After nearly 13 years occupying the city manager’s office on the second floor of Asheville City Hall — with only a wall separating his domain from Council Chambers — Gary Jackson is abruptly out of a job. That unexpected announcement came at the start of a City Council work session on March 20.
“We appreciate the many successes Gary has brought to the city in his 13 years here,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer in a prepared statement, “but we believe that making this change now is in the city’s and his best interest.”
Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball assumed Jackson’s role as of March 21. Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler will lead the transition planning for a new city manager, a duty she will perform for free.
The decision comes about three weeks after leaked body camera footage showed a former Asheville police officer, Chris Hickman (who is white), beating a black city resident, Johnnie Rush, and almost a week after Jackson announced several changes to management assignments within city government.
Jackson left his post about nine months earlier than expected, having announced on Feb. 13 his intent to retire at the end of 2018. In a statement to local media on the morning after the Council work session, Manheimer reiterated that the decision was in the city’s best interest and pointed to a state statute that makes clear the city manager serves at City Council’s pleasure. Jackson’s contract requires that he be paid salary and benefits for 180 days after termination unless he starts working for another employer.
The announcement was a stunning preamble to an afternoon work session during which Council approved several steps that aim to improve police accountability in Asheville.
Council pledged to enhance efforts to recruit minority officers for the Asheville Police Department and voted to move forward with a third-party review of the agency. “The concept here is to have an outside entity come in and do a review around the incident involving Mr. Rush and former officer Hickman and to give us a set of recommendations … about what we’re not doing, what we need to be doing to help us as a body work to help make our police department a better department,” Manheimer said.
Manheimer said the U.S. Department of Justice is scrutinizing the incident. Since the city doesn’t know the precise scope of the DOJ investigation, the mayor said, it’s possible that a third-party review will be more useful for the city’s purposes.
Assistant City Attorney John Maddux said the day after the work session that the DOJ is investigating whether Hickman deprived Rush of his rights “under the color of law,” which is a federal crime.
Historically, added Council member Julie Mayfield, there’s been a disconnect between policy that City Council sets and policy the Asheville Police Department implements. “I think that’s been a point of frustration for a number of us, so I would encourage that … either we look at that separately or that this third party could maybe share with us some ways that better cities have handled that,” Mayfield said.
According to Manheimer, the city has already implemented several changes since the incident came to light. All excessive use-of-force complaints must now be investigated criminally from the outset, she said, and Council has also asked for a change in administrative procedures to ensure that elected officials are notified of any excessive use-of-force occurrence. Council wants the police department to come up with a procedure to notify the District Attorney and N.C. State Bureau of Investigation of these incidents.
Forcing the issue
On the recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Committee, which was created in June 2017 to advise Council on the creation of a new advisory board focused on human relations, the city is also pushing forward to create a Human Relations Commission. Wisler said the commission could start meeting as early as June. Council discussed having the HRC or a subcommittee of the HRC review all APD use-of-force incidents.
Manheimer said there’s already a system in place at the APD in which use-of-force incidents must be reported and reviewed by a superior officer. This new commission, however, would act as an extra pair of eyes.
“The number of use-of-force incidents in APD has dropped dramatically, but this would be a way to have an external check on the number — how often, what the circumstances are, that kind of thing,” Manheimer said.
State law would prevent the HRC from reviewing body camera footage, but Manheimer said commission members would hear a summary of the incident with the names redacted.
The city is looking at adding more staff to address its equity goals. According to Director of Communications and Public Engagement Dawa Hitch, the city’s equity and inclusion department consists of a manager and the efforts of other employees spread out across city departments. Officials have suggested empowering equity and inclusion staff to review APD body camera footage, but it’s unclear whether this would be allowed under state law.
Council tasked city staff with exploring the possibility of funding an outside legal position to advocate for those who bring complaints against law enforcement.
“Right now you can walk into the police department and file a complaint against law enforcement, but it can be a complicated process for a complainant,” Manheimer said. “Especially with the body cam laws layered on top of it.”
Manheimer said she has talked to Brownie Newman, chair of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, about funding the position in cooperation with the county, a proposal Council member Vijay Kapoor endorsed.
“I think this makes a whole lot of sense to go in with the county on this,” Kapoor said. “We heard from them at our joint meeting. … I doubt that they would want to be on the receiving end of something that we were on. So I would assume that the county, particularly those folks who were critical of the city’s responses here, would be willing to do this.”
Council asked staff to review the city’s personnel policies, as well as the rules that govern Asheville’s Civil Service Board, a five-member committee with the power to reinstate city employees, including police officers, who have been fired. “What we’re trying to do is find that space of protecting employees so that they’re not being unfairly disciplined or terminated or whatever,” Wisler said, “but also making sure that the management group can take definitive action in a timely manner to protect the interests of our citizens.”
Still to come: The city considers a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall as it starts to plan spending for Fiscal Year 2019, which begins July 1.