although AJW representatives have yet to meet with him, he would welcome such a visit. Meanwhile, he notes, he’s met with other groups to talk about demonstrations.
Hogan: “What’s happened happened, and what’s been resolved has been resolved. But what I will say is that, from this point forward and since I have been here, we will take any complaints that anyone has. And we will determine [if] an employee of this organization [did] not follow or comply with our policy. We will look at all those things, and we will look at the totality of the circumstances. We have a professional-standards unit that will investigate if it is a serious allegation against the Police Department or a police officer or employee. We will investigate that fully.
“If that is not sufficient to satisfy someone, they can take it to the State Bureau of Investigation. They can go to the FBI and to the Justice Department. And any one of those entities would conduct an investigation and make contact. It is my policy and my philosophy to cooperate fully with any outside agency that may have received a complaint and wants to look at what occurred in a particular set of circumstances. They can expect my full cooperation.”
A Jan. 2 confrontation in which an Asheville police officer killed a man he says was wielding a gun will give Hogan a chance to act on that promise. Officer Scott Erick Allen, who was responding to a report of a domestic fight in West Asheville, shot and killed 33-year-old Antoine Scott Peterson. Police say Peterson pointed a gun at both the officer and Peterson’s wife. An SBI investigation is under way to determine whether Allen acted properly, Hogan told Xpress.
Hogan: “He’s a good officer, but we’ve got to ensure that we get an impartial investigation.”
Allen has been moved to administrative duties until the investigation is complete.
Even as he hopes to foster change in the APD’s relationship with the community, Hogan is busy making internal changes. He wants more aggressive efforts to recruit potential officers and other employees, including increased minority representation on the force. And Hogan says he’s also reorganizing the department’s upper ranks to better spell out who is responsible for what.
But he’s especially pleased with a new mission statement drawn up with the help of an outside motivational facilitator, a former FBI agent who helped the Rocky Mount Police Department draft a similar mission while Hogan was chief there (see “Guiding Principles” below).
Hogan: “I am very proud of what they came up with. But what I say then is, these are the guiding principles for our behavior: These are what we embrace. And so we should judge ourselves on how close we come.”
Here’s the APD’s new mission statement, as provided by Chief Bill Hogan:
We provide the highest level of police services in partnership with the community to enhance the quality of life. We provide public safety and maintain order, enforce the laws of North Carolina, uphold the United States Constitution and support national security. We adhere to the guiding principles of: integrity, fairness, respect, and professionalism.
Integrity is our foundation. We are honest, compassionate, trustworthy, objective and accountable in performing our duties and responsibilities. We have the courage to do what is morally, ethically and legally right, regardless of personal, professional or organizational risk.
We treat everyone impartially, without favoritism and bias.
We treat everyone with dignity and courtesy, without prejudice. We cultivate a community that aspires to the same level of respect for everyone.
We deliver quality services through cooperation and open communication. We continually improve our knowledge, skills and competencies to maintain confidence and public trust.
[Brian Postelle is a regular contributor to Mountain Xpress.]