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Chief Bill Hogan

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: an interview with Asheville Police Chief Bill Hogan

The Indie  August 2005

There's a natural antipathy between man and parking meter. Add alcohol and things can get ugly. In Cool Hand Luke, a drunken Paul Newman was imprisoned for decapitating meters with a pipe cutter. Thirty-odd years ago in Huntington, West Virginia, Bill Hogan was a rookie cop faced with the prospect of arresting a local character known for pulling them up by the roots, barehanded. (Hogan still remembers the man's name, but we'll call him Hoss.) Hogan called for backup. The veteran who responded didn't attempt to handcuff the inebriated man. He simply opened the backseat door of Hogan's cruiser and said, "Come on now, get in." Hoss complied. Then the older cop left the nervous rookie to his own devices. Hogan drove the unrestrained Hoss to jail. Everything was fine until they got out of the car and approached the front door. There the man turned and said, "I think I'll kick your ass."

In June 2005, Bill Hogan became Asheville's Chief of Police. If he was physically imposing in his youth, he isn't now. He told this story to Marta Osborne and me to make a point about "less-lethal" weapons. I took from it something else, an insight about how the police department he envisions for Asheville contrasts with the swagger his department has too often been known for.

Rookie officer Hogan didn't reach for his baton that night in Huntington, and Tasers had yet to be invented. I, for one, am glad. He might have used it. If he had, he would have missed the chance to impress himself with the power of well-chosen words. He winged it. "I believe you could do it," he said. "But those guys inside would come out. There'd be a big fight. People would get hurt. There's no need of that." Hoss walked into the jail.

A Principled Department

Under Chief Hogan's leadership, the Asheville Police Department has distilled a set of four core principles: integrity, fairness, respect, and professionalism. I asked Hogan what steps APD is taking to foster these values throughout the department. "We can never put them up on the wall and say the job's done," he replied. "We have to model them in everything we do."

He said training in the core principles should begin at the police academy. "We need to mold the minds and hearts of the folks we hire." The department will soon separate its training curriculum from the open police academy course at A-B Tech. APD officers will be more involved as instructors. For existing cops, the department will provide training in "Verbal Judo" starting later this year. (Verbal Judo teaches verbal techniques for obtaining voluntary compliance and deflecting the sting of insults.) "A lot of that is learning to respect people," Hogan said.

Community-Oriented Policing

He reaffirmed his belief in community-oriented policing, but to him that's a mindset rather than a specific program. So far, the results could be described as a work in progress. He acknowledged that citizens might be hard pressed to see some of APD's changes on the street so far but said progress toward a community orientation continues. Hogan supports plans to strengthen ties between particular officers and neighborhoods. Community outreach officers are assigned to each of the five police districts to work on citizen problems and build relationships. He sees these tasks as important functions for himself as well. Citizen input is being considered in an ongoing APD staff workload analysis.

Hogan believes community relationships will also be enhanced by the implementation, unrealized to date, of a Citizen's Police Academy and a Junior Citizen's Police Academy. These programs would expose citizens to a cop's world in a non-threatening educational manner. He said people living in Shiloh and the Burton St. area are particularly receptive to the idea.

The greater Pisgah View community is the focal point of APD's drug suppression efforts. The department is waiting to hear whether it will be awarded a "Weed and Seed" grant from the US Dept. of Justice. It would enable stepped-up efforts to weed out drug dealers and seed in community supports. Even without it, Hogan said his officers have so far made more than 700 drug arrests citywide. Over half were for dealing.

Downtown, Hogan said, APD is often in the awkward position of trying to reconcile conflicting interests. He sees the city as comparatively rich in community services for the homeless and otherwise disadvantaged. But he wishes there were more non-medical detox beds for the "twenty-five or so" people who are repeatedly arrested for minor offenses or pass out in public places. Some have died from exposure or untreated medical conditions.

Commendations or Complaints Anyone?

In a meeting with Asheville Justice Watch (AJW) earlier this year, Hogan continued his opposition to an independent citizen oversight board for the department but did agree to several policy changes, according to AJW organizer Dixie Deerman. Some have materialized; others have not.
 
Deerman said that the number of complaints her organization has received about police conduct has fallen sharply in recent months. There is a revamped citizen complaint process leading to a written report for the complainant. One recent complaint, related to Taser use, has been covered by the Asheville Citizen-Times. The incident highlights some sensitive community issues. Roughly three months passed before the officer most directly involved was terminated. Hogan said that, while state law prevented him from discussing personnel matters, I should know that due process takes time.

