ASHEVILLE — At an Aug. 7 forum on how law enforcement should and should not engage in use of force, Asheville Police Chief William Anderson and Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan spoke at length and fielded audience questions on the matter, sparking a round of sometimes contentious discussion.
About 70 people showed up to the forum at the Wesley Grant Southside Center, which was organized by the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council. Program Director Lucia Daugherty told the audience that the council tries to serve as a neutral third party “to facilitate positive interaction between community and local law enforcement.” The organization also helps community members navigate the police complaint process.
Duncan offers show and tell on use of force
Duncan gave an hour-long presentation on why and how his office decides to use force, including deadly force.
“Thirty years ago, we tried to hire a big, strong guy, maybe with some military training, gave him a gun and said, ‘Go forth and enforce the law,’” he said. “That didn’t always have real good results for us, but it was probably the best we knew at the time.”
Now, Duncan asserted, “We’ve evolved a lot.” Deputies have significantly more training and are taught to operate on a continuum ranging from their presence to deadly force, only using the level of force necessary to arrest a suspect.
“We have come leaps and bounds over the last 20 years in how we teach officers to interact verbally” with suspects, he said. “We do a lot of training in those areas now. Used to, we didn’t.”
Duncan then showed several videos of cases from around the country where law officers were physically attacked, including with gunfire. He noted that even if a shot at a violent suspect ultimately proves fatal, handguns rarely stop someone immediately, meaning officers can still be at risk after shooting someone.
He also defended the use of tasers, asserting that they result in less injury than the previous method of stopping someone with batons or strikes, and asserted that deaths after tasering are often due to “excited delirium.” That concept is controversial with groups like the ACLU and NAACP, which have questioned whether “excited delirium” has been used as an excuse for excessive use of force by officers.
In any case where there are shots fired by local officers, Duncan said, he asks the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the incident, a step he said isn’t required by law but which he believes is a “best practice.” Last September, after 19-year-old A.J. Marion was shot and killed by an APD officer, the SBI investigated but found no wrongdoing.
In some cases, he said, an officer might not have technically violated state law, but he’s felt that their actions indicated they needed to be disciplined or receive more training.
“The last thing I want is an officer who’s acting outside of reasonableness and who wants to hurt people,” Duncan said. “That’s just a ticking time bomb, and when it blows up it’s going to get all over everybody. If we can identify those folks we move them to another career. If the officer was acting under statute, in good faith and reasonableness, it’s our job to support that officer and support what happened.
“After you do this for awhile, and you look at it, the right thing becomes pretty clear,” Duncan added, but he said he does feel local law enforcement needs to do a better job of communicating with the public.
Anderson: Young folks, particularly people of color, need to be ready for interactions with officers
As he surveyed the auditorium, Anderson said that most of the people gathered at the forum weren’t the kind that really needed to hear law enforcement’s message about the use of force.
“I really don’t think many of you in here are going to have to worry about an encounter with law enforcement,” he said. “The audience we need to be connecting with is our young folks.
“There is a high probability that if you are a young person, you’re going to have an encounter with law enforcement, especially if you’re a person of color,” he added. “I don’t see many folk in here that need to worry about that.”
It wasn’t a matter of racial profiling, he said. Young people of color being stopped or arrested “is a reality, not just in Asheville but across this country,” he said. “There’s a high probability it’s the young folks in jail.”
What is needed, Anderson said, is to teach young people to be respectful and compliant with requests from officers.
“If they’re asking you a question, cooperate, answer their question and be honest,” he said, noting that 10-15 police cars had been in the neighborhood right before the forum, “because someone tried to run from the police.”
Anderson added that he knew the APD “has a history” of tensions, especially with minority communities in Asheville. He said he wants to make sure that any “bad apples” in the department are dealt with and that he wants his officers to treat the community with respect.
Tensions arise from audience discussion
Frank Goldsmith, a civil rights attorney from Marion, joined the discussion next. He told the audience that “civil rights cases are the most challenging a lawyer can handle, (because) the law here is extremely complex.”
