Statement in Support of Chief Hooper
My statement in support of Chief Tammy Hooper.
As many of you know, on February 28, 2018, the Citizen-Times published police body camera video showing white former Asheville police officer Chris Hickman punching and tasing Johnnie Jermaine Rush, a black man, who the police stopped for allegedly jaywalking on Biltmore Avenue close to midnight on August 24, 2017. City Council found out about this incident the same way you likely did – in the press. Since that time, City Council has worked to understand what happened and to release as much information as we can to the public – including filing a petition in court to release additional body camera footage since North Carolina law prohibits the release of such footage absent a court order.
If one watches the video, it is very clear what happens to Mr. Rush. Police Chief Tammy Hooper, the Asheville Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President and others have publicly said that Hickman violated department policy. I’ve yet to hear a law enforcement professional say that Hickman acted appropriately. After receiving an excessive force complaint from Mr. Rush the next day (August 25th), Chief Hooper viewed the video and then suspended Hickman’s law enforcement authority, took his badge and gun, and placed him on administrative duty.
What happened next, however, has taken more time to come out and has raised a whole host of difficult questions about the actions (or inactions) of various entities. These questions include: why wasn’t City Council informed; why did it take five months for a criminal investigation into Hickman to begin; and why did the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) decline to initiate a criminal investigation after Chief Hooper and District Attorney Todd Williams requested one. To try to answer some of these questions, City Council authorized the release of a report on March 5, 2018, which provides additional information including personnel information. City Council needed to vote to release this information because North Carolina law generally prohibits personnel information from being released. A copy of the report can be found here: http://coablog.ashevillenc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/City-of-Asheville-release-of-personnel-information-03052018.pdf.
At a Citizens Police Advisory Committee (CPAC) last night, Chief Hooper was asked whether she would resign over this incident. She responded that she’d be happy to resign if that would solve the problem. I want her to stay and will explain why. This represents my views and should not be seen as me speaking for the entire City Council.
First, Chief Hooper took immediate action to get Hickman off the street and to begin an administrative process to fire him. Asheville is unique among most North Carolina cities in that it has a Civil Service Review Board that has the authority to reinstate fired employees if it finds that an investigation into a terminated employee did not follow proper procedures. In 2014, the Board reinstated police officer Robert Frost who was fired for using excessive force on a woman.
The administrative investigation into Hickman’s actions with Mr. Rush and others concluded in mid-December. Command staff reviewed the cases soon thereafter and Hickman received notification of a January 2nd pre-disciplinary conference. After that conference, Chief Hooper set a January 5th meeting where she intended to fire him, but he resigned at the beginning of that meeting. A copy of Chief Hooper’s termination letter which she didn’t present to Hickman due to his resignation is attached to the March 5th report. It’s important to understand that by resigning, Hickman was not eligible for the Civil Service Board to hear his matter and therefore would not be able to return to the department. Had he been fired, he would have been eligible for Civil Service Board review.
Second, Chief Hooper told the City Attorney’s office via the city assistant attorney who handles police matters about the incident the same day she viewed the video and also told the assistant city manager to whom she reports with a few days. (As a side note, the fact that the police chief does not directly report to the City Manager seems odd to me and is something that we need to review). While Chief Hooper has taken the brunt of the public’s anger over this matter, especially as it relates to not informing City Council, she followed the proper chain of command. There are two other departments in the City who knew about this incident – the City’s Attorney’s Office and the City Manager’s Office. They need to be attending these public meetings too – not just the Chief.
Third, Chief Hooper requested a criminal investigation into Hickman over a month prior to this video coming out. On December 19, 2017, the department requested that District Attorney Todd Williams review the recording a second time along with another recording from a different body camera to determine whether Hickman criminally assaulted Mr. Rush. On January 10, 2018, District Attorney Williams wrote a letter to Chief Hooper asking that she request the SBI to begin a criminal investigation. On January 11th, the next day, Chief Hooper sent a formal letter to the SBI making that request. In her letter, she states “The APD has already conducted an administrative investigation of the matter, so in order to ensure that administrative investigation remains separate from the criminal inquiry, and in the interest of fairness and impartiality, I am requesting that the SBI undertake the criminal investigation requested by Mr. Williams….” Information acquired through an administrative investigation cannot be used to prosecute a criminal violation.
On January 12th, the next day, the SBI responded via email that, “The SBI is going to respectfully decline the request based on the completion of your four month internal investigation which has led to the resignation of Officer Hickman.” Once the video came out, however, the SBI appeared to change its rationale. Whereas the January 12th SBI email suggests that the rationale for not investigating was that the officer was no longer employed, the Citizen-Times reported that on March 2nd the SBI released a statement that it was because the request came in mid-January, making it too late for the agency to investigate. In part, the March 2nd SBI statement included the following sentence, “Witness interviews would not be fresh and other avenues to collect evidence in the case would not be available due to the lapse in time." Putting aside the fact that there is video evidence and that the statute of limitations had not run, the SBI rationales seem to be different.
Having been turned down by the SBI, Chief Hooper assigned the criminal investigation to an APD detective on January 18th. According to Chief Hooper, that investigation is nearly complete. However, in recent days the FBI has decided to launch its own investigation with help from the SBI. If the SBI really had issues with the time lapse, it seems odd that they would agree to investigate now.
Many people want to know why it took so long to start a criminal investigation. Chief Hooper has said that in hindsight she thought that it would have been better to start a criminal investigation and that she would be willing to look at changing that policy going forward so that a criminal investigation into excessive force would begin the same time as an administrative investigation.
Finally, though I am new to City Council, I am not necessarily new to dealing with local government police personnel issues. I’ve served as an attorney to local governments and currently work with many attorneys who represent municipalities. Changing the culture of a police department is not an easy thing to do and Chief Hooper has been making progress, though not at the pace that she or others would like. This is clearly a setback, but I support her.
As a final note, I wanted to make one comment on the leaking of the video itself. We do not know the motivation of the individual who leaked the video. It may have been someone who saw it and thought that the public needed to know. It also could have been someone who wanted to embarrass the department or the Chief. Unfortunately, APD has a history of the latter. I would ask people to continue to ask us the hard questions, but also to wait until all the facts to come out.