I asked him about APD's degree of openness regarding citizen complaints and their outcomes. Hogan replied that complaints are personnel matters. He referred me to North Carolina General Statute § 160A-168. This law appears to prohibit the department from proactively informing the public about specific complaints or most details regarding subsequent investigations or personnel actions.
 
Deerman said that APD has yet to follow through on some promises. In her view, APD's complaint procedure has yet to be widely publicized. A pamphlet entitled "Commendation Complaint Procedure" is available at the station. The FAQ link on APD's webpage simply refers people to Professional Standards officer, Lt. Don Babb, for information.  Hogan doesn't remember agreeing to post department policies in the law library as Deerman asserts he did. He said questions about permissible conduct should be referred to him or Professional Standards.

Deerman also said Hogan had agreed to generate and make available a report on the demographic breakdown of complaints the department receives. He told me some of that information is available, but other priorities have put the generation of a report on the back burner. He would not comment on the number of APD personnel disciplined or terminated for reasons related to citizen complaints. Since he took office, he said that APD has received thirty internal or external complaints. Twelve were sustained and resulted in corrective measures. The department has processed one other Taser-related complaint during the same time period. It was not sustained.

The Rules of Political Engagement

The Chief reiterated his desire for political activists to work with APD when planning events. "We all in this community have to respect each other's freedom." He supports the right of free speech but wants protesters to realize that the rights of others must also be respected. Lt. Wade Wood is the new commander of the Central District. Hogan advises organizers to meet with Lt. Wood to clarify any legal and public safety issues and to reduce uncertainties about intent.

I wondered about APD's intent in filming rallies and demonstrations. Hogan said it is done to document crowd behavior when an enforcement action might become necessary. He welcomed the documentation of police behavior by members of the public. "People tend to behave better if they know they're being watched," he said. He denied that the department passes its footage to the FBI or other homeland security agencies. Nor does APD create or maintain dossiers on activists as the police in some other cities have done. "Usually," he said, "agencies do their own intelligence gathering." If APD were ever involved in that at a rally or protest, "it would have to be directly related to a terrorist or criminal investigation."

Shocking Developments

Chief Hogan's measured candor turned defensive on the subject of Tasers. He said the entire continuum of force policy, including Taser use, is under review. He knew of the Amnesty International report documenting 74 Taser-associated deaths but remained unconvinced that all or most were Taser-caused deaths. He believes Tasers have some unique applications. He illustrated the point with an example of a knife-wielding person attempting to commit "suicide by cop." In such an instance, a Taser could prevent a shooting.

He resisted the idea of imposing age or physical size prohibitions on use of the weapon. "This isn't Florida," he said, referring to the Tasing of a six year-old Miami boy last year. "We're not going to do that." "We don't want to use Tasers on children, the elderly, or pregnant women." An officer who does so will, he said, have a lot of explaining to do. Neither is he in favor of a rule limiting the maximum number of shocks that can be administered. "Each discharge is recorded by the unit," he said. Officers have to justify each one. "We don't want to use force at all, but when we do, it should be the least amount necessary to effect the arrest."

He did say that "non-compliance" no longer justifies Taser use by the APD. The person must be "actively resisting arrest or assuming a threatening stance."

A Bottom Line

When asked what message he most wanted to put across, Hogan said, "That we're human beings and want to be respected too. When everybody else is running away from something, we have to run toward it. It's a tough job, and we hope citizens can remember we put our lives on the line more often than they might think. We want people to live in peace and harmony."

That's a tall order. So are the community-oriented reforms APD and Asheville's various groups of concerned citizens are negotiating. Plans are one thing; performance is another. Many of the improvements Hogan touts are still on the drawing board, dependent on budgets, staffing, or time available. Many in the community share Hogan's belief that people behave better when they're watched and think the principle should also apply to APD. The degree to which citizen complaints can or should be open to the public remains a bone of contention.

How far can APD and the citizens of Asheville move toward an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect? Under Chief Hogan the department has taken significant steps in the right direction. It needs to take more, but I have to say I'm optimistic. The guy who once talked Hoss into the jailhouse also seems willing to listen.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2005 all rights reserved

 

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