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They still have their heads in the sand

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By Clint Parker- Last week three Buncombe County Commissioners (Al Whitesides, Ellen Frost and Jasmine Beach-Ferrar) took it upon themselves to attack all members of the local law enforcement community by releasing a press release comparing “excessive use of force” by Buncombe County law enforcement agencies as a “crisis in our community on par with the opioid epidemic.”

The catalyst for the press release was the recent incident between an Asheville Police Officer and a citizen named Johnny Rush. Rush was stopped for jaywalking and then, after running for law enforcement officers ran from police and was eventually beaten by the officer while resisting arrest.

To say that “excessive use of force” by some law enforcement officers is “on par with the opioid epidemic” is ludicrous to say the least. According to Buncombe County’s own website “Over 17 million painkillers were prescribed in Buncombe County In 2016. This equals almost 68 pills for every adult and child in Buncombe County” and “from January to August 2017 there were 230 opioid overdose emergency department visits in Buncombe County.”

Now my question to the commissioners is during that same January to August 2017 period were there 230 complaints of “excessive use of force” by law enforcement officers in Buncombe County? Heck no! No, no where close to that – if there were, then I’d have to agree with these commissioners.

Since it’s not even in the same league what we have is three commissioners throwing gasoline onto a already burning fire for the benefit of their agenda and their political base’s agenda at the expense of all law enforcement officers in the county along with the safety of the officers and the general public.

Sheriff Van Duncan was the first to respond to the press release leaving no doubt that he was shocked by the release of the statement and vehemently disagreed with these commissioners. “Because of that, some in elected office are taking advantage of this situation to drive a very anti-law enforcement agenda that I can promise you will impact your public safety and the safety of those that serve,” said Duncan in his response where he calls Whitesides, Frost and Beach-Ferrar out for the real reason they released the statement.

Duncan responded with his own press release and interviews with WLOS and on WWNC’s morning show with Mark Starling where he was joined by Buncombe County DA Todd Williams who sided with Duncan on the issue. There Duncan once again pointed out that the commissioners were sacrificing public safety and that of his officers as well as the officers’ integrity at the altar of political gain. Duncan also said that about half the commissioners’ recommendations where already or in the process of being implemented.

In addition on Wednesday (April 4) Duncan sent out another clarification of his position saying, “I am not against all of what was proposed which was originally reported. I am strongly against the oversight proposals outlined in yesterday’s release.”

He went on to say, “These recommendations impact all law enforcement agencies in Buncombe County. Part of the recommendation involves the County appointing a team of individuals that would investigate any use of force complaint that would arise from any action of any law enforcement agency in Buncombe County. They would also fund an attorney’s position to help these people file their complaint and possibly sue the county or municipality from which the complaint arises. They also propose the auditing of all law enforcement agencies in Buncombe County to include the Sheriff’s Office to review their policies and if they comply with President Obama’s 21st century policing policies. I think anyone who is elected to a board that oversees a municipal police department in Buncombe County should have issues with this. Citizens in these municipalities elect their boards to oversee their police departments and this is not the responsibility of the Buncombe County Commissioners.”

He’s right, these commissioners were not elected to oversee these town police forces like Woodfin and Weaverville. Hell, they can’t even keep tabs on one person – their former county manager, Wanda Greene, how are they going to oversee the police departments of the rest of the county.

Duncan concluded, “I do not support any of the overreaching oversight proposals that have been made because it usurps the authority of existing boards and elected officials to do the jobs that their citizens elected them to do, to include their sheriff.”

Joining Duncan and Weaverville Town Council member Patrick Fitzsimmons in criticizing the commissioners is Woodfin Police Chief Michael Dykes and the Town of Weaverville.

Dykes who wrote in an open letter (see complete letter page ??) “…a matter of even greater concern is your apparent desire to usurp the legitimate authority granted to the elected officials of local municipalities and to silence the voices of Woodfin voters. The proposals you make, if enacted, would drastically reduce local control of municipal police departments and transfer that authority to an unrepresentative body largely insulated from the issues facing the various municipalities.”

The three commissioners ended up with egg on their faces with Weaverville’s response (see story on page ??) where it was revealed that their “Police Department policies were reviewed and audited in the summer of 2017 by the North Carolina League of Municipalities and their report was presented to Town Council on July 17, 2017 by Tom Anderson, who is the NCLM Law Enforcement Risk Manager. In his report…Anderson recognized the Weaverville Police Department for their impressive work in law enforcement and for completing the risk review process.” Anderson adding he was “proud to say that the Weaverville Police Department exceeded many of these categories expectations.”

