Independent Report on Rush Incident

Independent Report on Rush Incident

At last Tuesday’s City Council Meeting, the consulting firm hired to independently analyze the Asheville Police Department’s (APD) and city official responses to the beating of Mr. Johnnie Rush by former APD officer Christopher Hickman presented its report. 

The consulting firm, 21st Century Policing (21CP), consists of former high-level public safety professionals including individuals who served as leaders on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. After City Council found out about the incident through the leaked video, we demanded this independent investigation into what actually happened.  In the interest of transparency and oversight, I want to make sure that you were informed about what the firm found and their recommendations for improvement.

Timeline

The Asheville Citizen-Times published a leaked video on February 28, 2018, of former officer Christopher Hickman beating and choking Johnnie Rush.  As I’ve said before, I believe that Hickman’s actions were heinous and inexcusable and he is currently awaiting trial on criminal charges.   

In its presentation to Council, 21CP set forth the following timeline of events (a more detailed timeline can be found in its full report which I link to later):

Night of August 24th into early morning of August 25, 2017 – Incident occurs

August 25, 2017 – Citizen complaint against Hickman; Hickman placed on administrative duty; Internal investigation begins

September 9, 2017 – APD orders review of Hickman’s body worn camera footage

December 21, 2017 – Review of internal investigation completed; Termination of Hickman’s employment recommended

January 5, 2018 – Hickman resigns before he is provided with decision to terminate

January 10-12, 2018 – APD request sent to State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) for criminal investigation and the request is declined

January 18, 2018 – Having been declined by the SBI, APD initiates its own criminal investigation

February 28, 2018 – Citizen-Times publishes leaked body-worn camera footage

March 8, 2018 – Criminal charges filed against Hickman

In their presentation, 21CP made several points about the timeline that are important to highlight for context.  First, Hickman was removed from street duty within hours of the incident and he never returned to street duty.  Second, APD decided to terminate Hickman more than a month before the video was leaked meaning that the leaked video had no impact on APD’s decision to act.  Third, APD’s request to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) for a criminal investigation also occurred more than a month before the video was leaked.  Fourth, since the SBI declined the request, APD started its own criminal investigation – again, more than a month before the video is leaked.  Clearly, based on the timeline, the leaking of the video had no impact on APD’s decision to pull Hickman off the street, recommend terminating him, or initiating a criminal investigation into his actions.

While the timeline tells us what happened and when, I’m left with a couple of “why” questions.  First, what was the motivation of the person or persons leaking the video?  In this post-Wikileaks world, that’s an important question to explore.  If Hickman had already left the department and a criminal investigation was in process (where any charges would have been made public), why did the leaker or leakers act when they did?  As 21CP found, the leak may have actually undermined the criminal investigation of Hickman.  Why didn’t the leaker or leakers reach out to Council members in the months prior to alert them about the incident?  To date, I haven’t seen the media spend any significant time looking at this angle.

Second, why did the SBI decline to criminally investigate the matter?  During the course of events, the SBI appeared to provide two different rationales – one was that Hickman had already left the department and the other was that too much time had elapsed between the incident and the request (despite the video evidence).  At their presentation, I asked the consultant whether he had ever heard of a situation where an organization like the SBI declined to investigate a matter such as this one and his response was only in cases where another outside agency decided to conduct it.  That wasn’t the case here.                

Findings

In addition to providing a detailed timeline, 21CP also made findings based on what they found to have occurred and their expertise.  As a Councilmember, these were very helpful for me to better put into context what occurred.  The findings follow below:    

  1. The Asheville Police Department responded to the incident in a timely manner, and within the limitations of North Carolina law.
  2. Asheville City Council, the City Manager, and Mayor were unaware of the Rush incident prior to the Asheville Citizen Times story’s publication on February 28, 2018.
  3. The leak of Officer Hickman’s body-worn camera footage may have undermined the formal criminal investigations already underway and may have compromised or impeded future prosecution of Officer Hickman.
  4. Hickman should not have been utilized as a Field Training Officer
  5. Other officers did not intervene, despite having several opportunities to do so
  6. Officers did not communicate to EMS about using multiple TASER cycles
  7. A review of Hickman’s body worn camera footage from June 11, 2017 through September 11, 2017 revealed unacceptable behavior
  8. After the leaked video was posted, it was over 16 hours before APD’s official response
  9. The Civil Service Board (CSB) model in its current form is inefficient and requires improvement

Recommendations

21CP also made recommendations to both APD and the City based on their review. 

The following are the recommendations that 21CP made for APD:

  1. Revise Field Training Officer program
  2. Adopt a peer intervention program
  3. Prioritize the timely release of information
  4. Re-training for APD on medical treatment requirements of the use of force policy
  5. Implement more structured body worn camera audits

The following are the recommendations that 21CP made for the City:

  1. The City should develop clear notification procedures to inform City Council and other government officials about particular events or high-profile issues
  2. APD public information officer should report to the Chief of Police
  3. The civil service board (CSB) process should be streamlined

APD has stated that they have already begun to implement some of these recommendations and will provide a more detailed report at Council meeting later in September.

Conclusion

Finally, 21CP made two conclusions.  First, that “The Asheville Police Department is a high functioning agency. The department follows and implements national best practices.”  Second, that “There are ways the APD and its local government partners can improve.”

This incident has been difficult for all of us in Asheville, but it has prompted us to look deeply into what’s happening in the City and how we can improve things to make sure that every resident can go sleep each night feeling safe, fed, healthy and valued.  I encourage you to read 21CP’s full report which can be found here: http://coablog.ashevillenc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/21st-CP-Solutions-Report-to-City-of-Asheville-August-2018.pdf.

As always, I welcome your comments. 

Thanks,

Vijay