Whose Lives Matter?

By Moe White –

This month Nelda Holder details the North Carolina law that keeps police bodycam videos secret from the public.

The bill was originally sponsored by two Republican House members who are retired law enforcement officers. Asheboro Representative Allen McNeill argued that the bill strikes a balance between the interests of police and the public, claiming it “will improve transparency.”

Trust matters

But Susanna Birdsong, an ACLU attorney, asserted that instead of transparency, the bill “would give police inordinate power” to hide footage from the public. She said, “Giving law enforcement such broad authority to keep video footage secret—even from individuals who are filmed—will damage law enforcement’s ability to build trust with the public and destroy any potential this technology had to make officers more accountable to the communities they serve.”

In the case of Asheville Police Department patrolman Chris Hickman’s video of himself beating black citizen Johnnie Jermaine Rush, that is precisely what we fear: that trust has been not just eroded, but completely destroyed, between the APD and the public it is supposed to serve.

Whistleblowing matters

The footage became public only because someone—still unnamed and anonymous—provided a copy of the tape to the Asheville Citizen-Times. That whistle-blowing release took place more than five months after the beating, a period during which various city and police department officials were aware of what had happened but did almost nothing about it. They talked; they deliberated; the wrung their hands; they worried—and they failed us.

Todd Williams,
Buncombe County District Attorney designate

Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams first saw what he describes as “part of” the tape in August, and quickly determined to drop all charges against Mr. Rush. That was the right thing to do. More than three months later, in December, he was shown the entire tape, and determined in January to ask the SBI for a criminal investigation of Mr. Hickman—who resigned Jan. 5. Again, the right thing to do.

Now, APD Chief Tammy Hooper—whose months of inaction delayed the request that the State Bureau of Investigation look into Hickman’s invidious behavior until it was too late for them to investigate—wants an investigation. NOT of Hickman, but of the leaker of the tape. She is joined in this request by Williams.

It has been rumored that the motive for leaking the tape was not to promote racial justice by exposing bad actors in the APD, but rather to embarrass Williams, who is up for reelection in the fall, by portraying him as participating in a cover-up of bad behavior.

The true motive(s) might never be known for certain, but the result is without doubt: the release of the previously hidden videotape—reviewed behind closed doors by Hooper, Assistant City Manager Jade Dundas, an assistant in the city attorney’s office, and Williams—was the only way the public learned about a Police Department out of control. Given that fact, we must be grateful that it has at last been made public.

Law enforcement matters

We have supported the work of the APD—despite the political witch-hunt, led by angry white officers, that led to the ouster of Asheville’s first black chief, William Anderson—and we have applauded the enlightened approach taken by Todd Williams over the past three years. However, as this latest scandal is uncovered, we strongly urge both Hooper and Williams to focus on what really matters:

  • How could a police officer remain on the job for more than four months after willfully beating up a citizen walking home from work
  • Who assigned that police officer, reportedly the subject of previous complaints, to act in the role of training officer and mentor to a newly hired trainee
  • Why had that police officer been demoted from Detective to Patrolman just a year before
  • Who among our elected officials and the public will finally take action against a Police Department that has utterly failed—again—in fulfilling its public trust?

Both blue and black lives matter; but citizens beaten black and blue are not a sign of a civilized society. If there is a nest of nasty, unrepentant racists hiding in plain sight in the APD, they must all be exposed and removed before another such “incident” destroys the city’s comity. There is no other path forward if our city expects to avoid the anger, unrest, and upheaval of other municipalities around the country where blue lives matter, and black ones do not.