We Can Do Better
Vijay's statement on the May 22nd Council meeting.
At the May 22nd Asheville City Council meeting, despite the fact that it was not on the Council agenda, had not been publicly noticed and without public comment or Council discussion, City Council voted 5 to 2 to change how the Asheville Police Department (APD) can search people. I objected to the vote happening as did Vice-Mayor Gwen Wisler and we were the two “no” votes. I want to explain what happened, what I suggest we do, and why.
Several days before every City Council meeting, Council members and the public (via the City website) receive an agenda that outlines what we will cover in the upcoming meeting. The agenda is divided into sections including the consent agenda (non-controversial items for quick action), presentations and reports where we are provided information through public presentations, and resolutions which require our votes. On the May 22nd agenda, under presentations and reports, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) was to present on traffic stop data. No Council members had introduced any resolutions nor was any action or vote listed on the agenda.
SCSJ made its presentation where it provided data and argued for changing APD search policy. They were followed by Chief Tammy Hooper who disagreed with some of the information presented by SCSJ, presented her own data, and said she opposed making those changes part of APD policy. During the Chief’s presentation, a council member expressed her difficulty in reconciling the data (which I share, by the way) and hoped that the groups could get together and see what differences in interpretation exist. At that point, I was expecting us to follow the normal procedure of requesting that the public safety committee and city staff study the issue after which it would be brought back to the full Council. That didn’t happen.
One council member began to make a motion for Council to act to require changes to the APD search policy. A different council member modified the first’s motions. At that point, I objected to any vote given that the matter hadn’t been on the agenda and that we had not planned any action on it. Vice-Mayor Wisler agreed. The council member who modified the motion then “called the question” which was interpreted to mean that we then needed to take an immediate vote. There was no further discussion from Council members nor any public comment despite individuals in the audience who wanted to speak. The motions passed 5-2 with Vice-Mayor Wisler and I opposed.
So, to summarize, City Council voted to change the way APD conducts certain searches despite the fact:
- The matter wasn’t on the Council agenda and therefore the public (and council members) didn’t know it was going to be considered;
- It hadn’t gone through the normal committee process so that it could be studied;
- Council members still had questions about what the data presented told us;
- Staff (including legal counsel) hadn’t analyzed the issues or made recommendations;
- The police chief opposed the changes;
- Council members did not have an opportunity to discuss it at the meeting; and
- No public comment was allowed
This lack of basic democratic process is the same thing that many of us on Council decry Congress and the North Carolina General Assembly for doing where bills are not fully considered and surprise agenda items abound. We talk about transparency and due process, but Council violated every tenet of that at the May 22nd meeting. The vote and discussion may have also violated the City Charter and already one employee group is threatening litigation. (For a summary of those issues, see the following Mountain Xpress article: https://mountainx.com/news/police-group-threatens-legal-action-against-asheville-city-council-on-recent-policy-changes/)
I haven’t yet taken a position on the substance of what was passed as I still have questions including:
- Are African Americans searched by police disproportionately in Asheville? Why are African Americans searched by police in Asheville at the rates that they are? Is it because of profiling? Is it because police officers are in predominately African American neighborhoods because of calls for service? Is it for some other reason or reasons?
- Does implementing written consent have any impact on the racial composition of searches? What has occurred in other cities where they have required or eliminated written consent?
- What would be the implications for police officers and other first responders if the APD implemented written consent and the other changes passed by Council?
- Do we need to require written consent for searches when police officers wear body cameras and the interactions are filmed?
- Can Asheville City Council legally require its police chief or police department to conduct searches in a certain way?
I ran to ensure that every Asheville resident can go to sleep each night feeling safe, fed, healthy and valued. Everyone in this city deserves to feel safe as they go about their daily lives - free from the fear being racially profiled and free from the threat of violence against them in their communities. But how we do this matters. At the next meeting, I will ask Council to reconsider what was done and to have this issue go through the normal committee process, studied appropriately and then brought back to the full Council. We can do better than what we did on May 22nd.