With additional reporting by Virginia Daffron.
The fog may never lift from the circumstances surrounding the July 2 shooting death of Jai “Jerry” Williams by Asheville police Sgt. Tyler Radford, which has clouded relations between the department and parts of the community. Much is known: the who, the when, the where and the how. But it’s the why and the what exactly happened that remain crucially, and maddeningly, unknown. While evidence made public by the APD supports the conclusion that Radford’s actions met both legal and departmental standards for the use of lethal force, rumors continue to swirl around the chain of events leading up to Williams’ death.
With the outcome of an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation likely months away and no certainty about whether the results of that inquiry will ever be made public, a significant swath of the community remains unsatisfied by the Police Department’s account of the July 2 killing. If this is what the APD’s Use of Force policy allows, many believe, then the policy needs to change.
While July was marked by a series of protests, rallies and demands for changes to the APD’s approach to policing in the city’s marginalized communities — especially its 11 public housing neighborhoods — August saw a shift in tone, with the outline of a collaborative process arising out of discussions among the APD, City Council and a wide range of community groups convened by the Racial Justice Coalition.
Who could have predicted this?
“We believe that we are only an incident away from having racial discord on the level of Ferguson or Staten Island here in Asheville,” members of the coalition wrote in a January 2015 guest column published in the Asheville Citizen-Times. “African-American and Latino populations in Buncombe County have a wider achievement gap in education, a higher unemployment rate, face a higher risk of health disparities, and a disproportionate rate of use of force and incarceration.”
The writers of the RJC opinion piece urged Asheville to become a national model for improving relationships between different racial groups and law enforcement.
James Lee was one of the collaborators on that prescient editorial — and he continues to be involved in the conversations about policing practices.
A lifelong Asheville resident, Lee grew up on Livingston Street and in West Asheville off Burton Street. “That’s when Burton Street wasn’t as attractive as it is now,” he chuckles. He currently serves as director of operations for The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of Buncombe County. He also serves on the board of Building Bridges of Asheville, which is the group he represents on the RJC.
“Growing up in this community, I hear the stories, I know the stories, I’ve experienced some of the stories,” he says. He draws on that background in the discussions with police, although he says he isn’t interested in trying to “speak for every black person or brown person.”
A turning point
Two years ago, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., Lee says he felt compelled to increase his activism.
“One day,” he recalls, “right after the Ferguson incident, I reached out to Beth Maczka from the YW[CA] and said, ‘You know, we’re just one incident away from a Ferguson happening here in Asheville. We need to come together and try and figure out something that we can do.’”
Maczka agreed. Together, she and Lee decided to convene all the local organizations that include racial justice as part of their mission and programs. Some of the executive directors of those organizations were already meeting, and the Racial Justice Coalition emerged from those conversations.
The RJC’s goal is far-reaching: “to better engage the community with law enforcement to promote peace, dignity and justice.”
After its January opinion editorial, the coalition sponsored a facilitated roundtable discussion in July of last year. Held at the YMI Cultural Center, the event provided a setting for community members and police leadership to engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas and perspectives. It was “very well-attended,” says Lee, but he admits, “not so well-attended by communities most affected by law enforcement interactions — people of color, lower income.” One reason for that, he continues, might be that the RJC was a brand-new organization at the time. People may not have had confidence that the group would be in it for the long haul, he explains.
Even though Lee says “there hasn’t been a great relationship between Asheville Police Department and communities of color and low income,” he is convinced there is fertile ground for change through collaboration. “I believe that now with Chief [Tammy] Hooper here, we have a great opportunity to try and bridge that gap and build that bridge,” he says.
Fast-forward to the evening of July 26 — three weeks after Williams’ death. At the Asheville City Council meeting that night, several members of the community asked for action on police reform.
Dee Williams, a self-described community organizer and two-time City Council candidate, said, “I don’t want this young man’s death to be in vain. There are more things that we can do.”
Mayor Esther Manheimer responded, “We hear the community. We want to be responsive. We want to be inclusive. We want to be thoughtful. And we are looking for a way to constructively move forward.” Rather than following a more typical (and time-consuming) city process of appointing an advisory board, Manheimer said it seemed to make sense for the RJC and the APD to work together to look at police policies and practices.
Councilman Cecil Bothwell, who chairs Council’s Public Safety Committee, commented that Hooper “is very eager and willing to work with the task force.”
“I think this energy right now and the grief that the community is going through around Jerry Williams’ death is providing this Council with a really grave responsibility and a really enormous opportunity,” Councilman Gordon Smith weighed in.
