On May 28, Asheville City Council member Brian Peterson was stopped for committing a minor traffic violation. (According to the Asheville Citizen-Times account, he “did not signal a turn.”) The paper also reported that Peterson was ticketed for driving with an expired license. No other charges were filed.

End of report.

Except that Police Chief Will Annarino came forward with allegations (and, perhaps, unspecified documentation) which gave the paper a juicy story — a story based on nothing but the chief’s unusual proactive release of what would normally be considered privileged police information.

Absent documentation, the Citizen-Times story amounts to hearsay. This is not to defend what may have occurred leading up to the traffic stop, or what might have happened absent police intervention. But a newspaper has an obligation to its readers to report facts. And when allegations — no matter what the source — have clear political implications and are potentially driven by political motives, the news media have a special responsibility to avoid rumormongering. Responsible coverage must be cautious and carefully grounded in documented facts. (If Xpress printed every tip we receive concerning public officials, we would have little room for anything else. The prostitution, drug and gambling trades in WNC are said to have many friends in high places.)

On May 30, however, the Citizen-Times violated this most basic rule of reporting when it published allegations delivered to them by Annarino about Peterson and a passenger in his car. The newspaper has continued to print stories based on scanty or undisclosed evidence and has published an editorial calling for Peterson’s resignation.

The Citizen-Times has also stretched journalistic ethics by labeling an unidentified woman as a “suspected prostitute.” Although the paper alleges that the woman in question has been charged with and convicted of numerous crimes, it reports she has not been convicted of prostitution. To so label her is, if not libelous, then certainly vicious; it also convicts Peterson by association. Annarino refused to give Xpress the un-charged woman’s name, making it impossible to verify his allegations through a criminal-ssrecords search. (If the Citizen-Times has obtained the woman’s name, it does not credit a source.)

Asheville deserves better from its daily paper.

Did the paper fall for a political gambit? In that case it is displaying alarming naivete. Or did some combination of a lurid topic with a covert agenda drive its coverage? The evidence for such an agenda is compelling, given the manner in which the Citizen-Times has handled what could have been cast as a simple news item. The paper first ran a front-page story, later a front-page banner above the headline, and then a tease about sexual allegations in “OUT THERE” (in its “Mountains” section). Furthermore, the Citizen-Times titled its report about City Council’s June 3 work session “Council can censure Peterson,” which twisted a factual statement about the law to put a spin on the news. (It would be equally accurate to state, “Council can censure Bellamy, Dunn, Ellis, Jones, Mumpower or Worley.”)

The role of Chief Annarino in this matter is also troubling. He told Xpress that he went to the Citizen-Times because word was already out on the street, and he wanted to head off possible allegations that the Police Department was suppressing information. In going to the Citizen-Times, however, Annarino twice violated rules in the Asheville Police Department Policy Manual — which he helped write. First, he released information to some media outlets and not to others, an act that is explicitly forbidden: “Under no circumstances is any reporter on any medium (newspaper, radio, or television) to be given preferential treatment” (Policy Number 1231, Section 1). More seriously, he was proactive in going to the newspaper. The manual states that except for a clearly spelled out list of occurrences which must be reported, “No unsolicited information releases are to be made by a member of the department” (Policy Number 1231, Section 4-E).

“Must report” includes “homicide; civil disorders requiring significant police action; traffic accident fatalities; officer involved shooting; officer seriously injured; hostage situations; arrests for major felonies; arrest for in-progress felonies” — a traffic stop isn’t one of them. The only other reportable situation is “an event which would require immediate public notification such as an emergency evacuation of an area where electronic media would be of assistance.” Annarino offered the daily paper information concerning the private lives of people who had not been charged with significant criminal activity.

Annarino later told Xpress that when he presented the story to the Citizen-Times, he “could tell they already had it by the questions they were asking me.” But the Citizen-Times reported that he was the source of its story. Either way, by his own admission, Annarino made an unsolicited release of information.

Police have a responsibility to enforce the law, to ascertain facts pertinent to cases, and to report those facts to civil authorities, who then take whatever action they deem appropriate. But police, like newspapers, are neither judges nor jurors. And when police begin to assume those roles, we have moved a step closer to a “police state.”

The urgent question in this case is not Peterson’s behavior, which may have been illegal or stupid or both. The bigger issue involves the proper role of police in a free society.

The possibility of a politically motivated smear campaign is one key reason for restricting Police Department employees’ contact with the media. And in this case, the police chief’s behavior could be construed to be political to the core. Peterson opposed the panhandling ordinance Annarino helped to write and opposed the recent closure of Pack Square (in which Annarino figured prominently). In addition, Peterson has voiced support for creating a citizens’ police-oversight board — a move Annarino opposes.

In placing the considerable weight of his office on the political scales, Annarino has gone beyond the bounds of law enforcement. In an election year (and with Peterson up for re-election), the police chief has injected himself into what is properly the sphere of local politics. We encourage City Council to look closely at this worrisome blurring of boundaries.

We also urge the Citizen-Times to reflect on the way it has participated in mudslinging. In the end, no one wins when a wink and a nod are permitted to stand in for the truth.

[At press time, it is reported that Council will vote to censure Brian Peterson at the June 10 formal session. Council will be remiss if a stern reprimand is not issued to Police Chief Annarino as well.]

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