Sheriff Van Duncan acknowledges that when he called a proposal released last week by three county commissioners “a slap in the face,” he was using strong language.
“But that’s really what it felt like,” he told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners during a meeting on Tuesday, April 10, “because it’s hard for me not to refer to Jasmine, Al and Ellen by their first names because I know them all very well, and I have had many conversations with them outside this board room.”
Commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Al Whitesides and Ellen Frost ignited public drama on April 3 when they released a list of proposals designed to bolster protections against racial bias and excessive use of force among law enforcement agencies in Buncombe County (See “Three county commissioners release joint statement on racial bias, use of force”). The proposals were put together in response to body camera footage leaked in March that showed a former officer in the Asheville Police Department, who is white, beating a black city resident.
After releasing a critical statement on April 3 (See “Sheriff criticizes statement by county commissioners”), the sheriff clarified his position the following day (See “Sheriff clarifies position on proposals by commissioners”), saying that he was specifically against the oversight proposals outlined in the commissioners’ statement. Duncan’s appearance during the meeting on Tuesday signaled the beginning of a search for common ground.
“I think where we ran afoul was the process and how the conversation started, but that doesn’t mean it can fail because the conversation started in a bad place,” Duncan said.
Duncan indicated support for two items on the commissioners’ list of proposals: more training and the creation of a committee to address human relations (Asheville City Council voted to create a Human Relations Commission on April 10). He pointed out, however, that county commissioners don’t have the legal authority to dictate policy to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department. “You guys have fiduciary responsibilities to approve budgets,” he said.
In his initial statement on April 3, Duncan said that in the aftermath of the use-of-force incident, people in the community were taking advantage of the situation to “drive a very anti-law enforcement agenda.”
“I don’t think there’s anybody here in elected office that doesn’t recognize that there’s a pretty strong law-enforcement activist crowd that is generally active in the city of Asheville,” Duncan said. “It’s well funded. It’s well organized. And one of the things that they try to do is they try to put pressure on local boards and local councils to give up law enforcement’s ability to set their policies.”
As an example, Duncan pointed to a memo written by an attorney at the N.C. Racial Equity Network that was circulated by the county’s public defender’s office. The memo explores the practical outcomes of policies that have been eyed by Asheville City Council — including policies that control regulatory traffic stops and searches. Duncan indicated these strategies should not be overly regulated because it could make it harder for deputies to do their jobs.
“Please don’t do that,” Duncan said. “It sounds reasonable, but when you’re right in the middle of an opioid crisis, if you call the sheriff’s office or the police department and you say, ‘I have somebody beside me that’s selling heroin out of this house’ … vehicle stops and consent searches are two of the major tools we have to combat that.”
Duncan said the Sheriff’s Department trains continuously, and he would love to see deputies involved in more of it. The biggest barrier to training, however, is staffing levels. Many members of the community, he said, have expressed concern about the number of deputies on staff.
“We generally have 13 or 14 that are out fielding your calls for service in a county that’s 656 square miles, and 90 percent of that falls to us,” he said. Why doesn’t the office have more deputies? “Because we make it work and we’ve been able to make it work. We know that when we come to ask you for more personnel, that’s a hit on the tax base.”
Duncan said the high cost of training comes from the allocation of time, not the cost of hiring instructors. “When you have an agency of 420 people, to pull all those folks in and put them through a mandatory training, that’s a huge expense,” he said.
Duncan also expressed support for the establishment of a Human Relations Council, pointing to the standard set by the now-dissolved Asheville Buncombe Community Relations Council — particularly when Sara Nuñez was the director.
Duncan used an example to illustrate his point: A while back, a team that was part of a community-oriented policing program put together by the Sheriff’s Department was conducting traffic checks in a Latino neighborhood. The neighborhood was experiencing a spate of break-ins.
“Well, understanding that you’re operating in a Latino community with all the issues around driver’s licenses and all the hardship that brings and those things that that incurs, we messed up,” Duncan said. A call from Nuñez helped the Sheriff’s Department adjust its policies to better serve that community.
All the commissioners who put their names on the statement expressed support for the work done by the Sheriff’s Department but said their proposals sprang from a desire to serve their constituents.
“What we did last week, I question if it is wrong,” Whitesides said. “I have one fault and that is I care about people, I care about everybody. … We didn’t want us to end up in the same place that the city of Asheville is in.”
Frost said she and her fellow commissioners wrote the proposals with the best intentions. She said she has been a long-time advocate for increased funding for training and pay for officers.
“We wanted to speak for a lot of the people that don’t have a voice, and there are a lot of them out there that feel underserved,” she said. “They’re white, they’re brown, whatever color they are. That’s who I was speaking for.”
Beach-Ferrara said there’s a tendency, when something happens in one jurisdiction, to say that it’s confined to that jurisdiction and shouldn’t be talked about.
“The intent of this statement was not to cast blame,” Beach-Ferrara said. “It was not to paint with broad brush strokes. It was to talk about things that have directly impacted constituents and put some policy ideas on the table.”
Beach-Ferrara said she understands that there is concern about overreach.
“At the same time,” she said, “one of the things that I take from the situation that happened in Asheville is that there weren’t enough mechanisms in our community for someone to report a use-of-force incident, have access to victim services and have access to information about what legal representation they were afforded and support in moving through that legal process.”
Duncan again reminded the board that, as an elected official, he has a certain level of autonomy. He also left the board with a cautionary statement: “When elected officials jump on board with something that’s very loosely grounded in fact, and they make people in the community feel like they have something to fear from people that are trying help them, you’re adding to the problem,” he said.
Duncan pointed to another recent example when officers were trying to serve a warrant at a local McDonald’s. “A young African-American male who worked there crawled out the drive-thru window, ran and was screaming, ‘Are you guys going to murder me?’”
Duncan said the office hasn’t traditionally experienced issues with race. “It’s not because we’re just so much a better agency than the Asheville Police Department. We do not police that dynamic in the county,” he said.
Commissioner Mike Fryar said he will vote against anything commissioners bring forward that governs the Sheriff’s Department. “I can say no to your budget, but I can’t say no to what you try to do after that,” he said.
Fryar said he and Whitesides are old enough to remember how hateful the racial divide was back in the day, when whites and blacks were on two separate sides of the tracks. “We finally got to the middle of the tracks,” Fryar said. “All this is today is moving us away from the center of the tracks … I don’t look in this audience and see color anymore. I don’t, and I won’t. That’s a fact.”
Valarie Watson, a newly appointed member of the Historic Resources Commission, spoke during the public comment period. She said it troubles her when people say they don’t see race in issues like this.
“How can we deal with the problem if we refuse to admit it exists?” she said. “I want us to start seeing each other as people who are invested in living here and making Asheville live up to the story it promotes about all of us.”
No buts ab-audit
The board of commissioners unanimously approved CliftonLarsonAllen LLP to be the county’s external auditors for fiscal year 2018. Finance Director Tim Flora said this is the first time in four years that the county has conducted a request for proposals for a new auditor.
The county received five proposals and interviewed three firms. This included the firm that served as the county’s external auditor last year, Gould Killian CPA Group.
Flora said CLA has more than 5,000 professionals in more than 100 locations, and 600 professionals dedicated specifically to state and local governments. They are also ranked No. 1 in the nation for performing single audits. “That is a federal requirement as part of our regular financial audit that has to be performed … they are quite grueling,” Flora said.
The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners will meet next at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, April 17 at 200 College St. in Asheville in room 326.