“And what we have been doing as a Council,” Smith continued, “is moving forward on a lot of different policy pieces, to try to address what we have all acknowledged are institutional, racist policies of the past in regards to land use, housing, transportation and violence in this community.”
Smith spoke of “a universal appetite” among members of Council to make sure that, in a year’s time, “We can talk about the progress that’s been made, and not the words that were spoken but not followed up on. Because there’s been a history of that, and that’s something that absolutely cannot happen again.”
Relationship status? It’s complicated
Hooper met with the RJC in early August to hash out how the process would work. The chief and the RJC discussed the composition of the Community Police Policy Work Group, which will present a set of policy recommendations for the chief’s consideration.
But it doesn’t appear that those discussions consisted of singing “Kumbaya” and holding hands. On Aug. 15, the RJC released a statement explaining that “while members of the RJC have met with the chief and agreed on including a number of community groups, and the use of an outside facilitator from the VERA Institute [of Justice], we did not come to agreement on all of the groups represented or the process involved.” (The VERA Institute of Justice is a national organization, based in New York, that cites as its mission, “To drive change. To urgently build and improve justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities.”)
While many members of the RJC planned to continue on in the process, the RJC as a body could not offer its full-throated endorsement. “We want to be transparent with the community that we are not in agreement with the final composition of the working group,” the RJC wrote, “and that this process is now being directed by the APD rather than as a partnership with the Racial Justice Coalition.” While the RJC agreed to all of the partners APD recommended, the department did not accept all of the partners suggested by the coalition. Asked who was rejected and why, Lee deferred to the APD for an answer. Department public information officer Christina Hallingse responded that it was important to keep the group to what the department sees as a reasonable number of 16 participants.
“Unfortunately,” she relates, “this meant that not every group in Asheville was able to have representation.” She frames the move as an effort to increase the scope of the community’s input and to maximize diversity. “There were many community social justice groups represented,” she said, “but other areas, such as the schools, the housing authority and business community, were not originally included in RJC’s recommendations.” She would not speak directly to the reason for excluding specific proposed partners.
Coalition-proposed partners not in the final work group include the local chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice, which recently led a controversial July 21-22 sit-in protest at the downtown police station over the APD response to Williams’ shooting, as well as the Citizens Police Advisory Committee.
City officials, including Hooper, however, have continued to cite the RJC as a leader in the cohort of 16 called the Community Police Policy Work Group.
“The Asheville Police Department held two planning meetings with members of the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC) on Aug. 1 and 8. During these meetings the two organizations discussed the partners that would serve on the Community Police Policy Work Group,” Hooper wrote in an Aug. 29 statement to Xpress in response to questions about the RJC’s press release hedging its level of involvement. And not only that, she continued, “the group is diverse — including several representatives from the RJC and its member organizations — as well as representation from additional community social justice groups.”
According to Lee, the RJC saw its primary job as helping pick the partners and set the table for the process, while ensuring as much representation from organizations advocating for black and brown people as possible. Lee says the RJC will continue to be a voice for racial justice even as it has become clear that police control the process. “We’re still committed to being a voice at the table, as an invited member [of the work group],” he comments, “but we are not a leading partner as we started out to be.”
Process is key
The first formal meeting of the work group was held on Aug. 22. Since some members had not been present at previous discussions, says Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, a few questions needed to be answered. Mayfield, who says she is acting as a liaison between the work group and the Public Safety Committee (of which she is a member), helped to clarify the scope of the effort, the composition of the group and the timeline for the discussions.
According to Mayfield, the focus of the work group is to make recommendations on possible changes to the APD’s Use of Force de-escalation policies and practices.
This was supported by Hooper. “Increased community engagement is an important element in moving this reform forward. The Asheville Police Department is committed to transparency and values the community’s concerns and opinions. The purpose of this work group is to obtain community input and recommendations regarding the revision of APD’s Use of Force policy,” Hooper wrote on Aug. 29.
The task could involve some pretty heavy lifting. The current APD Use of Force policy is a 10-page document outlining the ins and outs of weaponry utilization, the circumstances under which certain kinds of force may be used and what happens after an officer uses force of any kind. Interestingly, while the current APD procedure section decrees something called the Use of Force Continuum as a training guide for use-of-force situations, there is no specific reference to applying de-escalation tactics in these situations.
On what Mayfield calls a “very aggressive” timetable, the work group is aiming to complete a set of policy recommendations on the use of force and de-escalation by the end of an all-day meeting on Sept. 19. Once that revisioning task has been completed, the picture should become clearer about next steps for the community discussions surrounding race and policing.
City leadership, for its part, appears committed to providing the community with opportunities to suggest policy changes to the police department.
