APD arrests raise troubling questions

Dan Hesse
Dan Hesse Photo by Thomas Calder

I’ve been a reporter, first for WWNC radio and now for Mountain Xpress, for about 10 years. You don’t spend that much time in this line of work without encountering and interviewing assorted law enforcement officials for everything from crime reporting to helping get the word out about various public safety initiatives. I’ve also attended the Asheville Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy to gain better insight into the many responsibilities, issues and challenges those who protect our community are asked to deal with. But I never expected that I’d end up getting arrested simply for doing my job.

On July 21, a group of protesters from Black Asheville Matters began a sit-in at the APD’s downtown headquarters, demanding justice for Jai Lateef Solveig “Jerry” Williams, who was fatally shot on July 2 by Asheville Police Sgt. Tyler Radford at the Deaverview Apartments. On July 22, Mountain Xpress sent me down to police headquarters to get an update on the sit-in.

Seven demonstrators were sitting on the floor on the left side of the hallway; other protesters were crowding the area next to the doors. Media representatives were milling between the hallway and the outside of the building, where they were interviewing protesters. I couldn’t get a clear vantage point for photos and video, though, so I moved to the far right-hand side of the hallway. Right after that, the police shut two windows facing onto Pack Square Park; perhaps 10 officers were standing guard outside the building as another 10 or so poured into the hall. Up till then, the media hadn’t been informed that we wouldn’t be allowed in there. Apparently, kicking out the media was a spur-of-the-moment decision made just as the arrests began. The APD says it warned us, but, if true, the warning wasn’t communicated clearly. I wasn’t personally given these instructions; I’m also deaf in my left ear and suffer from tinnitus, which made it extremely hard to sort out what was being said during the commotion.

As the officers entered the hallway, I saw one of them nod toward me; I was immediately told to put my hands behind my back. I instantly complied, while stating that I’m a member of the media. I twice asked the officer putting restraints on my wrists for his name but received no answer. After again stating that I was with the media and that my arrest was a mistake, I once again asked the arresting officer for his name. Finally, he gave it to me.

The seven protesters and I were herded into the main lobby, where we sat in chairs. The roughly 10 arresting officers lined up against the walls on three sides of us. Capt. Stony Gonce addressed the demonstrators, explaining why they’d been arrested and expressing a desire to continue the dialogue. After he finished speaking, I yet again identified myself as a reporter for Mountain Xpress.

As we sat there waiting for the next step in our processing, I said the restraints were digging into my wrists. The only reply I received was, “They’ve been installed to the manufacturer’s specifications” — an answer that seems more suited to a robot that’s struggling to comprehend the idea of empathy than to a police officer who regularly interacts with the community.

According to the arrest record, I was charged with “unlawfully and willfully … blocking entrance to and walkways of Asheville Police Department from inside the building and … hanging banners outside the doorway.” In fact, however, I wasn’t blocking the door and had nothing to do with the banners the protesters had put up outside. And even one of the protesters who was processed along with me wasn’t charged with hanging banners.

In the Citizens Police Academy sessions, various officers talk about their responsibilities and respond to attendees’ questions, concerns and comments. It’s a well-executed intersection of education and public outreach.

Much is made of the APD’s focus on what it calls “verbal judo”: Officers, we were told, are trained to make positive initial contact, communicate clearly, practice active listening, de-escalate difficult situations, and apply other useful skills during interactions with citizens, including arrests. The goal seems to be to resolve issues verbally, rather than resorting to excessive physical force, while maintaining a degree of situational awareness and aplomb.

I saw precious little of this during my arrest, however. The whole process felt overly dramatic and unnecessarily frenzied, particularly considering how much time the city had had to decide how best to approach those arrests.

If police work is all about the details, there wasn’t much attention to detail evident that day. Could that lack indicate a broader failure in how our community is policed?

Arresting officers should be sufficiently confident in what they’re doing that they have no need for anonymity. And I wonder if it makes sense to deploy roughly 20 officers to arrest seven peaceful protesters? Maybe that’s standard operating procedure. I’d like to think there’s a more logical way to detain seven people with the stated mission of wanting to be arrested.

The sit-in was a great opportunity for the police to publicly demonstrate respect for First Amendment rights while letting potential protesters know that they must follow certain rules or face arrest. But kicking media reps out of a public building with little warning while they’re covering a story raises questions about the APD’s commitment to transparency.

When one is arrested, there’s an inherent fear of openly questioning law enforcement personnel. And my attempts to foster dialogue were lost in a sea of jargon and antiquated “best practices” that need to be updated in keeping with current standards for community-oriented policing.

Both locally and nationally, there’s a tragic and growing disconnect between ordinary citizens and law enforcement personnel. The public needs a better understanding of the challenges the police face daily — and the police need to show greater empathy for the people they’re sworn to protect.

So here I am, describing the red flags I observed while being wrongfully arrested for doing my job. On the other side of the table, police officers watch as some media outlets paint distorted pictures of law enforcement. And to me, it feels like the table is set but everyone forgot to prepare dinner.

Editor’s note: Charges against Hesse were dismissed late last week.

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About Dan Hesse
I grew up outside of Atlanta and moved to WNC in 2001 to attend Montreat College. After college, I worked at NewsRadio 570 WWNC as an anchor/reporter and covered Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners starting in 2004. During that time I also completed WCU's Master of Public Administration program. You can reach me at dhesse@mountainx.com.

