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Council Updates Public on Police Reforms

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By Leslee Kulba- Next, council wanted to see new legislation to modify the roles and responsibilities of members of its civil service board. Council was disappointed the city’s internal personnel policies did not allow immediate termination, and that the civil service board could reinstate terminated employees. Wisler pointed out council was also going to have a legislative agenda from a subcommittee of the Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee. She suggested coordinating the agendas before approaching legislators.

Council had also been asked to come up with a “more aggressive plan” to hire minority police officers, something the city has been trying to do for years. Staff will nonetheless see what else may be done; it may be they have exhausted all legal options.

The last initiative discussed was “encouraging people to bring complaints against law enforcement.” Wisler said “educating” would be a better word choice, but Councilor Sheneika Smith felt encouragement would help build needed trust. The city’s whistleblower hotline will also be made more accessible, and the city will lobby for means of strategically increasing transparency in the handling of police affairs.

A worksession had been scheduled for Asheville City Council to begin budget deliberations for the next year, but discussion of council’s $3.2 million-plus deficit was going to have to take a back seat. Bodycam footage of police brutality leaked to the press had stirred public outcry the city could not let go unanswered. Outraged citizens were accusing the city of systemic racism and mismanagement and demanding resignations.

The meeting began with Mayor Esther Manheimer announcing, without much ado, that City Manager Gary Jackson would be relieved of his duties at the end of the business day. Assistant City Manager Cathy Ball would begin serving as interim city manager until a replacement could be found, and Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler would, without compensation, lead the search for a new manager. Manheimer only said the termination was in Jackson’s and the city’s best interest, and she directed persons interested in his severance package to peruse documents available online.

Next, council ordered a third-party review of the recent police brutality incident. Manheimer said council did not want to rely on the investigation into civil rights violations already underway by the Department of Justice because council “couldn’t know the scope or outcome” thereof. Ball was instructed to work with Police Chief Tammy Hooper to identify the party with which the city will contract without delay.

Councilor Julie Mayfield said there had historically been a “clear gulf” between policy set by city council and that set by the police department. She asked if somebody could see what other cities do to give city council more say in police operations.

Two reforms demanded of city council had already been implemented. One was to immediately open a criminal investigation into any future allegations of excessive use of force by officers. Council was also to be immediately notified of any incidents of excessive use of force, whether or not anybody registered a complaint. Council and city management had claimed they were blindsided by the latest incident which had, in fact, been reported to the appropriate people in the designated chain of command.

Then, council updated members of the public on actions taken to “aggressively implement” the Blue Ribbon Task Force’s recommendation to create a Human Relations Commission. The necessary ordinances have been drafted, and they will be presented to council for review April 10. Wisler estimated the first meeting could be around the beginning of June.

Manheimer explained members of a HRC may not be able to satisfy public concerns. They could be notified of incidents of police use of force, but they are not allowed to see bodycam footage. Statutes governing personnel privacy allow only police officers, victims, and their attorneys to view the footage.

Manheimer said Greensboro has a citizen review board created through special legislation, but members of that board can’t see bodycam footage, either. She said members of the board did get permission from a judge to view bodycam footage, but a gag order prohibited any of them from discussing what they had seen.

Another recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, to create a Department of Equity and Inclusion, is also in process. Manheimer asked if staff could research the feasibility of getting legislation drafted that would allow a person in that department to be included in the chain of command that can lawfully review bodycam footage.

Another position Manheimer wanted to know if it would be legal to create would be an ombudsman/navigator position to help people with filing complaints against the police department. She had had “very preliminary” discussions with Buncombe County Chair Brownie Newman about partnering for funding the position. Mayfield suggested the person could also engage in policy advocacy, Jim Barrett from Pisgah Legal Services being eyed as the qualified candidate.

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