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Is An Honest Face Enough?

 

The Indie  4:39, September 2006

Call me old school, but I think I recognize a Freudian slip when I read one. It isn’t easy to locate the Asheville Police Department’s Citizen Complaint Form online, but it can be accessed via the Professional Standards page. The first sentence of Professional Standards reads, “Police Confidence in the criminal justice system depends, to a large extent, on the trust that people have in their law enforcement officers.” ‡

Police confidence in the criminal justice system is undoubtedly important, but no more so than PUBLIC confidence. It’s the latter that has been a bone of contention in and around Asheville. When questions arise, as they have again recently, about the level of force used by officers, the resulting investigations are conducted entirely within the law enforcement community. The results of these inquiries are usually months in coming and are then, with few exceptions, kept confidential. Citizens who demand an independent determination of the facts are forced to fall back on the civil courts. Kyle Ross isn’t happy with that. “Litigation is a very expensive way to regulate police conduct,” she says.

Kyle RossRoss has been on a campaign to change the system in the APD since March 18, 2005, when an Asheville police officer Tasered her three times. The incident occurred in Oakley. Ross, at that time a 48 year-old substitute school teacher, was walking to a friend’s house to let a dog out when Officer Matthew Lawson stopped her and began to ask questions about a larceny in the area. She became frightened during the interrogation and behaved in a way Police Chief Bill Hogan later told her was “passively resisting.” Lawson was terminated after an internal investigation, and all charges against Ross were dropped. A litigated settlement was reached several months later.

Ross remains dissatisfied, however. “What happened to me should never happen to anyone,” she says. She had hoped her case would cause the police department to rethink its procedures for monitoring and overseeing the behavior of officers. It hasn’t happened. Ross, who had never before been a social activist, found a new calling. She attended APD’s Citizen’s Academy, became involved in a police/community initiative through her church and the Kindness Campaign, attended several community meetings where police officials and members of the Police Advisory Committee shared ideas about policing priorities, and has repeatedly approached City officials. Her goals remain the same: improvements in police oversight and more support for citizens who believe they’ve been victimized by officers. She has left the school system and devotes the majority of her time to writing a book about these issues.

Stepping back a minute
Conflict is unavoidable in the policing business. Someone is likely to be unhappy with the outcome of every enforcement action. The question is how these inevitable disputes can best be minimized and resolved.

Lieutenant Don Babb, APD’s one-man Office of Professional Standards, encourages aggrieved people to pursue complaints. Most don’t follow through, he says. This has also been the experience of Asheville Justice Watch, a citizen’s group that seeks to introduce community oversight into the process. But between supervisory referrals, some of which involved behavior toward civilians, and tenacious complainants like Ross, Babb completed 54 internal investigations last year. According to the department’s statistics, also accessible through the Professional Standards page, the total number of complaints filed in 2005 was double the average filed in the previous five years. Some of the increase was in citizen-filed complaints, but the majority came from supervisory referrals. In 2005, 9 complaints were sustained by investigation, a figure somewhat in keeping with previous years. Babb said about half of all complaints involved allegations of misconduct toward civilians. And that was about all he could tell me. 

According to Babb, North Carolina’s personnel laws are some of the most restrictive in the nation about releasing employee information. A supervisor who discloses much of anything beyond whether a worker was terminated risks a lawsuit. The secrecy is compounded when the State Bureau of Investigation is called in. Only district attorneys are entitled to receive SBI reports.

Babb chafes at these constraints. “The employment laws need to be opened up,” he told me. “We shouldn’t hide behind those laws. We should be able to put the facts out there.” He also believes the results of SBI investigations should be released, including probes directed at the behavior of politicians.

The rub comes when someone, be it Kyle Ross or Asheville Justice Watch, suggests a need for civilian review. APD Chief Hogan is an engaging well-spoken man sincerely committed to public relations. His “Four Principles” doctrine--integrity, fairness, respect, and professionalism--has been welcomed by veteran observers of the Asheville scene, and he’s made several personnel and community outreach decisions in keeping with those principles. But Hogan’s opposition to an independent civilian review board is unwavering and monolithic. “It would be illegal,” he says, “because of the personnel laws.”

Hogan has problems with some lesser sunshine measures too. Asheville Justice Watch thought it had his agreement to put a copy of APD’s policy and procedure manual in the law library more than a year ago. Hogan says he didn’t agree and won’t do it because the manual contains some sensitive tactical policies. He seconds Babb’s invitation for people with complaints to file them, and the APD website does make it easy to find Babb’s phone number. But long-promised overhauls of the website and departmental brochure have yet to materialize. The online version of the complaint form is buried where laypeople aren’t likely to find it without help. Those without computer access have to summon the courage to ask for a copy at the police department’s front desk.

