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.