During the June 9 meeting of Asheville City Council, Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack announced that an investigation into the actions of officers during protests against police brutality will take place in the following months.
“There are many concerns over the protests over the last week, 10 days, and our residents deserve a detailed account of all that occurred during the protest,” Zack said, reading from prepared notes.
The protests, which were prompted by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, drew hundreds of demonstrators and police officers to downtown Asheville beginning May 31 and lasted more than a week. After reports that officers used teargas on participants and destroyed supplies from a volunteer medical station, some members of Asheville City Council and other community leaders criticized the actions of APD and demanded to know whether the tactics used by police were lawful.
Prior to the meeting, two Asheville City Council members separately requested that City Manager Debra Campbell facilitate an investigation into the Asheville Police Department and its officers’ actions during the protests. Councilwoman Sheneika Smith and Councilman Brian Haynes asked for the formal inquiry, citing the authority given to them under the city charter as two members of City Council’s three-member Public Safety Committee. Smith and Haynes requested a timeline and overview of conversations between the city manager and city attorney’s office regarding policies and tactics around the use of force policies during the protests. They also requested the ability to view police body cam video related to the protest events.
During the meeting, Zack said he now plans to call on “law enforcement transparency engagement advisors” to complete the investigation and produce a report detailing the incidents. He said that if the actions taken by APD during the protests were found to be improper, officers will be disciplined, but he did not outline what specific action the department would take to reprimand police. “Just because actions may be justified under law, that does not make those actions necessary and this will be looked at as well,” he added.
According to June 10 email exchange with Ashvegas, APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse said the contracted advisors who will complete the investigation are employed with Cole Pro Media , a crisis communications firm out of California that Zack hired early in his tenure with the Asheville department to assist APD with the public messaging. Hallingse said that Zack was familiar with Cole Pro Media through his previous employment in Cheektowaga, New York.
Zack told Council members that he expects the investigations to take “a significant amount of time” to complete, but that the agents could begin work on the investigation as soon as this week.
On June 12, the city of Asheville released a statement stating that Cole Pro media will not be completing the investigation into the actions of APD during the protests, and that the city plans to hire an outside independent investigator. The statement did not clarify whether the information provided to Ashvegas was incorrect, or if the city changed course on using the communications team. According to the press release, City Manager Debra Campbell will bring the selection of the investigative team before Council’s Public Safety Committee.
“Complete, department-wide restructuring”
Zack also said that he planned to completely overhaul Asheville’s police department, including changing the promotional process within APD, developing routes for higher accountability for officer behavior, expanding the definition of what constitutes as use of force and improving use of force reporting. Zack said during the meeting that he noticed shortly after his arrival that APD had been underreporting its use of force.
The department plans to abolish APD’s drug suppression unit and to focus on violent and property crime, as well as partner with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to assist with reducing gun violence. Zack also plans to put a liaison to the district attorney’s office in place, and implement a tip line to provide greater community anonymity to report crimes and officer misconduct.
A separate division devoted to community engagement will also be created as a part of the restructuring and would be tasked to respond to neighborhood quality of life and societal issues, including substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues. The division will also include an integrity unit charged with ensuring that APD policies and procedures are consistently being followed through random scheduled oversight. Surveys will also be available to residents to more readily provide feedback following calls for service, traffic stops or random encounters where a formal complaint may not normally be considered.
Zack said the department plans to create a homelessness outreach team dedicated to facilitating access to mental, medical and social services, and create a mental health addiction coordinator position to review reports for any underlying mental health conditions and follow up after all reports of overdose.
All of the positions and restructuring efforts will be implemented with existing APD staff members, Zack said, and will not impact the department’s current budget.
“Our plans are actions and not words,” he said. “We feel our goals are reachable and will define our agency culture moving forward. It is our intent to bring to the residents of Asheville a police department they can be proud of.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 3:17 p.m. on June 16 to reflect a statement from the city of Asheville regarding Cole Pro Media.