Police misconduct hurts us all. Discourteous behavior or excessive use of force by even a single officer goes against the grain of the Constitution, our sense of community and our collective sense of dignity, casting a shadow on all men and women in blue. I should know: I was a victim of police brutality in Asheville on March 18, 2005.
I was walking to my neighbor’s house in Oakley to take care of her dog and cat. An Asheville police officer stopped me, I was deemed a “suspicious” person, and the officer called for backup. Two other officers arrived and they decided to arrest me, based on an erroneous tip. The two backup officers said I “struggled,” so they nodded to the first one to go ahead and zap me with the taser he had pointed at me. Then they did it two more times.
This gun rammed 50,000 volts of electricity into my body three times in less than 60 seconds. I am lucky to still be alive; my child is lucky that I was able to buy her dinner that night. And the Police Department is lucky to still be in business. Officer morale, effectiveness and credibility all sustained serious injuries; the incident ripped like a bullet through the chests of all APD officers in a front-to-back, left-to-right, penetrate-the-heart fashion, and it left my friends and neighbors worried about their own safety. What was next?
I delivered my complaint to the Police Department, but it was a long and rocky road. Next time, I’ll bring several people with me—maybe someone with a video camera. At first I thought the police administrators were lazy. Then I noticed how they would brace themselves every time I tried to move in close. I smelled fresh spackling on the Thin Blue Wall, which the administration reinforced with thick bricks. They acted like they were getting ready for a party, and I was not invited. A year later, I figured out that they, too, were frozen in shock, just like me. They used spackling to make sure the Wall was a solid barrier to the onslaught of criticism they didn’t want to hear. I thought they should be nice to me; I was so blind and confused that my friends said I acted like I was in a fog. Perhaps that served me well; a person can swallow only so much bad news at a time.
I came out the other end of the nightmare with an apology and some money from my beloved home city of Asheville. The money was great, but what I really wanted was to ensure that what happened to me would never happen again. I wanted a highly restrictive use-of-force policy and a better complaint process. Instead, I’ve continued to hear about incidents that were worse than what happened to me. I’ve met family members of men killed by police bullets since 2001. I’ve read and heard about fellow community members permanently injured by a police grenade and stray police gunfire.
At this point, I would like some of peace of mind. I would give the city all the money back if I could be sure that the next person who goes through the complaint process would be treated with professionalism and respect. We need an autonomous office or person to really listen to what people say about their Police Department and take notes. We need someone who can dig up the truth and make it stick. The main witness in my incident said the police never even talked to him. Now I understand why some people don’t go to the Police Department.
A successful police-brutality lawsuit against one officer increases the likelihood of more lawsuits against others. The goal of police oversight is to reduce both the number of lawsuits and the loss of human life. People have more confidence in a police department that’s monitored by an outside agency, and public trust goes a long way toward reducing the number of lawsuits. External oversight also helps the good cops, who may fear retribution if they rat on another officer to an administrator within the department. I saw the domino effects of police “brotherhood” firsthand when the police altered and reordered the facts in my case. The truth was concealed even from me until two bright, diamondlike Asheville officers broke their code of silence. Thanks for risking your careers and personal assets: You are the heroes in all of this.
Police brutality can happen anywhere, anytime, to anyone. I was minding my own business when I almost lost my life to a police officer’s new toy. These are human beings doing a high-stress job; inevitably, some will make mistakes, and some will snap. I had three officers go berserk on me. So what should we do when that happens?
The police cannot police themselves; the blind can’t lead the blind; the psychologically traumatized cannot help terrified citizens. The creative folks of Asheville need to come together and craft a workable plan for meaningful police oversight. Complainers aren’t thugs who are mad because their handcuffs were too tight; many complaints concern encounters with officers that didn’t even involve arrests.
I plan to assemble a group of community leaders, interested citizens and other victims of police misconduct who support some type of external auditing of the Police Department. I will take this list with me when I ask candidates in the next City Council election to take a stand on this issue, and I’ll ask the rest of City Council to do the same.
Please call me if you have ideas. If we teeter on the edge of lawlessness, we’ll end up with civil disorder. I predict more problems—I hope I’m wrong.
[Asheville resident Kyle Ann Ross is a social-justice activist and writer who taught elementary school, both here and elsewhere, for more than 10 years.]