When the city of Asheville last held a public meeting in the auditorium of the Dr. Wesley Grant Sr. Southside Center — in March, shortly after the Citizen Times publication of body camera footage showing an Asheville police officer beating a black resident — hundreds of people packed the room to share their thoughts. Anger and disappointment toward the Asheville Police Department led then-Chief Tammy Hooper to express her willingness to resign, although she did not formally do so until Jan. 2.
But the same space stood mostly empty on Feb. 5 as the city hosted its first public listening session to develop the job description for Hooper’s permanent replacement. A mix of about 40 residents, city staff and members of the media left scores of seats unoccupied as consultants from the Police Executive Research Forum listened to the discussion.
“I’m shocked, and I’m disappointed,” said one commenter who identified himself as a Southside resident about the lack of attendance from his community. “If you’re not going to show up and voice your opinion, and then when something does happen, you get in a little group and then you voice your opinion, that’s not fair. That’s not right.”
Dawa Hitch, Asheville’s director of communication and public engagement, noted that the public meetings were just one avenue by which residents could have their voices heard. She said that the city was sending a street team into “high-crime neighborhoods” to gather feedback, as well as hosting an online survey and providing paper copies of that survey through community centers and neighborhood organizations.
Those who did attend the meeting spoke of their desire for a chief who could move the city forward on problems such as homelessness and the opioid epidemic, with a focus on community building and nonviolent conflict resolution. Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF, responded that his team heard the city’s concerns about “issues that a progressive, enlightened police chief should be aware of.”
In response to a question about the use of a community panel to actually select the new chief, Wexler said that his team was focused on obtaining input at this early stage to inform the job description. Referencing PERF’s previous poaching of a New Orleans police superintendent to be Baltimore’s chief, he said a competitive police labor market might require the city to be discreet about its recruitment.
“We work for [City Manager Debra Campbell] to get the best candidates we can,” Wexler explained. “Much like you do in any major organization, we try to get people who are doing a great job to be willing to leave that job to do something better.”
Campbell said she hoped to identify a new police chief by late spring — earning a laugh from the audience when she added, “Whatever your definition of late spring is, go with it.” While filling the position is important, she said, patience is also critical for ensuring the right fit.
“This is going to be tough, to truly get someone to come to Asheville and reflect the values that we have in Asheville and will be able to present themselves in a way that advances trust and faith and confidence in the APD,” Campbell said. “That has to permeate not just through the chief, but throughout the organization.”