A string of violent confrontations has thrust policing practices into the national spotlight, as departments across the country face extra scrutiny over use of force, particularly against people of color.
The debate over best approaches to law enforcement is heating up. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offer different visions of what the country needs from its police forces. Clinton advocates strategies that aim to reduce implicit bias and end racial profiling, while Trump has called for cities to expand stop-and-frisk, a practice that at least one federal court has ruled unfairly targets minorities.
The executive branch is attempting to steer police department best practices. Across the country, many departments are implementing recommendations from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The debate over American law enforcement practices even extends to an international level. The United States recently accepted most of the peer-review recommendations from United Nations member states on counteracting racial discrimination, racial profiling and the use of excessive force by police officers.
Meanwhile, when it comes to policing in the small, anything-but-quiet mountain town of Asheville, the most pivotal law enforcement figure is relative newcomer Tammy Hooper, chief of the city’s Police Department.
Xpress recently sat down with Hooper for an extended interview, asking about her role as leader, the state of the department and police-community relations. We present here excerpts of her comments. In our editing, Xpress has attempted to accurately represent Hooper’s thoughts and protect both her voice and meaning. The text has been edited substantially for brevity and is organized by topic.
On being an agent of change
“That’s what I was brought here for.
“It’s hard for me to say what happened before I was here, but since I’ve been here I feel like we’re doing a pretty good job.
“Internally, we’ve done a lot of hard work to try to situate ourselves so we can be more efficient in how we respond to things and also how we do our business inside, the checks and balances that we have to do of our own processes that have caused problems in the past. I think that how we are structured definitely had an effect in the past, so [since I arrived,] we’ve tried to be very intentional about … putting checks and balances in place so [that] we don’t have to have things falling through the cracks, and we don’t have situations where something will just linger … like the radar thing that happened, where they weren’t calibrating radars. We’ve got checks and balances now in that process, so we know for a fact that it gets done.
“For [another] example, in our property and evidence section we’ve been able to make tremendous strides in getting through our backlog of property. I know that in the year or two prior to me getting here, we were really only able to inventory about 1 percent of the property and evidence since we had the audit. We are now [due to greater efficiency and additional staff] more than 40 percent through that backlog; our goal is to be done by next July.
“One of the first things we did when I got here was reestablish how we were organized. There were a lot of disparities in the span of control and workloads of our mid-management. … By being able to fix that and make it more efficient, we are in a better place to make sure we’re getting things done the way that we should.
“We’ve [also] revised probably 25 or more of our policies and procedures since I’ve been here. We’re going to continue to update and revise how we are doing our business to make sure that how we practice our policing is consistent with best practices and that we’re doing things in a contemporary manner.
“[In regards to best practices and modernizing], we have the body cameras now. That’s a big change. It’s a change in mindset for officers. But … officers are very happy to have cameras on the whole. So, we’ve already started working to roll out our body camera program, which I think is going to be very helpful in the long run. Now, how that comes out as far as the limitations on releasing videos, that go into effect Oct. 1 with the North Carolina law, we’ll have to see how that is. But it has been pretty effectively shown that having the body cameras does reduce complaints against officers. Maybe it affects the officer’s behavior, maybe it affects the person that they’re dealing with’s behavior or a combination of both, but the more we can reduce complaints the better, and the more trust we can build in the community. And there’s the [aspect of] transparency [that cameras can offer].
“[In regards to transparency], I think it looks largely like where we’re trying to go — which is to give as much information as we can. We spend a huge amount of time responding to information requests. We provide a huge amount of information — not just to the media, but to anyone who asks — that isn’t lawfully required [to be given]. I think we do a lot on our [use of] social media, to talk about things that are going on in the department, things going on in the community. Again, the more information we’re able to discuss the better. So, how we get that out, and how many people are looking at it, that’s what we need to figure out: how to do better.”
