By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – The country is at a crossroads. So many wonderful things can happen from bringing everybody to the table to re-envision community police departments across the country. Black Asheville Demands has made its broad goals abundantly clear through repeated petitions before Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Commissioners.
Re-envisioning would also be a great opportunity for law enforcement to address things like the proverbial revolving door, where officers keep arresting people only to have the courts put them back on the streets. Maybe structured sentencing could be adjusted to better get imminent threats off the streets, or paperwork could be reduced. The Tribune spoke with Rondell Lance, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police to find out what was on the list of negotiating points police officers were bringing to the table.
“It’s the first I’ve heard about it,” said Lance.
“No, no. I’m talking about the meetings that City Manager Debra Campbell is calling that will include all members of the community.”
“We weren’t invited.”
“I just assumed, since she said ‘everyone’ – ”
“We did, too.”
Lance went on to say if the police are excluded from negotiations, they’ll have to consider any of the outcomes to be null and void. So, Rondell talked about what he would like to bring to the table.
It started with officers working 12-hour shifts and getting only two days off every-other-week. “It’s what they see,” said Lance. “They’re tired of seeing so many dead people.” While homicides in Asheville are “only” at 12 this year, officers see a lot more of what is probably worse – assaulted children, battered wives, guys with their guts sprawling all over the floor.
Lance told of when he started working for the Asheville Police Department in 1989. A little girl got “caught in the crossfire” looking out her window to see what was happening. She was shot in the forehead. Lance arrived on the scene. Her mother was covered in blood, and an officer was already there, shaking, reassuring her in vain. Londell said he can still see her eyes looking at him as he knew she was already braindead. He can still see the blood on her momma. He can still feel what he felt then.
His second homicide call was for an old man who had been caught in the crossfire while sitting on his porch swing. He said officers walk into so many suicides, people hanging in the garage, people who shoot themselves. They find people in the shower or in the bathtub of their mother’s house. Two or three times a month, he said, officers experience, “an adrenaline rush like most people feel once in a lifetime.” People are hung or shot, “the families are screaming and hollering, and the officer’s knowing tomorrow will be just as traumatic. Again, again and again.”
Officers work long shifts on high-alert at all times. If they work only six hours, it’s called a day off. They can suffer hypervigilance, a diagnosable disorder in which people can’t turn off their sharpened search for suspicious activity. They spend their waking hours dealing with dishonest and violent people, and at some level, they start thinking everybody’s that way. It gives officers a short fuse. It ruins marriages and leads to alcoholism. A couple of officers in Lance’s organization had just committed suicide.
On the flip-side, officers can get so jaded, they can “walk over a dead body to grab a candy bar and a Coca-Cola.” Still, he said, one never gets used to seeing the kids, “a little baby dead in a car, kids killed by their momma, chopped with an ax.” He can still see the child’s handprints in the blood from that little one struggling to getaway.
Lance worked vice for six years and undercover for three. He saw victims of levels of child and sexual abuse he assumes most people don’t realize goes on, because it doesn’t make the newspapers. He told of the fear and the signs of physical abuse in the filthy, bug-infested homes where mental illness reigned. Responding police have to know what to say to the families.
Lance said officers need more reasonable schedules that give them a chance to step back from that world. They used to work four days on, four days off. It gave them a chance to decompress, associate and share with normal people, and restore their faith in humanity.
Another thing the city has tried on and off is community policing. Rondell said officers need to spend time getting to know their beats, getting to “like and know” the people. Normally, they’re patrolling or moving from call to call. When Lance worked downtown, he said he’d schmooze and get to know the people. So, he’d know if the lights were supposed to be out or if a door wasn’t supposed to be open at a certain time. When there was a robbery, people would give him anonymous leads because they trusted him. He knew “John” had mental issues and was safe and was just “John being John” when he was “acting crazy.”
Asked if evil is on the rise, Lance said he didn’t think so. He said one thing reformers aren’t facing is the reality that some people don’t have any consideration for other people. Speaking of communities as a whole, he said, “It’s human nature. It happens all the time on a continual basis.”
(Look for Part II of the interview next week.)