Controversial plea deal for former APD officer extended 

SHAKE ON IT: Christopher Hickman, center left, shakes hands with Jon Powell of Campbell University, who consulted on the restorative justice process in connection with the 2017 assault of Johnnie Rush by Hickman, who was then an Asheville police officer. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Former Asheville Police Officer Christopher Hickman thought he’d be back in court sometime during the week of Monday, Aug. 10. The period of supervised probation for his 2019 plea deal had been expected to end this month, pending a judge’s order. 

Last year, Hickman pleaded guilty to the 2017 felony assault of Black Asheville resident Johnnie Rush, as well as two misdemeanors. Leaked body camera footage of the assault published by the Citizen Times in February 2018 ultimately led to the resignation of former Asheville City Manager Gary Jackson and then-Chief Tammy Hooper of the Asheville Police Department, among other changes in city government. 

Hickman’s unusual plea agreement required the former officer, who is white, to participate in a restorative justice program during his yearlong probation.

According to program director Jon Powell, Hickman needs more time to complete community input and participation aspects of the agreement. Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams confirmed the decision to extend Hickman’s probation in an email to Xpress, noting that a new hearing date will be set in the coming weeks. (For more on the original plea deal, see “Christopher Hickman’s controversial plea deal and what it means for Asheville,” Xpress, Oct. 6, 2019) 

Williams’ announcement followed a July 31 press release from Just Us, a Black-led community group, that criticized the plea deal. “Just Us gave Powell names and contact information of multiple Black community members, knowledgeable of police-community relations, with whom it was recommended he speak directly,” the statement reads. “Powell, however, failed to follow up with the majority of these contacts until recently.”

Powell acknowledges that he did not meet the group’s desired timeline due to his obligations at the Raleigh-area Restorative Justice Clinic, as well as COVID-19. However, Powell asserts he did call all 12 contacts provided by Just Us; of these calls, he says, only three were answered. He also reports meeting with six additional community members in person prior to the pandemic.

In its press release, Just Us proposes recruiting local facilitators to develop and implement “a transformational dialogue process … so that the broader Black community can offer and begin implementing viable community solutions.” In-person meetings are imperative, the statement notes,  because many impacted community members lack reliable access to the internet. Such gatherings, the press release continues, cannot safely occur until all risks associated with COVID-19 have abated. 

Powell says he sympathizes with the challenges the pandemic has created for many who had hoped to participate in the process. Nevertheless, he continues, Hickman has met with two community groups in the past month. The probation extension will allow those work sessions to wrap up. 

Powell concedes he had “much higher hopes” for Hickman’s restorative justice plea deal. “I still think we’ve been able to do some good work,” he continues. “I still think there is good that will come from this. And I hope people won’t give up on the good that will come from it.”

In an Aug. 5 email exchange with Xpress, Bob Smith, co-founder of Just Us, writes that neither Williams nor Powell reached out to his organization about the decision to delay Hickman’s probation hearing. “This is the first time I have heard about an extension,” he noted, adding that his group had asked for a yearlong extension or “until we could really carry out the terms of the agreement.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist.

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