On policing philosophy
“Community policing — partnerships, problem-solving — those are the two elements [of our approach]. And I would say, by and large, we’ve got that dialed in. [But] we have room to grow.
“[Essentially,] I think the department’s philosophy is, as far as if you talk to [individual officers], they do have this community-minded mindset. They want to be out there doing the work that we’re doing for the good of the community.
“I think if we get to the point where we’re actually very focused on the community-policing aspects of partnership and problem-solving, that we can make huge progress. Not just in building trust and relationships, but also in actually getting down to [answering the question] ‘How do we affect people’s quality of life in neighborhoods in a positive way?’
“You can put the Band-Aid on, of the quality-of-life enforcement …, but that doesn’t solve any problems. That doesn’t solve the issue of environmental contributions. It doesn’t solve the issue of socioeconomic contributions. The general over-arching principle behind community policing is getting beyond enforcement and looking a little bit deeper into what’s going on, as well as having relationships and rapport with people so that you can have conversations to get to some of that information.
“But I see that there could be a place for some quality-of-life enforcement that’s part of an overall community policing plan. … [There’s a] problem-solving aspect of [the broken windows policing model that] doesn’t just focus on ‘enforce the small crimes and the big crimes go away.’ It really has to do with a more holistic approach … that’s more involved than just the enforcement side of it. It’s also looking environmentally at how you get to the root cause of issues, and you correct them. So … environmentally approach it and that sometimes can help, along with not letting people get away with nuisance or quality-of-life crimes in that area. So, quality-of-life enforcement certainly is part of it.
“What’s not part of it is stop-and-frisk, which has become equated to it. That’s not part of what any police department should be doing.”
“That’s one of the things I think I’ve found to be much more challenging than I expected here. I think it is a bit challenging for our officers in the field to [foster relationships]. We have a lot of officers who do spend a lot of time in neighborhoods. They know people in the business community, they know people who live in the communities. So, those relationships are very important, and that’s how we’re able to partner with the community to get things done. Which, if you look at community policing, that partnership is one of the prime components. I think in other neighborhoods we have a lot more of a challenge trying to develop those relationships and that type of partnership. So, I think there’s work to be done there.
“I think we have a lot of the same challenges as a lot of the police departments in the country right now, which [are]: trying to build trust in the community, particularly in communities of color. There [are also] reform efforts, and those definitely have trickled down here. The President’s 21st Century Policing Task Force report that came out in May of ’15 put a lot of recommendations out there that many police departments, including here, are putting into place. This year, in May of ’16, we got Use of Force and De-escalation [guidelines]. We’re putting those into play. Just coming here, when I started, the vision that I put out for the department definitely talks about issues of respect and dignity and procedural justice. And those reforms are happening, but they take time.
“I think those events [like Sgt. Tyler Radford using lethal force on Jerry Williams and Officer Shalin Oza’s videoed use of force on a minor] do bring out people to be more vocally in opposition to how police do their business. … I think that that’s indicative of the broader national picture that we’re talking about where we’re discussing trust in the community. Things do happen; like I said, a lot of these reforms, we’re doing them. We’re taking that stuff to heart, but it takes time to get there and things happen.
“[And when things happen that damage community relationships], it doesn’t even have to be force related, we have to do whatever work is necessary to mend those relationships and get that trust back. … We can’t do our job without the community’s support and … consent.
“I think that being accessible to people, being out, going to community meetings, talking to people, developing relationships and rapport are things that we’re working very hard to do.”
“What we have to stop doing is believing that all of [building trust and improving community quality of life] falls to the police. We get a huge amount of responsibility put on our officers out there to deal with a whole lot of situations that we don’t do a very good job of equipping them to deal with. And we try to work through that with training as much as we possibly can, but it’s a challenge. Our officers in Asheville, last year, ran [more than] 106,000 calls for service. We have [about] 120 officers out there running calls. That’s a huge workload. To ask them to not just handle those complaints and calls for service, but to then have downtime where they’re working to build relationships and have conversations and do more of a community-oriented approach or to do more proactive work like traffic enforcement and things like that, it becomes overwhelming.