“It is important that people in Asheville be treated equally and fairly by law enforcement and that people feel that they are receiving fair and equal treatment,” says Manheimer. “My hope is that with the community being a part of the process, being heard, that they can recommend any needed changes and then work together with APD to effect those changes.”
And even beyond the specifics of the wording of any policy changes, Manheimer comments, the process of meeting together ought to build trust: “Ultimately we need to be able to trust one another to create a safer community. I commend the Chief and RJC for coming to the table to sort through these complex issues.”
The work group session scheduled for Sept. 19 will be facilitated by Hassan Aden, senior advisor on policing for the Vera Institute, who is also a former chief of the Greenville, N.C., Police Department. His work for the organization, he says, is motivated by his commitment to social justice and to advocacy on behalf of marginalized communities of many kinds.
The process Asheville is about to undertake, Hassan comments, is none too common. He says that, while community input on police policy is a growing practice, including community groups in the development of de-escalation policies is extremely rare. Asheville residents should see the inclusiveness of the process as a sign of respect, he continues. “This is cutting-edge, and it’s meaningful. It’s risky, but it offers significant rewards.”
The work group’s recommendations, Mayfield emphasizes, will be advisory in nature. Hooper and her staff will make the final decisions about any policy changes. However, Mayfield notes, “My guess is that this policy will come before the Public Safety Committee for information and public comment.” And she imagines that City Council will also request a briefing on the outcome of the process at a formal meeting of the Council. While the chief of police answers to City Manager Gary Jackson and City Council, according to APD, Hooper has final approval on department policy changes. She has made it clear on several occasions that she intends to move the process along quickly and would like to have a revised policy in place in the next few months.
With the public’s attention still focused on the Williams case, it’s likely that Hooper will feel pressure to incorporate at least some of the work group’s recommendations into the department’s policies. At the same time, she must balance the public’s input against her responsibility to ensure public safety and, likely, pressures from within the department. According to Aden, Hooper is working with her department prior to the Sept. 19 group session to help APD understand the goals for the collaborative process. Ultimately, says Aden, an optimal policy will benefit everyone in the community, including police officers. “I’ve seen it work,” he explains.
While Hooper wasn’t available to speak directly with Xpress by press time on the bigger picture of police and community relations or her personal philosophy on approaching this process, she provided statements through Hallingse. But there are indications from Hooper that she is open to change. She said at the Aug. 22 Public Safety Committee meeting that she and her team have already revised a number of policies but have not tackled the Use of Force policy yet.
And way back before this turbulent July, in a February interview with WCQS‘s Jeremy Loeb, she shared her perspective on internet videos showing police in other parts of the country using deadly force on people of color who seemed not to be a threat. She offered that some of those videos appeared to demonstrate unreasonable and bad behavior from police officers.
Hooper emphasized that a police agency can take steps to avoid such incidents. “First off, making sure our officers’ actions are aligned with our values; that we train them appropriately; that we’re having discussions about things like implicit bias and how we relate to people on the street by ensuring that we talk to them and treat them with respect and dignity; and we’re making sure that we have a voice kind of in what’s happening,” she said.
“There’s lots of different things we can put in place, both inside of our agency and then [in] how we communicate externally, to help us not get into those situations and help officers make good decisions and take right action.” One thing that has changed already under Hooper is that the APD now has a body-worn camera policy, and several units, including the Public Housing unit, are currently testing its implementation. Some 34 cameras are in use by Asheville officers. A $99,781 state grant awarded on Aug. 23 means the department now anticipates equipping every officer working in the field with the technology by the middle of next year. At press time, City Council is expected to approve this week nearly $200,000 in matching funds to enable the expedited schedule. Before the announcement of the grant money, the schedule for implementation would have seen all officers carrying the cameras by mid 2018 or 2019.
VERA Institute facilitator Aden says he’s known Hooper for close to 30 years, beginning when they worked together in the Alexandria, Va., police force. He emphasized that he believes Asheville’s chief is open to new ideas.
Speaking from his own experience as a reformer, Aden says, “every reform-minded police chief in this country” has, at some point in their career, come to the realization that they have participated in unjust policies that inflict harm. His own epiphany came when he served as a school resource officer in a Virginia high school. “I could see the impact that a single arrest of a young person could have on an entire family,” he recalls. He asked himself, “Is it worth what it will do to the next generation of that family?”
Whatever the outcome of the SBI investigation into Jai Williams’ death, his killing appears likely to contribute to a shift in how policing is performed in Asheville. That would surely not be the legacy he or the community would have chosen for him, but it could prove to be a profound and lasting one.