Who’s watching the police?

The Asheville Police Department has itself embroiled in yet another controversy. This time, a Chris Rock comedy routine that gives blacks tips on how to avoid being beaten by police has been circulated within the department. Some officers and higher-ups elected to e-mail the video clip along with their own personal remarks, which were insensitive at best, outright racist at worst.

In a rare admission, Chief Will Annarino — whose statements to the media more typically consist of assertions that his department has appropriately followed procedure — confessed that the e-mails violated APD policy. And it’s ironic that the chief should suddenly embrace departmental rules, which he’s been all too willing to violate in the past — most recently when he proactively approached selected members of the media with information about Council member Brian Peterson’s traffic stop.

Sadly, Annarino’s admission completely misses the point. By choosing to address only the personal use of APD e-mail (a relatively minor issue), the chief is avoiding the real problem: that the Asheville Police Department, from the top down, is encouraging an atmosphere of disrespect and racial bias.

The e-mail in question was circulated within the department five months before the unjustified beating of two black men — Khalid Saadiq and Ismael Hassan — in connection with a traffic stop. Could the unhealthy attitudes of prejudice and bias within the APD have subliminally encouraged those beatings?

For the Police Department to effectively serve the citizens of Asheville, it must have adequate resources and procedures to ensure a professionally run organization. The inexcusable attitudes expressed in the controversial e-mails clearly indicate a breakdown of the objectivity and professionalism the APD needs to fulfill its professed mission of serving the community.

Many city residents and a few City Council members have been outraged about the inappropriate e-mails. But where can these people go to register their complaints? This lack of recourse is one of the primary concerns of Asheville Justice Watch, a local group advocating the creation of a citizen oversight board for the Asheville Police Department.

Some time ago, I spoke to City Council about Chief Annarino’s having violated two of his own policies, which prohibit releasing unsolicited information and giving preferential treatment to individual reporters or media outlets. Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy replied that citizens should consider City Council their connection to the Asheville Police Department. And at a Support Our Police rally, Council member Carl Mumpower echoed that sentiment to other Asheville Justice Watch members. But Council member Peterson contradicted his colleagues, stating, “There’s been lots of kinds of complaints [about the APD], and the Council’s never done anything.”

In fact, the City Council cannot directly interface with its own Police Department. Instead, city policy dictates that Council communicate with the APD through the city manager. In June, however, Council members met to discuss problems caused by City Manager Jim Westbrook’s failure to communicate with them adequately on matters of budget and policy. And if Westbrook isn’t working with Council on these issues, how likely is it that he’s doing any better at bridging the gap between City Council and the Police Department?

In practice, City Council has given us no reason to consider it an effective conduit between the citizens of Asheville and their Police Department.

City residents can also take their complaints to APD Internal Affairs, a one-man department run by Lt. Don Babb. A lot of local people have tried this approach. Some have been ridiculed and treated unprofessionally; many have been met with dismissive attitudes. Most say they’ve never received a response or resolution after their complaints were filed. Virtually all have come away dissatisfied.

As things now stand, I expect we’ll see more incidents of inappropriate behavior on the part of the Asheville Police Department. Why shouldn’t we? Our city government has no mechanism for ensuring police accountability. And until our Police Department is held to the standards it purports to uphold, it’s a safe bet that APD superiors and officers alike will continue to behave however they please.

An Asheville Citizen-Times editorial on the subject called for “a public forum that gives people an opportunity to participate in a dialogue about their concerns regarding the way police interact with the community.” A citizen oversight board would facilitate that long-overdue dialogue.

[David Lynch is a spokesperson for Asheville Justice Watch, a group advocating increased accountability for the police in their role as public servants and peacekeepers.]

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