A local advocacy group is calling on the city to improve transparency in the police department following the publication of body camera footage in February that shows a white former Asheville police officer beating a black city resident.
“For our city to move forward from this tragic incident, we need to talk about solutions,” Patrick Conant, a member of Code for Asheville, told the city’s Public Safety Committee on March 26. “And I feel strongly that our city has a much stronger chance for success if they involve citizens in that process.” The committee is made up of three members of City Council: Brian Haynes, Gwen Wisler and Sheneika Smith.
Code for Asheville has asked the city to post emergency call data, citation and arrest data, citizen complaints, traffic stop report data and historical crime reports from before 2013 on the city’s online open data portal. The organization has also requested that the city release the demographics of officers in the police department, as well as more information regarding use-of-force incidents — including the location of the incident, the type of force applied, the type of resistance and injuries to the subject or officer. The organization’s proposal can be viewed in detail here.
“This is all data that already exists,” Conant said. “We’re not asking the city to spend a lot of money to create it. Just to release it to the public.”
The organization also requested that the city release blank copies of internal reports used by Asheville police, which would allow the public to know the kind of information the department collects. They also encouraged the city to post a redacted version of the Asheville Police Department Policy Manuel on the city website and record and publish all public meetings related to public safety and policing — including meetings by the Public Safety Committee.
Additionally, Code for Asheville has asked that the city release the results of random audits that are conducted on body camera footage. “The body-worn camera policy specifies a clear process for audits,” Conant said. “I think that’s a great step, but we need a system for accountability there.”
Code for Asheville has also thrown its support behind crafting an anti-retaliation policy for whistleblowers and forming a human relations commission, an idea Council discussed during its work session on March 20 (See “Council boots city manager, announces police reforms”).
Conant said the petition has been endorsed by several organizations, including Homeless Voice, BeLoved Asheville, Faith for Justice, the Sunlight Foundation, and Code for America. Carmen Ramos-Kennedy, the president of the Asheville-Buncombe County branch of the NAACP, also endorsed the plan on Monday.
Wisler advised that the committee send the recommendations to city staff for further evaluation before placing it on the agenda for an upcoming meeting of Council.
“Some of these, although Patrick doesn’t think they’re going to cost any money, they will cost some money,” Wisler said, “so I would like to get a sense of what this would entail to implement the various recommendations from a staffing perspective or cost to retain records and those kinds of things.”
Conant agreed that it would make sense for him to present the recommendations to the full Council in tandem with a report by city staff. Additionally, Wisler said she wanted a clearer indication of the amount of time and energy it would take to preserve private information.
“It’s not clear to me how much effort would go into redacting,” Wisler said. “… How could we do this with more technology and less manual [work]? So I think that’s going to be a question with some of these pieces of information that the community’s asking for.”
Helping the homeless
In a related presentation, the committee also heard a list of policy reforms from BeLoved Asheville, a local advocacy group for homeless people, and Homeless Voice, a project of BeLoved Asheville that aims to empower homeless and formerly homeless people.
Amy Cantrell, a co-founder of BeLoved Asheville, noted that, after reviewing public data, her organization has noticed that members of the homeless community tend to be cited for trespassing charges on a regular basis.
“We know that it’s costly in more ways than one,” Cantrell said. “It’s costly to the system when we’re charging people, it costs our police to go out, it costs support, it sometimes costs the jailing system. It also costs people the ability to more easily get into housing and access employment when they have a criminal record.”
She recommended that, instead of citing or arresting people who are stopped for trespassing, officers instead simply ask them to move. Cantrell also suggested that Asheville introduce a less restrictive policy for access to public parks — where Cantrell said some homeless people have been banned — and implement a written consent search policy, ensuring that people know their rights if they’re stopped and searched.
BeLoved Asheville would also like the city to expand public restroom hours on Sundays and provide 24/7 access to at least one public restroom.
“This is why we were really wanting to be on the agenda today because we know it’s budget season,” Cantrell said.
Cantrell said the Public Safety Committee heard a report by city staff last year about the cost of public bathrooms, but the report didn’t lead to any action by the city. “We know that people are being charged with public urination in a city where we don’t have 24/7 public bathroom access and where our city streets downtown are lined with signs that say no public bathroom,” she said.
Committee members discussed the possibility of sending the consideration to Council’s Finance Committee. Haynes said he supported opening a 24-hour public restroom.
“I’ve not stated that strongly enough in past meeting and I feel badly about that,” Haynes said, “so I think this is something that’s very important and I’d like it to be at least considered in the upcoming budget.”
A city memo dated Oct. 9, 2017 provides estimates for the cost of transitioning three public bathrooms downtown to 24-hour access. City staff estimate that the annual expense would increase from $58,978 to $102,693 for the public restroom in Pack Square Park, and taken together, the annual expense of expanding access to bathrooms at 29 Haywood St. and Biltmore Avenue Garage would increase from $155,612 to $466,836.
Wisler recommended a measured approach, citing a $3.2 million budget gap for the 2018-19 budget, which Council discussed during its March 20 work session (See “Asheville Seeks Ways to Close Budget Gap,” March 28, Xpress).
“Although a good idea, and I think it is a great idea, this was not brought up during the Council retreat,” she said. “This was not a priority that Council brought up, and typically when we have new initiatives or new capital projects … that’s where it initiates. I’m a little concerned about opening it back up and changing the procedure, but if staff can come up with some ideas that wouldn’t be over the top fiscally, I would support that.”
Wisler said that at a minimum she would like the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee to look at some of the other policies Cantrell suggested and hear from representatives from the police department about how they’re dealing with these issues.
Cantrell said she’s aware that many officers handle these situations well at their own discretion but hopes that the city will formalize these changes in a written policy.
“We’re really trying to minimize the human damage and costs, because we need that money for housing,” she said.
Smith was in favor of sending the bathroom question to the Finance Committee for consideration. Acting City Manager Cathy Ball said staff could pull the prior report that Cantrell referenced and try to include it on the agenda for the Finance Committee’s meeting on Thursday, March 29 or the Tuesday, April 10 City Council work session on the budget.
This article was updated to reflect that Homeless Voice is a project of BeLoved Asheville and not a separate group.