Asheville City Council on Tuesday night moved to limit police searches, action spurred by continuing concerns over how Asheville Police Department officers treat black and minority residents.

Most notably, a majority of City Council said it wanted the Police Department to adopt a written consent policy for certain searches.

The action was applauded by activists, who have been pushing for major reforms at the embattled Police Department, while two members of state’s Police Benevolent Association criticized any move to limit an officer’s lawful policing powers and said it would be met with legal action.

The vote

City Council voted 5-2 in favor of the following actions, all motioned by Councilman Keith Young. Council Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler and Councilman Vijay Kapoor voted against all three measures, saying the measures hadn’t gone through the proper procedures to get to a council vote:

-Instruct interim City Manager Cathy Ball to work with Police Chief Tammy Hooper to adopt a written consent policy. What City Council wants here is for a police officer to get written permission to search vehicles or a person when an officer doesn’t have evidence to suggest a crime has been committed. That’s known as a consent search. Hooper said earlier in the meeting she opposed this action.

-Instruct interim City Manager Ball to work with Chief Hooper to limit the criteria an officer uses as a basis for a consent search. Police officers have a list of criteria they use to form the basis of a consent search, including observing what they consider suspicious behavior, and the fact that a person has a prior criminal record. City Council wants those two criteria removed as a basis for a consent search. In answering a question from Mayor Esther Manheimer on this issue earlier in the meeting, Hooper said this was something she was willing to consider.

-Instruct interim City Manager Ball to work with Chief Hooper to de-prioritize low-level regulatory traffic stops on the part of police. Hooper had said earlier in the meeting that her department was already doing this.

Where this leaves Chief Hooper

City Council can’t order the Police Department to take the actions. But City Council does have direct hiring power over its city manager, thus the action directing Ball to work with the police chief, whom Ball oversees. Earlier this year, City Council fired City Manager Gary Jackson in a move viewed as a response to the police beating incident.

City Council has expressed support for Chief Hooper, who earlier this year publicly stated that she would resign if the community thought that would improve the situation. And Tuesday night, Hooper indicated that she was generally amenable to two of the three actions City Council voted on.

Hooper clearly stated her opposition to the written consent policy, stating that police body cams offer clear evidence of whether or not a consent search was properly handled. She said the department had just begun reviewing all body cam footage of every consent search to be sure procedures were followed.  She told City Council there were 22 consent searches performed in the last calendar year. In answering City Council questions about whether an officer clearly informs a person that they have the right to decline a consent search, Hooper said she could make sure that part of an officer’s training. But she wouldn’t budge on the written consent issue.

The City Council debate

The vote came after presentations on traffic stop data brought to council by the Asheville chapter of the NAACP and presented by Ian Mance, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and by Asheville Police Chief Tammy Hooper. Following a similar presentation by Mance to City Council almost exactly one year ago, Mayor Esther Manheimer declared the racial disparity issue an “emergency” the required quick action.

As City Council followed up Hooper’s presentation with questions, and before council’s three votes, Councilwoman Sheneika Smith told Hooper that City Council wanted written consent, adding that “we want cooperation.” Smith said council was looking to address community mistrust of police, and she urged Hooper to be open to negotiating. Hooper responded that “we’ve come with a lot.”

Councilman Brian Haynes finally said he wanted action on the written consent policy Tuesday night and made a motion. Councilman Keith Young asked Haynes if he could build on that, and proffered three motions of his own, which were seconded.

Young said he was “kind of tired of coming up here and looking at the same presentations and nothing happening.” As it appeared that discussion about parliamentary procedure was going to bog down council, Young “called the question,” which Manheimer said cut off any further discussion and forced a vote. There was no public comment period and the three motions passed, 5-2.

The reaction

The reaction, as mentioned, was mixed. Activists cheered and snapped their fingers in positive response to the votes. Amy Cantrell, an advocate for the homeless, lauded what she called City Council’s “leadership.”

But police officers and their supporters criticized the action. Brandon McGaha and Rick Tullis of the state Police Benevolent Association said they will take legal action to stop an unlawful restrictions of police activity. Tullis added that violent crime will increase if the policies are enacted.

And at the very end of the 6-hour meeting, Councilman Kapoor blasted the votes, saying that council didn’t follow proper procedures for consideration of the action for cutting off public comment.

“I’m embarrassed and I want to apologize to citizens of Asheville,” Kapoor said, describing the actions as “a black eye on the city of Asheville” that won’t soon be forgotten.

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