Goldsmith asserted that “deadly force can only be used if there’s a threat of deadly force on the other side,” and that the constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure also protected against unreasonable arrest.
“Theoretically, you can use reasonable force to resist an arrest, if there’s no probable cause for it,” he said. Regarding that option, he stressed, “I don’t advise it.”
Goldsmith noted that officers have numerous legal defenses when it comes to using force, but discussed some cases where courts found force was truly excessive.
A lengthy question and answer period followed, giving rise to some tense moments.
Scott Owen, a volunteer reporter for Asheville FM, said he felt Anderson’s remarks put the burden on youth, rather than on APD officers, to behave appropriately and learn to deescalate situations. “My experience is that the police want to keep the subject subjugated,” he said.
Anderson disagreed. “We put a lot of emphasis on how to deal with different situations, to teach our officers how to talk a situation down,” he said.
Thomas Shivers, who noted that he often ran from the police earlier in life, said, “Let’s be real, the bridge is broken” between the community and the police, and “you can’t use old beams to build a new bridge.” Contrary to Anderson’s remarks, he said, “this is the right group—we all know some young people.”
Robert Simmons, who works with Changing Together, an organization that tries to reintegrate convicted felons into the community, said it is important “not to abdicate our role as family members, community members — not to place the burden on police and educators to raise our children. At some point this has to stop.”
A number of other speakers also called for reconciliation and hoped for better relations.
One questioner asked Duncan about chokeholds like the one a New York City police officer used, killing Eric Garner in a recent police brutality case that’s drawn national attention.
It’s not something officers in North Carolina are trained to do, Duncan said, and “it’s not an acceptable tactic,” due to the risk of death.
Jonathan Robert praised Duncan’s tenure at the sheriff’s office and asked about the use of funds for re-entry programs to help ex-convicts come back into society. Duncan said he’d like to see more funding for the programs and look at ways to reduce the prison population nationally. “We’ve probably got to look at our criminal justice system and make sure it evolves,” he said.
Jason Hughes, who called himself a “voluntarist,” asserted that he didn’t think law enforcement had a right to use force, period. “No human has the right to use force against another human; that’s how violence is created in our reality,” he said. Specifically, he said it was immoral for the police to enforce laws against marijuana.
Duncan replied that there “maybe” should be some level of decriminalization and change to marijuana laws, but that he felt the drug had a devastating impact when used by children.
Another man, Todd Stimson, accused law enforcement of violating the Constitution when it enforced drug laws.
“It’s not our jobs to make the laws; it’s our job to enforce the laws,” Anderson said. “You have to work with your state legislators, they’re the ones who create the laws.”
Brittany Boseman, a student, asserted that drug dealing isn’t a victimless crime and that many police officers are just trying to do their jobs. “If you’re selling drugs in this community … you’ve probably taken a life, you’ve probably gotten in fights,” she said.
Some members of the audience started to talk over Boseman, prompting a rebuke from Daugherty: “What’s the purpose of the question, ‘What about our youth?’ if every time they try to open their mouths, they don’t get a word in edgewise? Let’s calm down for a moment and give this lady a chance to speak.”
At that point, audience member Robert spoke again, this time charging that the APD violated the city’s civil liberties resolution by filming the Aug. 4 Mountain Moral Monday protest. He said that since the protest was peaceful, the department should destroy the tape.
That resolution, passed by Asheville City Council last October, reads, in part: “City of Asheville employees do not and shall not collect, maintain or disseminate information of any individual, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership based solely on political, religious or social views, associations or activities, unless said information is directly related to an investigation of criminal conduct.”
Anderson replied that videos of large public gatherings are kept for training purposes.
Daugherty told the audience members that if they wanted to change the laws Duncan and Anderson’s departments enforce, they should vote and get others to vote. She also emphasized that the ABCRC is here to help them if they have a complaint about conduct by law officers.