By Nelda Holder –
The term “police” seems to imply a monolith — “an organized whole that acts as a single, unified, powerful force.” ~ Merriam-Webster
Recently, and long before, this definition has provided the context for discussion and protest over violent incidents involving the Asheville Police Department. The latest example, which become national news, is the videotaped violence against Johnnie Jermaine Rush, a black Asheville resident who was beaten and tased while being arrested for jaywalking late at night on his way home from work.
In the wake of community agitation and protest regarding this incident, both the APD and Asheville City Council have been called to account for Rush’s treatment, and by extension for years of blows against the black community.
The white officer who physically and verbally accosted Rush, Chris Hickman, resigned from the police force on the day that Chief of Police Tammy Hooper had planned to fire him, following her investigation of the incident. But what took place between the August 14, 2017, incident and Hickman’s January 5, 2018, resignation has been intensely scrutinized by news sources, Council members, and community representatives. (The incident is also reportedly under investigation by the FBI, and Hickman is facing local criminal charges.)
Council recently dismissed City Manager Gary Jackson in the wake of community uproar, though without specifying their cause for dismissal, and is reportedly moving toward enacting several police reform initiatives, including recruiting more black officers, asking the state to permit a non-police city employee access to police bodycam footage (not a public record under state law), and providing an attorney to help residents with officer complaints and bodycam rules.
Council acted after a March 13 public hearing at which residents gave two hours of testimony regarding the policing situation. The speakers included two off-duty female APD officers, testifying in a rare moment of separation from “the monolith.” Their personal opinions delineated a clear intersection between the community’s trauma and the impetus for this article.
Monolith or kaleidoscope?
Perhaps a better metaphor than “monolith” for the APD with its 233 officers is a kaleidoscope, with constantly changing parts and patterns … and individuals. We interviewed three of those individuals to gain their personal perspectives on the job of policing a community.
Sgt. Diana Loveland (one of the officers who appeared before Council on March 13) has been with the department for 18 of her 38 years. She grew up in a single-parent home in New Bern in eastern North Carolina, where the general attitude toward police in her circles was one of “fearful respect.” Loveland recalls first growing intrigued with police work when officers broke up a serious fight outside her babysitter’s home.
Years later, she started Basic Law Enforcement Training while a senior at Western Carolina University in 2000, and she spent years in shift work and detective work before her promotion to sergeant. She’s currently assigned to the detective division and is a sergeant over general assignment. As a trainer, she can speak eloquently to the different roles today’s officers have to play.
Officer Nathaniel Smith, age 34, grew up in a very stable home (parents now married 36 years) in Georgetown, South Carolina, with generally positive images of policing, including an uncle who was a corrections officer. A high school football star, he planned to be a truck driver until Mars Hill College brought him to the mountains in 2003. His graphic design major there never yielded a fulltime job, so three years ago he followed friends into police work, with the aim of becoming an EOD (Electronic Operated Device) handler, working with an EOD bomb dog. When we spoke, he was anticipating receiving his first canine partner in two more days. “Basically we’ll be partners — partners-in-crime,” he tells me with excitement—“something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Officer Maizul Cobeo, 25, was born in South Florida but moved to Cary, NC, when she was 12. Cary, she reflects, is not a place you often see police. Nevertheless, she double-majored in criminal justice and English at East Carolina University and began her career with an internship in the Victims’ Advocate program with the Greenville (NC) Police Department. With almost four years of policing under her belt, Cobeo says the critical thinking gained by analyzing literature has helped her “way more than my criminal justice degree.” And as the daughter of Puerto Rican parents, her ability to speak Spanish is a bonus with Asheville’s Hispanic population. “Ninety-five percent of the job is talking to people,” she observes. “You spend all of the time just asking, ‘So tell me what happened.’”
We asked these officers about their experiences with policing, particularly how they see their responsibilities to the Asheville public, as well as what the community’s responsibilities are in turn. Thoughtful and expressive, all three agree that police work is a lot more complicated than they thought when they signed on.
“I realized quickly that it’s just not about going in and arresting people and writing tickets,” Loveland observes. “I tell my trainees that we wear multiple hats, and you have to determine on your way to a call what hat you are going to wear: social worker, mediator, law enforcement officer, reporter. There’s multiple things that you have to do, and you don’t really know until you get there.” Sometimes there are several hats at once. “We have to be able to talk to a child and talk to someone that’s just murdered their wife—at the same time.”
Cobeo amiably admits that police work is “very hard.” A lot harder, she declares, than it’s portrayed in television. “I didn’t realize how hard training was,” she notes: Academy required over 600 hours of training to qualify at the state level; then APD had a four-month training period (roughly 160 hours). “Then on top of that you’ve got yearly in-service training; we have to qualify on firearms every year; there are certain state-mandated training topics we’re required to cover every year. And that’s just baseline to keep your certification.”
Smith concurs that before becoming a police officer, “you don’t understand all the stuff that comes with this job. There’s a lot that people don’t understand about what we do.” He knew about fighting crime, keeping criminals off the street, and the “serve and protect” mantra. “But I didn’t know all the details….Because there’s a lot of hats that we have to wear other than just being a police officer.” And, he says, because society has changed, policing today is different than policing 10 or 15 years ago. You’ve got to be able to adapt to changes to be effective, he says, plus you’ve got to have personal goals. His goal is to “bring the good out of the bad.”
The ones you don’t forget
Of course there are stand-out memories from their police work. Cobeo’s most fulfilling experiences have come with the seemingly mundane DWI (driving while intoxicated) traffic stops. “Asheville is Beer City,” she explains, “and we deal with a lot of people who come to enjoy the beer. So there is that sense that you’ve made an immediate difference, because a drunk driver or an impaired driver could kill somebody. We see the horror stories of crashes that occur as a result of drunk driving, so that’s one of those things that I’ve found really gratifying.”