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25 thoughts on “APD arrests raise troubling questions

  1. This is really, really wrong. As Chair of the Asheville City Council Public Safety Committee I intend to get public answers on why our officers arrested a member of the press who was doing his job. The fact that charges were dropped is insufficient.

  2. Pat Farris

    This is a shame, mayor Ester Manheimer needs to reign in Apd’s antidemocratic actions including this, and intimidation of black lives matter protesters at their homes.

    • James L. (Larry) Smith

      Esther doesn’t oversee the police. Gary Jackson does. He’s the city manager and decidedly would like you erroneously blaming Esther.

  3. bsummers

    Cecil is right. Mr. Hesse should never have been arrested, and I hope that the AD is called to the mat on this one. It should be made crystal clear to them that media representatives lawfully covering the news are strictly hands-off!!

  4. MV

    While unfortunate for Mr. Hesse, I am pleased to see a call for accountability and transparency from the APD.
    I work with adjudicated teens who struggle with mental illness in our community, and hope that the “best practices” of active listening and verbal de-escalation will be more predominant when our officers interact with my student population. Why? Because it works. Defiant teens and young adults will only become more resolute in the face of intimidation and “swift justice”. That said, I urge us all to come together as a community and support one another. Law and order is a necessary facet of a thriving society. There is no reason we cannot live with mutual respect for one another in the ecclectic city we call home.

  5. Pat Farris

    Those who would give up liberty for security deserve neither!

  6. ApePeeD

    I rarely defend the APD, but in this instance, I will. The protesters were protesting both in and out of the building for quite a while. But it got to the point that normal operations couldn’t continue for the day.
    The protesters were given several requests to leave the building, which they did not do. And you should have left. But you did not. And so you were arrested. Tough love.

      • bsummers

        I think the topic is the arrest of a journalist at this event. Sure, protesters understand that they may be arrested for acts of civil disobedience – I’ve done it myself, done my time, paid my fine, the end.

        But media representatives who identify themselves to the police as such, who are covering the events, should never be herded up with the protesters and thrown into jail. The fact that Mr. Hesse’s charges were dropped indicate that they know they messed up. But how was it allowed to happen in the first place?

        Reporters shouldn’t have to be concerned about getting thrown in jail simply for covering the news. That’s the beginning of the end for a free society.

        • ApePeeD

          But APD does have the ability to clear its own premises, even if the person is a reporter. A reporter is not immune to the law. APD *had* to return to its normal functioning, which simply wasn’t happening that day anymore.
          Yes, there is a line that needs to be drawn between law/order and freedom of speech, but when the infrastructure of government has shut down, it’s time to take your signs and go outside.

          • bsummers

            I agree that the APD has the authority and the practical need to clear their premises of protestors. But if you read his account, Mr. Hesse claims he was not given the opportunity to leave the premises before the arrests started, and was ignored when he stated he was a working journalist.

          • Pat Farris

            I believe the point was to interfere with government operations in a similar manner to how government agents interfere with the daily lives of people of color

        • c

          Oh big deal – he can lick his wounds and report on the unfairness of the world another day.

          • bsummers

            Do the words “chilling effect” mean anything to you? I don’t care so much about Mr. Hesse’s ‘wounds’ – it’s about whether we the people can get news or not, because reporters don’t want to get too close for fear of being thrown in the slammer, however briefly.

  7. ApePeeD

    What happened to the other representatives of the media? Why were they not arrested, but you were? Because they complied with the instructions? Why are there pictures of the protesters sitting on the floor in the hallway in the other Xpress article? It certainly doesn’t seem like “right after that” or “dramatic” or “frenzied” you were put in handcuffs — again, especially with the _repeated_ requests by APD after _hours_ of pcketing in the hallway. Take your little hurt ego and your article with a grain of salt.

  8. EB

    I can top Dan’s story…. I live in Madison county across the valley from the law enforcement outdoor shooting range. The rang e in Madison county has been by law enforcement from surrounding counties, including buncombe, for the past several years. It has turned this peaceful area into “BEIRUT”. I recorded quite a lot of this extreme noise on my video camera, semi-automatic rifles, long range sniper rifles, hand guns, sometimes so many shooting at a time it was like July 4th fireworks for hours, sometimes as late as 11pm.

    Well one day several l months ago I called the local law enforcement to complain and told them I had video sound of all this noise. The next day, my camera’s hard drive was destroyed…it has not worked since. That’s the state of affairs we are up against…..

    • bsummers

      OK, I’ll bite… How did your camera’s hard drive get destroyed?

  9. boatrocker

    I predict in a post Patriot Act America this will become the norm as opposed to the exception, and much like many police violations of rights under the big C (the Constitution, not cancer), outrage will wane as new apps for our phones will be offered in order to distract us.

  10. Laura Eshelman

    I would just like to say that as one of the seven demonstrators, I made a conscious choice to accept the consequences with full understanding of the “challenges that police handle daily.” I have a master’s in criminal justice and had interactive discussions with numerous law enforcement of varying ranks in that setting, as well as a volunteer for multiple BLET trainings in Asheville, and in public forums (as well as when recruiting officers for REI workshops). That’s no secret, and I don’t believe the public thinks it’s a cakewalk either– in fact, the public seems all too eager to be over-policed in the name of “security” much of the time. This isn’t a give-a-little-get-a-little game anymore– people are dying and if there’s anything the public needs to do, it is to hold our elected officials and institutions accountable.

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