Asheville Police Chief William Anderson had been in the chambers during the first part of the last meeting of Asheville City Council. He sat in the back of a room that looked like it was revving up for a pot protest. One guy wore a T-shirt with a pot leaf on it, and another carried a plastic pot plant. Chatter amongst attendees was noticeably addled. At one point, Robinson motioned with his smartphone toward the front of the room. During the break, people were asked to leave the chambers so adjustments could be made to the recording equipment. Robinson was conspicuously absent when the complaints against his department were lodged.
As it turned out, the common thread among speakers was going to be complaints about a uniformed police officer videorecording a Mountain Moral Monday rally downtown. Addressing council, Jonathan Robert argued most articulately. He had been at the rally and photographed the officer filming. He asked the police department why they had recorded the event, and the chief said it was for “training purposes.”
Robert noted there had been no incident, and no criminal activity, so he asked for a copy of the tape through a Freedom of Information request, and his request was denied. He asked members of council, “How would you feel about being investigated as criminals for attending a political event?”
The filming was in violation of the City of Asheville Civil Liberties Resolution passed unanimously last year. Councilman Cecil Bothwell was the impetus behind the document, having conferred with a diverse group that included reverends, rabbis, imams, Latinos, and representatives from the NAACP. Among other protections, the document states, “City of Asheville employees do not and shall not collect, maintain or disseminate information of any individual, association, organization, corporation, business or partnership based solely on political, religious or social views, associations or activities, unless said information is directly related to an investigation of criminal conduct.”
Continuing, Roberts said APD had been filming political events for over a decade. He said they had filmed Occupy Asheville gatherings and Tea Party Tax Day protests, as well; but they did not film Shindig on the Green, Moogfest, or Bele Chere. Roberts further complained that, in violation of state law, the department had no written policy governing the retention and destruction of the tapes.
Robert said he had appealed to the local daily to put pressure on the police department, and if his presentation before council went nowhere, he would appeal to the ACLU to file a federal injunction. He closed with some snipes at the police chief about the easy rap his son received following a mysterious automobile accident last year.
Robert had spoken at a recent APD gripe session on behalf of the rights of ex-convicts. Also speaking at that meeting was Todd Stimson. This night, Stimson appeared before council and told of his march to Raleigh, carrying the plastic pot plant, to raise awareness. Stimson was the proprietor of the Blue Ridge Medical Cannabis Research Corporation, until his home was raided by a SWAT team. Stimson now faces multiple felony charges, which he is challenging because the state accepted tax payments from BRMCRC as a bona fide corporation for three years.
Stimson spoke about saving children who could die from seizures without medicinal marijuana. He closed saying, “I appreciate you guys the last time backing the hemp bill that was out there. I never heard a motion on it, so I guess that’s why nothing ever became of it.” JJ Hicks echoed Stimson’s comments to the twinkling of fingers in the audience.
After public comment had been taken, Bothwell said he was “really, really upset,” “royally, royally ticked,” and “personally appalled that the city police department is not following the resolution that we approved.” He mocked the department’s claim about training purposes saying, “Are you going to train police to say, ‘Well, nothing happened’?” At Councilman Gordon Smith’s prompting, council agreed to direct the city manager, city attorney, and police department to try to resolve the matter out of court.
Guaranteeing civil liberties in an era plagued with fears of an emerging police state should be a no-brainer. But Bothwell’s resolution did not go over smoothly with all sectors of society. The Southern States Benevolent Police Association said more study was needed from a legal law enforcement perspective before subjecting law officers to restrictions running contrary to state and federal guidelines. Members of the public suggested Bothwell was going to turn Asheville into a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants.
Renouncing “ discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, national or ethnic origin, gender, sexual orientation, mental or physical disability, immigration status, religious or political opinion or activity, or homed or homeless status;” the document prohibited the use of profiling in traffic stops and forbade arrest for driving without a license. At the time, representatives from the PBA insisted that state and federal guidelines already forbid profiling in terms of protected classes, but criminal profiling is essential if law enforcement personnel are going to be able to remove dangerous predators from the streets.
It is often argued that criminals now have more rights than victims, and police officers have less rights than anybody. Sentencing laws are such that society’s exposure to abuse must continue protracted so officers can build cases large enough to get felons off the streets. Then, legalization advocates, like those in the chambers, question the societal benefits of filling prisons with potheads. Underplayed in the public comment were statements from representatives of the city that the filming was for “criminal intelligence” and “criminal investigations,” but not “ongoing criminal investigations.” If the police department has any response to what was spoken before council, besides politically-correct goo-goo, the public won’t know about it until the case is built.