By Leslee Kulba
Asheville – The fifth Asheville Police Chief (APD) in as many years, David Zack, debuted before the city council with an update on the department’s response to protests that occurred in Asheville following the murder of George Floyd. Speaking on behalf of the entire department, he condemned the lethal use of force in the Floyd case as well as any excessive use of force by any police officer. In his introduction, he said he had already become well aware of issues the APD had had with systemic racism and how little “the community” trusted the APD.
Zack said he was calling for an independent review to determine if police action during Asheville’s protests was not only justifiable but necessary. Councilors Sheneika Smith and Brian Haynes were among others who, after viewing video footage, concluded APD officers erred in destroying what some called a medic tent and others referred to as a restocking station for projectiles to be thrown at police. In addition, protesters across the country have complained about law enforcement using rubber bullets and tear gas to “contain” “peaceful protests.”
Continuing, Zack said several people had told him Asheville should implement Campaign Zero’s 8 Can’t-Wait policies, which claim, “Data proves that together these eight policies can decrease police violence by 72%.” To that, Zack said APD already had all eight in place. To summarize, APD officers are forbidden to use chokeholds except as a last resort in life-and-death situations; all sworn officers are trained in Integrating Communication, Assessment, and Tactics crisis de-escalation with 85% receiving Crisis Intervention Training; officers must identify themselves as police and issue warnings before they shoot; use of force must be reasonable and necessary; use of force must be commensurate with the threat; officers witnessing excessive use of force must intervene and report the incident to supervisors; investigations are conducted for all claims of excessive use of force and reported to the FBI, and officers may not shoot at moving vehicles except as a last resort in threatening situations.
Zack then announced his action plan, which would be implemented at no additional cost to the city. Within the next 30 days, he was going to, among other things, expand the department’s list of actions that qualify as use of force and award promotions based on equity as well as merit. He will also more directly address violent crimes against persons and property through resources appropriated from the dissolution of the city’s Drug Suppression Unit. And, to further intervention against gun crimes, he wants to forge partnerships with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
Within the next 60 days, he wants to have the independent monitor installed for investigating police action during Asheville’s Floyd protests, and he wants the department’s restructuring to be complete. For increased accountability, an anonymous tip line will be up and running to accept complaints against officers as well as civilians.
Within 90 days, the chief hopes to have a functioning new Community Engagement Division to deal with the quality of life issues and social determinants of health. This will include a Homelessness Outreach Team of fulltime officers tasked with helping people on the streets enroll in social services. In addition, a Mental Health Addiction Coordinator position will be created to divert persons with behavioral health into recovery instead of jail. A new Integrity Unit will randomly perform audits to gauge adherence to policies and procedures, and it will give persons who interact with the police the opportunity to participate in customer satisfaction surveys.
Moving beyond the current protests and returning to conventional policing, Zack wants to do something to reduce gun crime, which had been making headlines since Chief Tammy Hooper was in charge. Instead of profiling, the department will now allocate resources in accordance with “data-driven identification of responsible groups and individuals at highest risk of being involved in a shooting.” The police will open lines of communication with these people, connect them with services that may reduce their risk of offending, and, that failing, “focus enforcement” on repeat offenders.
Councilman Vijay Kapoor asked for a moment to address the police officers publicly. Informing members of the public more than the officers, he expressed appreciation for them working extra-long hours for several days straight. He told how some had bottles thrown at them, not knowing what was in them, some had firecrackers thrown at them, and one had his clothing set on fire. All this, he said, was in their line of duty to protect the protesters’ right to free speech. “Very few people could deal with that,” he said.
Three days after the meeting, protesters identifying with Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the very low-profile Boots on the Ground set up Miller Town Autonomous Zone in Asheville, patterned after Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Protesters claimed they needed no policing, just each other while mocking cops and celebrating lawlessness at other protests. Congregating under the Lexington Avenue I-240 overpass, where Occupy Asheville was allowed to operate, the camp was named after “the slave that built the Biltmore House.”
Posts on social media called for more protesters to swarm the area, directing newcomers to the flashing blue lights. A heavy police presence dismantled two makeshift roadblocks, removed campsites from the roadway, and ordered people to stay on the sidewalks. International news coverage described Miller Town as short-lived and applauded the city’s intervention, while protesters said they would return the next night.