“Chief Anderson personally thanked (then) Police Chief Greg Stephens and then Detective Alan Wyatt for their commitment through this process. The Town’s efforts in requesting and completing this voluntary risk review process are truly indicative of the Town’s and the Weaverville Police Department’s efforts to ensure the public’s safety and fair treatment and our highest professional standards. It should be noted that the NCLM’s risk review process is modeled after the industry standards and best practices as addressed in the Final Report to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.”

Oh yeah, and the three commissioners not knowing Weaverville’s department had recently been given a clean review of their policies and procedures by an outside reviewing agency is just more proof that these commissioners still have their heads in the sand just as they did with Wanda Greene. County residents need to vote them out for their incompetence and with their reckless endangerment of law enforcement officers and the citizens of the county!

Joint Statement from Buncombe County Commissioners Al Whitesides, Ellen Frost and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara on the Crisis of Racial Bias and Excessive Use of Force

PRESS RELEASE – As Buncombe County Commissioners, we are gravely concerned about the excessive use of force on Mr. Johnnie Rush by an Asheville Police Department officer and the ensuing delay in the administration of justice. In August 2017, Mr. Rush, an African-American downtown resident, was assaulted by a law enforcement officer after being stopped and detained for allegedly jaywalking on his walk home from a 13-hour work shift. Mr. Rush is one of our constituents, and an assault on his dignity is an affront to all of ours.

This is a crisis in our community on par with the opioid epidemic. It must therefore receive the same level of open dialogue, honest assessment, collaboration across agencies, and robust funding by the public bodies who are duty-bound to serve and protect our constituents.

Incidents like this should never happen again. But they can, and will, unless we take proactive and ongoing steps to prevent them. Asheville City Council has initiated steps to redress the systemic factors that resulted in the stop, arrest, and excessive use of force on Mr. Rush and the subsequent delay in the administration of justice. We support those efforts and seek to build on them to protect all citizens in every corner of Buncombe County.

We propose the following immediate actions to address this crisis. We look forward to discussing these ideas with community members, advocates, fellow members of Buncombe County Commission and county staff, Asheville City Council, the Buncombe County Sheriff, the Buncombe County District Attorney, and the Buncombe County Public Defender.

1) We advocate for all law enforcement agencies in the county, including the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and all local police departments, to review current use of force and de-escalation policies and to revise them, with community input, to reflect best practices and principles as outlined in “The Final Report to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing;”

2) Buncombe County will fund use of force, de-escalation and implicit bias trainings for any law enforcement agency within the county;

3) We will join Asheville City Council in funding and seeking the extension of the 60-day body cam footage retention period to ensure that this footage is available for review when citizens have been afforded the opportunity and right to counsel;

4) Buncombe County will fund a pilot of a multidisciplinary “Use of Force Response Team” within county government that is empowered to receive referrals and reports from the county’s Human Rights Commission (see below), community members, local law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s Office. This team will include an attorney, a social worker/victim advocate, and an individual with a law enforcement background. The team would be tasked with: 1) conducting an independent review of body cam footage; 2) assessing needs of victims and making appropriate referrals to victim services; 3) providing legal assistance with filing reports of use of force; and 4) notifying local governments of the occurrence of use of force incidents. Given the City of Asheville’s pledge to fund an attorney position with some parallel functions, we encourage ongoing communication and the exploration of coordination with this new position;

5) Buncombe County will create a Human Rights Commission that is empowered to investigate reports of harassing, violent or discriminatory conduct by public employees toward residents; to receive reports of discrimination related to public accommodations, public services, and private businesses; and to make policy and budgetary recommendations to County Commission regarding human rights issues in Buncombe County to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect;

6) Buncombe County will fund proposals to create trauma-informed responses to use of force incidents by law enforcement agencies and community stakeholders to recognize how these incidents injure not just individuals but the communities they are part of;

7) Buncombe County will continue to fund the Justice Resource Center; and

8 ) We call on the District Attorney’s Office, in collaboration with law enforcement agencies across Buncombe County, to develop protocols for requesting investigative assistance from the State Bureau of Investigations (“SBI”) in all use of force incidents and for responding to such reports, consistent with the recommendations contained in the NC Conference of District Attorneys Best Practices Committee’s report.

We believe that our community can – and must – do better to end racial bias and excessive use of force in policing. Doing so requires all hands on deck and a commitment to change at the individual, community and systemic levels.

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