Chief: Taser incident handled professionally

[Editor’s note: On March 18, Oakley resident Kyle Ross was walking to a neighbor’s house to let out a dog when she was stopped for questioning by an Asheville police officer. Two additional officers arrived as backup. The 48-year-old Ross was subjected to three separate Taser stun-gun shocks before being taken into custody and charged with disorderly conduct and resisting public officers. As reported by the Asheville Citizen-Times on July 16, Officer Matthew Lawson was dismissed from the APD in connection with the incident, and the charges against Ross were dropped. Police Chief Bill Hogan has submitted the following open letter to the community.]

In my 30 years of law enforcement, I have found that the vast majority of police officers and employees are dedicated public servants. The men and women of the Asheville Police Department are a highly professional and dedicated group [of] individuals committed to service excellence in protecting Asheville’s citizens and visitors. They report for duty around the clock 365 days a year and frequently risk their lives in service to this community.

On March 18, 2005, an incident occurred involving the use of a Taser, which resulted in an Asheville Police Department internal investigation. Recently, some questions and concerns have been raised about this incident, as well as the department’s use of Tasers. It’s my desire to address those concerns and provide you with more information about the department’s guidelines and policies and how they apply to this specific incident.

My expectation for the men and women of the Police Department is to conduct themselves according to our guiding principles of integrity, respect, fairness and professionalism. When it comes to the use of force in an incident, I expect officers to use only that force necessary to make an arrest, protect innocent citizens or to protect themselves and fellow officers. This expectation is made clear to officers in the department’s policy on the use of force, which includes Tasers.

I believe in training officers to understand department policy and how to use equipment, and officers receive more than a full day of instruction on using the Taser, which requires each officer to experience the Taser’s effects.

Every time an officer uses force to make an arrest, including the use of a Taser, the department’s policy requires review of the incident and how force was applied. In my judgment, we hold officers to high standards and follow good procedures for monitoring the use of Tasers in police incidents.

When incidents result in an internal investigation … they become a personnel matter, and the case facts are protected by state law and considered confidential as a personnel record. The law is intended to protect employees’ rights and privacy, and as such, it restricts the ability of the Police Department and the city of Asheville to publicly report the facts of the incident and [whether] corrective disciplinary action was taken.

It is important to me to let you know that I am absolutely dedicated to being open and honest with the Asheville community and the media. At the same time, I am obligated to follow the law and the due process it ensures employees.

What I can tell you about the March 18 incident is that the Police Department initiated an internal investigation approximately one week later. During the course of the investigation, we worked extensively with the complainant, including numerous meetings, phone calls and written correspondence. The formal investigation was completed on April 29, and on that same date, the Asheville Police Department requested that all charges against the complainant be dropped. The district attorney did so on May 2. On May 3, I sent a formal letter of apology to the complainant advising her that criminal charges against her had been dropped.

According to state law, a government employee is entitled to due process when the facts indicate [that] work rules have been violated. The law requires the organization to follow a series of steps before an employee is disciplined, leading up to and including dismissal. After the March 18 incident’s internal investigation was complete, the involved officers’ due process began and is still continuing.

The law allows me to tell you that the last personnel action taken in regard to this employee was separation of employment from the city of Asheville. When this occurs, the city of Asheville’s civil-service law provides the employee the option to exercise appeal rights before the city manager, the Civil Service Board and, ultimately, into the court system.

I am confident that the department’s procedures for addressing citizens’ complaints results in thorough investigations and timely responses. In the case of the March 18 incident, this process led to the appropriate results, including dropping all charges against the complainant within 40 days of initiating the investigation.

Citizens may file complaints with the department in a variety of ways, including contacting the Professional Standards Unit, which conducts internal investigations, at 259-5907. In addition, any police supervisor can accept a citizen complaint. I will personally accept a complaint in person, by phone, by e-mail or by any other means. Complaints can also be filed anonymously, and citizens can work through a community liaison to file a complaint.

The Asheville Police Department is dedicated to public safety, to citizen service and to correcting actions that fall short of the department’s rules, policies and guiding principles.

Thank you for your time in understanding this matter. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or concerns.

[Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan can be reached at 828-259-5880.]

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