On challenges to overcome
“A lot of what is portrayed in media and social media makes it look like we’re not making [reform] efforts, but we really are. [As far as building trust], I think we always have a challenge of getting out information. In a dynamic situation, sometimes things change. Something we may know right at the onset or we may think right at the onset could change when we look into it a little deeper, so we have a struggle to get information out but we want to be as accurate as we can be.
“But the biggest challenge right now … is the speed of social media and the basic ability of anybody to say or do anything regardless of whether it’s true, whether it’s accurate or what part of it they want to portray to tell a certain story. There’s just no way that we can be faster than the misinformation that goes out ahead of us. We also have limitations about how much we’re allowed to say. For example, in North Carolina we’re not allowed to talk about personnel issues. So, it may seem like we’re not being open, but we have lawful limitations about what we’re allowed to talk about. Or, like with the shooting case, we’re not handling that case, the [State Bureau of Investigation] is. We have zero control over what they will or won’t say about that.
“[When it comes to departmental morale and frustration], in a lot of ways [the Williams ordeal and the community’s response represents] a sort of no-win situation— because we still are responsible for policing our community. And people are still committing crimes. In fact, we’re about 11 percent up on violent crime compared to last year.
“I think the total number of gun-related calls last year was something like 794. That’s a couple of times a day officers [are] responding to calls involving guns. We have had a significant increase in aggravated assaults and homicides. And many are gun-related, so our officers are certainly concerned for their safety and they try to respond in a way that helps them be as safe as possible. But a lot of times, that type of response is misunderstood. We’re facing a community that doesn’t often understand why we’re doing things the way that we are … [we need to] help them understand why we do things a certain way, and, on our own, to look at how we do it and is it the best way. So we have to balance those things. Internally, we do have to look at all of our practices, our training, [and whether we are] doing things the best way that we can.”
On departmental strengths
“[To help officers deal with all this,] we do look at our training and our policies, [in such a way that] when we have to change a policy we need to make sure that our officers understand what those changes are, and that they’re trained to do [an operation] tactically differently than we were doing it before. As far as if we have officers who are upset or frustrated in a certain incident, we certainly have support built in for that. We have peer support; we have different kinds of support for officers if they’re involved in a critical incident.
“We also try to make sure that officers understand that we appreciate the good work that they do. I can’t tell you how many letters I get on a weekly basis, commending officers. … In fact I had a call today [from] a lady who was observing officers handling a domestic violence situation and [she] was just talking about how compassionate they were and how well they handled the situation. We make sure officers know when citizens compliment how they do their job.
“I’m not surprised by what I’ve found here in the department. I expected that we would have good staff. … They’ve certainly exceeded my expectations in their professionalism and their dedication to this community and the work that we do here. I think the detectives here are some of the best I’ve ever seen: [They] will work day, night, you have to tell them to go home half the time.
“One of the things that impresses me both with our patrol officers and with our detectives is how many people they really do know in the community. They see a picture and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s this guy or that person.’
“ I think our officers’ ability to manage their calls for service is very good … because they are able to do a lot of other activities in addition to handling calls: They do traffic enforcement … foot patrolling … community meetings. So they try to have a balance in what we call ‘discretionary time.’”
“I can tell you that all of the staff have been very cooperative, [and] I think they have a general will for us to keep moving forward in a positive direction [and] keep our department where it really needs to be. For me, I guess if I have one criticism of it, it’s [that] things don’t happen always as fast as I’d like them to. But, that’s not unusual in any kind of government situation.
“This year, it’s just been about trying to figure out the community, trying to figure out who’s who in the community, who’s operating out there that represent other people that I can talk to and develop relationship and rapport with. So, I’ve been doing a lot of work to try to get out with as many people in the community as I can, [because] I think one of my primary challenges is that I need people to trust me if they’re going to trust us.”