During a June 25 meeting of Asheville City Council’s Public Safety Committee, City Attorney Brad Branham told committee members that he will be personally managing the investigation into use of force by the Asheville Police Department during protests that lasted from late May into mid-June, and outlined how the investigation will unfold during the following months.
Committee chairman Councilman Brian Haynes and committee member Councilwoman Sheneika Smith first called for an investigation after the city received numerous complaints from residents regarding the actions of police during the demonstrations that were prompted by the death of George Floyd. (The third Public Safety Committee member is Councilwoman Gwen Wisler.) The protests in Asheville started May 31 with a clash between protesters and police on the Jeff Bowen Bridge, and continued into the following week, even after city officials installed a curfew.
During the June 9 meeting of Asheville City Council, Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack announced that an investigation would take place in the following months.
On June 10, APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse said Cole Pro Media, a crisis communications firm out of California, would complete the investigation but city officials later contradicted that information by saying that an investigative team had not yet been determined.
City Manager Debra Campbell was originally expected to manage the selection of the firm, but in a June 14 letter from all seven Council members, Campbell was told she would not administer the investigation in an effort to maintain “community trust.” In her role as city manager, Campbell directly oversees the police department and is responsible for hiring Asheville’s chief of police.
Branham, who is now leading the investigation, said that it will consist of two parts to be conducted simultaneously. The first part will be administered by an independent third-party firm and aims to provide an analysis of whether the strategies and tactics employed by local police during the recent protests were consistent with the best practices of law enforcement agencies.
He said that the investigation will focus on APD’s use of riot gear, pepperballs and tear gas on demonstrators, specifically on the Jeff Bowen Bridge during the first night of the protests. The investigation will also probe the destruction of supplies at a medic station, as well as the request for National Guard troops and other outside support.
Members of the public who interacted with APD during the protests will also have the opportunity to speak with independent assessors to help provide a complete picture of the police response, Branham said. The city also plans to request a court order which will allow the investigation team to view body camera footage.
Branham told the committee that the city attorney’s office has already vetted several firms that specialize in police conduct to potentially administer the investigation and that he plans to provide a recommendation to Council at its next meeting on Tuesday, July 14. Council will have the opportunity to make the final call about selecting the firm. Branham estimated that the investigation will take approximately two to three months to complete before a final presentation is available to the public this fall.
The second part of the investigation will consist of interviews with city staff and elected officials to provide insight into the decision-making process that led to the actions of police during the protests. Branham said that he plans to lead the interview process, which will include all members of the Council, including Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Debra Campbell, Chief of Police David Zack and others. He said that the initial interviews will begin next week and will be finalized within the following two weeks. A written report of the findings will then be presented to the Public Safety Committee or to Council by the end of July.
“We are trying to work on what we consider to be a very aggressive but very doable schedule,” he said. “We recognize fully that the public wants to hear these things now, that it’s important for the confidence of the public that they understand that we review ourselves and that we maintain to the best of our ability the public’s ability to trust what we do. And in doing that, we hope that this will be conducted quickly but not so fast as to sacrifice the thorough nature that needs to be part of this.”
Councilwoman Smith emphasized that the Public Safety Committee would continue on its own separate track to seek out information regarding Asheville police officers’ conduct during the protests.