by Virginia Daffron and Daniel Walton
In court documents filed March 12, former Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper’s attorney, Joseph P. McGuire, responded to a legal complaint brought against Hooper by former Asheville Police Sgt. Lisa Taube.
Taube claimed in her Dec. 21 lawsuit that statements made by Hooper and other city officials about Taube’s job performance on Aug. 24, 2017 — the night Asheville resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush was beaten by former Asheville Officer Christopher Hickman — constituted libel and slander.
Taube also claimed that Hooper’s statements about and disciplinary actions against her were “made in an effort to divert criticism from Chief Hooper for her handling of the Hickman/Rush matter, to scapegoat Sgt. Taube and … to retaliate against Sgt. Taube for her involvement in a series of complaints concerning previous actions of Chief Hooper.”
Hooper’s filing argues that her public statements about Taube were appropriate within the context of the chief’s duties and were therefore “absolutely privileged” and lawful, and that retaliation was not among the chief’s motivations in her disciplinary actions or statements regarding Taube.
In her role as supervisor, Taube arrived at the scene on Biltmore Avenue as Rush was being placed in the back seat of a police car. Taube questioned Rush and Hickman and initiated a “blue team” report including photographs of Rush’s injuries that night. As detailed in Hooper’s response and attached exhibits, Taube did not review body camera footage of the incident that night and left town the following day for a pre-scheduled two-week vacation.
Hickman was later fired by the city and subsequently criminally charged for his actions against Rush; his case is pending.
Though Hooper initiated an internal investigation into the use of force against Rush the afternoon following the beating, the incident didn’t come to the public’s attention until the Asheville Citizen Times published leaked body camera footage on Feb. 28, 2018.
As Taube’s court filing put it, “The publication of this video by the Asheville Citizen Times created a crisis for Chief Hooper and the city of Asheville.”
As that crisis unfolded, court documents state, Hooper told local television station WLOS that the supervisor in the incident “dropped the ball” in response to the beating. Former City Manager Gary Jackson said the supervisor “ultimately received discipline for unsatisfactory performance and was ordered to undergo additional training.” While those and other statements did not explicitly tie Taube to the incident, later statements and body camera footage of the incident posted to the city’s website did.
Those statements by the chief and others damaged Taube’s reputation and career prospects as a law enforcement officer, her filing claimed. She experienced harassment, abuse and threats, both online and in person. Taube resigned from her position on Aug. 31, 2018.
In addition to her claim that the statements about her job performance harmed her, Taube alleged that disciplinary actions brought by the chief were harsher than the circumstances warranted. She claimed Hooper was motivated by a desire to retaliate against her for bringing concerns of a personal nature to the attention of Asheville Police Department executive staff members.
According to Taube’s complaint, in May 2017, an unnamed female APD lieutenant had requested that Taube and her wife meet Hooper after work “for drinks and to ‘hang out’ together” at a downtown bar; Taube felt she could not say no directly due to the chief’s involvement and made excuses to avoid the social engagement. Additionally, the documents state, “It was commonly known within the Asheville Police Department that during 2017 Chief Hooper and Lt. A traveled together on a number of out-of-town business trips,” and “Throughout 2017, there was a growing perception within the Asheville Police Department that Chief Hooper and Lt. A engaged in personal activities outside of work together.”
In November 2017, Taube shared her concerns with her commander, Capt. Mark Byrd, who in turn raised them with city human resources staff as part of “a larger set of complaints involving Chief Hooper by senior officers.” The city terminated Byrd’s employment on July 13, 2018. Another APD officer, Capt. Stony Gonce, who also participated in discussions with city human resources staff about officers’ concerns, was terminated on May 1, 2018.
Hooper charged Taube with unsatisfactory performance in the Rush incident on Jan. 17, 2018, issuing her a “Written Warning #1 and supervisory training.” However, Taube said that Hooper had initially signed off on a much stronger punishment on Jan. 5, 2018 — a Written Warning 2 and 20-hour suspension without pay — out of “personal animosity,” overriding the recommendations of senior police commanders such as then-Deputy Chief Wade Wood. Hooper conceded in her response that she had initially planned to impose the harsher punishment but amended it to the lower-level offense, though she did not explain what had led to her change of heart.
In her response, Hooper admitted that Taube’s wife did meet the unnamed lieutenant and Hooper for a drink at Isa’s in Asheville, and “the chief and the lieutenant attended the same out-of-town business meetings on more than one occasion during 2017.” However, Hooper said that disciplinary actions against Taube and statements about her job performance were not retaliatory in nature.
Night in question
Also included in the court documents is the transcript of an interview with Taube conducted on Sept. 22, 2017, as part of the investigation into Rush’s beating. Conducted by APD’s Sgt. Russell Crisp and Lt. Sean Aardema, the interview explores Taube’s actions in her role as Hickman’s supervisor on Aug. 24, 2017.
Crisp asked Taube whether any of Rush’s statements had thrown up a “red flag” for her, considering that Rush had said he had been choked and “he did not feel that the force was reasonable.” Taube responded that there had been discrepancies between Rush’s and Hickman’s accounts of the incident. However, both Rush and Hickman agreed that Hickman had struck Rush multiple times in the face with Hickman’s Taser.
“What’s your understanding of the use-of-force policy of striking somebody above the shoulders with an object by officers?” Crisp asked. Taube admitted that Hickman’s action could have met the definition of deadly force, but that it was justified by Hickman’s claim that Rush had tried to take Hickman’s Taser from him.
Crisp went on to ask whether Taube believed that it was reasonable that a supervisor whose subordinate had used deadly force against a citizen should review body camera footage of the incident before leaving work at the end of the shift.
Taube responded that it would be reasonable to have a policy that required such review but, “I didn’t do that.”
Knowing that she was leaving the next day for a two-week vacation, Aardema asked, “Why did you make the decision to let the use of force sit there for a minimum of two weeks while you were on vacation knowing that it was a deadly force (unintelligible)?” Taube replied that she hadn’t thought of the incident as involving deadly force that was “completed or anything like that.” She said that, in retrospect, not reviewing the body camera footage that evening had been a mistake.
The city of Asheville, which is named as a co-defendant in Taube’s complaint, has not yet filed a response in the suit. City spokesperson Polly McDaniel said on Wednesday morning that the city generally does not comment on pending litigation and has no comment on the case.
An “Order for mediated settlement conference in Superior Court and trial calendar notice” was filed on April 5. The order sets out a deadline for a mediated settlement of Jan. 24, 2020, with a tentative trial date of Feb. 24, 2020.