Investigations concerning the behavior of Buncombe County Sheriff’s officers are also closed to public scrutiny. Though not as adamant as Hogan, Sheriff Bobby Medford and his Democratic challenger, Van Duncan, are uneasy about involving members of the public in the oversight of officer conduct. In addition to the personnel law restrictions, Duncan believes law enforcement operates under such detailed rules and in such stressful situations that citizens aren’t in a good position to sit in judgment over the decisions officers make. This classic guild argument is also used by medical and other professional groups to fend off outsiders.

Ross’s issue with the closed oversight process—police policing the police—centers on checks and balances. “You need an outside input,” she says. “Because officers do the work they do, how can they objectively look at a situation and decide whether there was misconduct? Aren’t they always going to have a slant toward other officers? The Chief [Hogan] told me that police officers think people are bad. Isn’t that going to color the outcome of an investigation? Don’t you need neutral people to look at all sides?”

Managing Public Trust
Chief Hogan and Sheriff Medford seem content with their respective, if very different, policies and procedures in this area. Duncan sees room for greater transparency and other improvements designed to boost trust in the sheriff’s department. “One of the top priorities department heads have is to avoid misperceptions with the public we serve. It has always been an issue and will always be an issue in a free society,” he says. To lessen these tensions, Duncan would create a county version of the Citizen’s Academy program used by APD. He would actively engage the media, broadening reporters’ perspectives on police work by putting them in officers’ shoes. A Duncan administration would be more forthcoming in the immediate aftermath of a critical incident. “You need to have an agency head that can step forward and discuss the issues but not discuss the details and facts of the investigation.” He feels a need to beef up officer training, beginning with the verbal techniques APD uses. He would also require repetitive training in shoot/don’t shoot and other response-to-threat exercise scenarios; “These are perishable skills. It’s all about mindset and giving yourself more options.”

Duncan would appoint civilian members to the BCSD personnel board, but this is more about fairness to officers than civilian oversight. Though reluctant, he told me he might be willing to consider an advisory citizen’s review board to look into use-of-force complaints. It would have to preserve the required confidentialities.

Medford says the sheriff’s department already has a three member civilian review board. It is rarely used and currently out of commission due to the extended illness of two members. Julie Kepple, BCSD attorney, confirms that a Personnel Advisory Board does exist “on paper” as a result of 1973 Session Law 297. It specifically applies to the office of the Buncombe County Sheriff and is written in terms of addressing employee grievances. Medford isn’t sure a citizen complaint could be heard by the Personnel Advisory Board. Kepple says the Sheriff has the power to choose whether to handle a complaint personally or appoint a Personnel Advisory Board to hear it.

Perception v Reality
Public trust can be based on manipulated perceptions, reality, or some mixture of the two. Ross and other critics of closed oversight systems might find themselves in agreement with Ronald Reagan’s dictum, “Trust but verify.”

I asked Ross what corrective measures she’d like to see in the APD. She feels the Office of Professional Standards is understaffed; “Lt. Babb needs some help.” Beyond that, she says the process should start with citizens coming together to decide how police should be supervised. She’s open to the formation of a citizen’s review board with teeth, as advocated by Asheville Justice Watch, but she isn’t wedded to it. An ombudsman program might also be effective. Other possibilities include an agreement between APD and a law school or university government department for oversight of disputed cases and monitoring of police behavioral trends.

Whatever the future brings, Ross hopes her work is part of the solution. Ideally, she’d like to function inside the system, perhaps in a community relations role for APD. Barring that, she may launch a non-profit organization along the lines of Helpmate or Our Voice to assist the victims of alleged abuse by law enforcement officers.


Sidebar

Where Are They Now?
Kyle Ross’s Tasering by an Asheville police officer changed the direction of her life. The grief, shock, and anger of families who have lost a member by violence can be overwhelming and is often graphically portrayed in the media. But how do law officers who kill someone in the line of duty fare emotionally and with their careers? In Van Duncan’s experience, the effects are variable. He told me some suffer more than others. He stressed the necessity of support and counseling availability for families of the deceased and officers as well. An officer who has been involved in a shooting described it to me as “a life-changing event” for him, but it didn’t disrupt his career.

That experience seems to be typical. I was able to obtain basic information about the subsequent career paths of twenty Western North Carolina officers who fired their weapons in twelve shootings which proved fatal to the suspects. (One case dates from the mid-1980s. The others occurred within the past eleven years. Three local fatalities in July, 2006, are excluded.)

  • None of the twenty officers who fired a weapon in a fatal shooting was charged with a crime or disciplined for misconduct.
  • None left law enforcement for a different career.
  • Eleven are still employed by the same department.
  • Four work in different departments.
  • Two completed their careers and retired.
  • One was medically retired due to a gunshot wound sustained during his shooting incident.
  • Two officers have died: one from “a sudden unrelated illness” a few months after the shooting, the other from injuries sustained in a traffic accident while on duty for a different agency.
  • One of these officers was involved in a second fatal shooting; it did not lead to disciplinary action.

The APD website has since been redesigned, and the commendation / complaint form is now easily found from the Home Page. The "Freudian slip" seems to have disappeared.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2006 all rights reserved

 

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