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Use of force forum highlights law enforcement training, body cameras, complaint process

The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office has increased its use of body cameras, improved training and is trying to make citizens more aware of the process for complaining if they have a problem, Sheriff Van Duncan told a small crowd at Erwin High School on June 22, at the first of four public forums planned this summer to focus on “use of force” by local law enforcement.

There, Duncan also defended the use of tasers, condemned some law enforcement shootings and incidents that have caused national controversy.

“I’m not here to justify every use of force that law enforcement uses because it does happen outside of statute, and it does happen wrongly,” Duncan told the audience that gathered in the high school’s cafeteria, though he also claimed deputies in his department and many others are trained to use as little force as possible.

Last August, a use of force forum in Asheville organized by local law enforcement and the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council, drew about 70 people and saw contentious discussion about the matter. The Erwin High School forum was moderated by the council’s program director, Lucia Daugherty. Asheville Police Department’s Interim Chief Steve Belcher also attended, as did U.S. Attorney Jill Rose and other representatives from local law enforcement and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Body cameras and use of force policies

Duncan said that his department had purchased 70 body cameras to equip its patrol officers, community enforcement team and officers in the jail to cover times when existing cameras in the jail weren’t monitoring them. One man asked how much resistance he’d encountered, and Duncan replied that most staff had accepted wearing the cameras.

“It’s been a very good thing for us,” he said.

One questioner asked how long the data would be stored and if the footage would be used, for example, to monitor peaceful protests. Duncan answered that unless footage involved a conflict, a complaint or a use of force, the data was erased in 30 days to avoid Fourth Amendment issues. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution is the part of the Bill of Rights that prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.

Duncan, a firearms trainer before becoming sheriff, said that officers are supposed to use only the minimum level of force necessary, and that lethal force was only appropriate in very limited situations such as if an officer or another person was under deadly threat or someone who would pose an immediate danger to the public was trying to escape. He emphasized that the procedures he was talking about were the approach used by “reasonable officers.”

He asserted that incidents like the 1970 Newhall and the 1986 Miami shootouts involving heavily armed individuals and the deaths of law enforcement officers, “brought about a huge change in the training of law enforcement.”

But in other cases, the sheriff said he’d seen little or no justification for some uses of force; he noted specifically that unless a fleeing suspect had a deadly weapon or posed an immediate danger to others, for example, officers were not authorized to use deadly force to stop them.

While “I don’t want to get into calling a lot of balls and strikes with things I don’t have the complete details [on],” Duncan said, he did note that after seeing video of the killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was allegedly shot in the back five times by North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager in April, “I don’t see any way that officer acted under any legal statute to use deadly force at that point in time, with what was filmed.” In June, a grand jury indicted Slager on a murder charge.

Keeping up with training

One woman asked Duncan about the deputies’ training. He noted that officers had to go through 620 hours of training, with 40 hours on arrest techniques and an additional 40 on firearms.

But Duncan and Belcher both noted that keeping up with training while running a department could prove a challenge.

“Many people think law enforcement is better trained than it actually is,” Belcher said. “If they can get 40 hours per officer per year, that’s a lot of training.”

“A lot of the things we’re dealing with now are actually reactionary to a lot of society’s ills,” Belcher added, like the shape of the mental health care system which can leave more people with mental health issues on the street, where law enforcement may have to deal with them.

Duncan also defended the use of tasers, asserting that they ended situations where officers previously would have had to use weapons like batons, which had a greater chance of inflicting injury.

Johnnie Grant, publisher of the Urban News, asked Duncan about how the use of tasers were monitored and questioned if “even an officer of the law has that much discipline” not to misuse a taser.

“You get to use only the minimum amount of force necessary to make an arrest,” Duncan said. “Any time an arrest is punitive in nature, the officer would be wrong.”

He added that the tasers record how many times it had been used.

The use of tasers by law enforcement has come under criticism from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International. Amnesty released a report in 2012 stating that, since 2001, more than 500 people in the United States have died after being tased.

Another questioner asked if the department had a system to know if a suspect had special needs or mental health issues. Duncan said that officers would mainly get back criminal records and in fact federal laws restrict how much information about mental health issues officers can access, but asserted that both APD and his department were increasingly trained in how to deal with mental illness “and it’s made use safer.”

But despite all this, he also encouraged members of the public to come forward if that training failed, and they had complaints about the conduct of the sheriff’s department or a particular officer.

The Community Relations Council, Nuestro Centro and NAACP are some of the local organizations that will look into and file complaints on behalf of citizens, though Duncan noted that his department hasn’t received a complaint from the NAACP.

Carolina Public Press reported earlier this year on the numbers and types of complaints received by both the APD and the BCSO.

Want to go?

The next three forums, all starting at 6 p.m., will take place July 13 at Roberson High School, Aug. 6 at North Buncombe High School and Aug. 20 at Owen High School.

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David Forbes is a former contributing reporter to Carolina Public Press.

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