Domestic violence calls fall into the same category for her. Although not every domestic situation goes the way she wants, she strives to connect them with the resources to get them long-term help. “So that’s a really awesome feeling because you get to help not just that person but also their family.”
Loveland’s most poignant memory also started with a DWI arrest—a “dreadful arrest,” she says. “She was not a happy drunk.” But the woman then called and apologized to Loveland. “We had a great conversation afterwards,” she recalls. A year-and-a-half later, Loveland saw the woman again. She was on an infant death call. “Every death is treated as a homicide until they have proof that it’s not,” the veteran officer explains. “I’m sitting in (the same woman’s) house and her one-month-old baby is dead.” The baby had died of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). “And so now we’re having this conversation.”
Some of Smith’s hardest challenges have been when young kids have died in a car wreck, or someone has killed themselves by firearm or hanging. A case involving the latter still haunts him — a young man (24) who hanged himself and left a suicide note saying he was “just tired of living because nobody loves me.” The young police officer found that deeply bewildering. “What could have been so bad that a person that young just took themselves away? I don’t know,” he says. “I mean, they are 24. I was (at 24) just beginning life. I was just learning how to become a young man. Starting to get more responsibilities, learning how to be an adult.”
In examining the interplay of the public and the police, what do these officers see as broader responsibilities to the community?
“I think I have a big responsibility to first off keep the community safe,” Cobeo immediately answers. “And at the end of the day, you know we talk about the thin blue line. There are times when you really get to appreciate that in a very physical sense. You’re in the situation and you’re literally holding somebody back from hurting someone else. So I think primarily that’s part of the risk that we adopt coming into the profession … understanding that you will have to physically put yourself in between danger and other people.”
That prompted Cobeo to comment on recent changes in police protocol as a result of the country’s chain of school shootings. Nationwide, law enforcement officers are being trained to respond to “Shots fired” by taking immediate action. “You go in, you identify the threat, you neutralize the threat,” she says perfunctorily. “I would say that my first responsibility to the community is to have an appreciation for the fact that my physical safety may be put at risk to keep somebody else safe.”
Smith combines personal desire with his professional goals: to make a positive impact in the community. “A lot of kids don’t have the luxury of growing up with a father figure or some other male figure in their life… As a police officer, I can affect a lot of young kids’ lives—be a good and positive role model.” Smith believes the department takes all the steps to do great policing, adding, “I feel like it comes from the officer within… I think we have great officers at this department, and I think everybody carries themselves in a professional way.” That assessment includes Chief Tammy Hooper, he asserts. “Honestly, I don’t think you can find a better person to lead than the chief.”
Veteran Loveland boils all this down to a maxim she obviously shares when training new officers. “Anytime somebody calls,” she says, “they’re usually calling because something bad has happened. They don’t call because they’re having a good day. So number one is to realize that even though I’ve gone to fifteen calls today that have all been different, this is this person’s most important thing that day.” Sometimes officers get cynical and forget that, she admits. Maybe they’ve just been to a domestic violence call where “the kids see Dad going to jail and Mom going to the hospital and a family member or friend is coming to take care of them, or DSS (Department of Social Services).” Then the next call for that officer may be because someone’s laptop has been stolen from their vehicle where it was lying in plain sight. “But that’s very important to that person,” she counsels officers.
The public’s turn
In turn, what responsibilities does the community have in the improvement and success of its police department?
For Cobeo, an important community responsibility is to “let the police do their work when they’re working.” An example? A report of shots fired at the Asheville Mall. “We went hauling out there; we’ve got probably ten police officers out there and we’ve got our rifles out because we still don’t know there’s no gun in play at this point. And people were stopping us and asking, ‘What’s going on?” And it’s one of those things where I’m like, ‘I’m happy to have this conversation with you but not right now!’”
“I work with some really awesome people,” Cobeo continues. “And they’re not the sort of people who are going to try to infringe on your First Amendment rights; they’re not going to be, ‘Stop recording.’ It’s a lot of, ‘Please back up,’ because when people start encroaching on what you’re doing, now your attention’s divided.
Loveland offers a different perspective. The community can support the department by not teaching their kids to be afraid of the police, or by learning more about police work by interacting with officers. The Coffee With a Cop program, for example, goes into different areas to engage neighbors in dialogue. “We really want to know about the concerns that the neighbors have and that the public has—good and bad—and steps that might improve policing and that might result in training for the department,” she declares.
Smith adds that the public could help the police by remembering they’re humans. “Everybody makes mistakes, but understand that we’re trying to do our best,” he cautions. “We’re out here. We enjoy what we do because otherwise why would we do it? We try to put a positive impact on the city.” With that, Smith returns to his touchstone: “Make a positive impact.” Which prompts a personal story that just may epitomize the integration of police and community.
“I had a little kid last Christmas, dying of leukemia. I met his grandmother—she was just in a minor car accident. She wanted to see her grandson, because she didn’t know how much longer he had. And I was like, you know what, you go to the hospital and be with your grandchild and I’ll just bring up the paperwork.
“I went up there and brought up the paperwork and she was like, you want to meet my grandson? And I was like, sure. Here’s a kid in a bed, don’t know how much longer he’s got to live; he could die in a matter of hours, but he’s laughing, smiling, joking, not a care in the world. And I was like, you know what—tomorrow’s not promised to anybody. I’m going to bring Christmas to this kid early. So I went and I got him some stuff for Christmas and it was just like Santa came in the night. He was sleeping and I brought his stuff, and when he woke up the next morning he had some presents waiting on him.”
“It was the right thing for me to do,” the young officer states simply.