BY CECIL BOTHWELL
Eight years on Asheville’s City Council gives one a sort of 30,000-foot perspective on the issues that roil our lovely town. My particular focus today is on the Asheville Police Department. As in too many cities around the country, there have been dismal instances of bad cop behavior, together with many more largely unnoticed, stellar enforcement efforts. Just for starters: I condemn the first and applaud the latter.
Lately, we have seen a media storm cooked up by the Asheville Citizen Times around a body-cam video revealing the assault on a black jaywalker, Johnnie Rush, by an APD officer — the release of which was illegal under North Carolina state law. Just to be clear: When I was chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee, I argued long and hard that release of body-cam footage should be legal, at least with certain reasonable constraints. The N.C. General Assembly thinks otherwise. The daily has deemed it urgent to link that video post to a continuing series of stories connected to that sad event in which an innocent black man was violently assaulted by a white officer. Juicy stories have always sold papers.
The activist-community reaction has been to aver that the lag time between the officer assault and release of the video represents an attempt at a cover-up, and that the firing of the miscreant officer and ensuing indictment were the result of the video release. Sorry, no banana.
Let’s think back to the tenure of Asheville Police Chief William Anderson. He was the first black police chief in Asheville, and per informal reports, a little too militaristic in his leadership style to suit some. (Ashvegas is more laid-back than that.) In any event, his son wrecked the family car, and Anderson showed up at the scene. His car, his son. Would you not?
Yet he was accused of trying to interfere in the investigation and prosecution of whatever wrongdoing could have occurred. No evidence ever confirmed that idea. None whatsoever. Over my objection, Council decided that Anderson had inappropriately sought an interview with Lt. William Wilke while he was being interviewed by the State Bureau of Investigation, but Anderson insisted that he had no knowledge of the ongoing interview when Wilke simply refused to come to the chief’s office, without explanation. So Anderson sent an officer with orders to retrieve Wilke from wherever he might be found.
An inner circle of upper-level officers managed to poison that well. By accounts I deem reliable, they resented taking orders from a black man. They stirred the pot. And restirred. Anderson ultimately retired.
Now we have seen release of body-cam footage, strictly illegal under state law absent judicial review. What was the aim? To embarrass current Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper. Some might want to believe that the reason was to expose wrongdoing by an officer, but anyone with access to the video knew that the officer had already been disciplined. To imagine that a senior officer actually wanted to release one more video that painted police as racist and abusive seems a stretch to me. There are (perhaps at this writing, hopefully, were) senior officers who didn’t like taking orders from a woman. This is the same crowd that forced out Anderson. I mean, specifically the same officers. I have been told this by a source with first-person, inside knowledge of the situation, but feel compelled to protect my source from possible repercussions. This is insider politics at its worst. This is unquestionably taking place inside the APD, and any “progressive” who seizes on this to argue for Hooper’s ouster is working for the other side. Unwittingly, sure. But unquestionably so.
Though you would have a hard time understanding this from the Citizen Times’ coverage, the unacceptable behavior of the officer who choked a jaywalker had already been investigated and appropriate actions taken long before the video was leaked. The case had already been referred to the Buncombe County District Attorney.
The only purpose of the video release to the newspaper was to cast doubt on the leadership of Chief Hooper. Some senior officer with access to that tape must have given it to the paper. Some senior officer who had to know that the case had already been handled in strict accordance with Civil Service rules, but wished to put a thumb on the scales.
For those with a short local memory, Chief Anderson faced a similar case of a cop accused of abusing a citizen, and Anderson fired the cop immediately. The cop was reinstated by the Civil Service Board because it found the officer had not been given adequate due process. In contrast, Chief Hooper took her time, followed all the legal procedures and was able to successfully eject the cop who violated the civil rights of Mr. Rush. The city has now paid Rush a substantial settlement for his mistreatment.
Yet Hooper is condemned for the appearance of “hiding” an investigation she never hid and accused of “only acting when the video was released.” Both claims are entirely false.
It seems a real shame when the right wing is able to wag the left wing’s tail. Having observed, firsthand, the tenure of five chiefs, either permanent or “acting” during my years on Council, I have to observe that when Asheville eventually loses Chief Hooper, any replacement will, beyond question, be a loss for the city. She’s the best leader APD has had in living memory. Sure as hell hope we don’t blow it.
Cecil Bothwell served on Asheville City Council 2009-17.