News Staff Writer
Community members call for action against the Asheville Police Department regarding the incident where a Police Officer Chris Hickman beat Johnnie Jermaine Rush for suspected jaywalking on Aug. 24.
A petition on change.org for police accountability circulated throughout the area and obtained over 500 signatures.
“Folks are very upset in the community, both black and white, about the footage that was leaked,” said Dwight Mullen, UNC Asheville professor of political science. “It wasn’t even released, it was leaked which is the only reason we found out about it and that is just really, really upsetting that it had to be leaked to be found out that APD has done this.”
The footage shows former APD officer Hickman punching and choking Rush, who was suspected of jaywalking. The body cam video showed Rush tased by a stun gun and taking multiple punches to the head from Hickman’s point-of-view.
“For the African-American community, this was not news — what it was, was filmed,” Mullen said.
According to documents released by the Buncombe County District Attorney, Hickman is charged with assault by strangulation, assault inflicting serious injury and communicating threats for the incident.
A statement released by the Asheville City Council stated, “Like you, we are angry. We are angry that a black man walking home from a long day at work was stopped for jaywalking — something most of us do regularly without consequence. We are angry that Johnnie Rush was attacked, beaten, choked and tased by a white police officer in violation of city policy and common decency. And we are furious that no one thought that we — Asheville’s elected leaders — needed to know about this incident.”
City Manager Gary Jackson was dismissed by the City Council after 13 years due to the allegations in a unanimous decision last Tuesday, however his connection to the incident was not made public.
“I appreciate this action by city council to hold staff accountable for this systemic breakdown, but our focus needs to be on policy reform to increase the accountability and transparency of our police department,” said Patrick Conant, UNCA alumnus and member of Code for Asheville.
Code for Asheville, a volunteer civic technology organization, uses technology and data knowledge to address community problems and advocate for data transparency with local governments, according to their website. The group is responsible for creating the petition.
“The ‘Petition for Police Accountability Through Data Transparency’ is a community effort, led by Code for Asheville, which provides a formal request for Asheville City Council to increase the transparency and accountability of the Asheville Police Department,” Conant said. “We are requesting data sets related to public safety, which provide critical information to the public and empower citizens to analyze trends in public safety on a variety of topics.”
The petition stands with more than half of their goal of 1,000 signatures. On the petition website, contributors can write their reasons for signing and why they feel the community needs to take action. Jesse Michel, a contributor to the petition, felt this was an important step to fight against the racial injustices.
“This requires a comprehensive understanding of the causes and effects of racial bias in law enforcement, because they are so deeply entrenched. This petition also calls for low or no cost changes that will improve transparency and accountability of the police department that can be acted upon today. These are common sense solutions that the Asheville community needs,” Michel said.
APD released its 2017 Professional Standards annual report Feb. 27, amid the investigation. The report stated a 61 percent decrease in the department’s overall use of force in 2017
“We believe that the implementation of our de-escalation policies and training have played a major role in the reduction of use-of-force incidents. This was not a one-time training, we will continue to train and practice officers in this area, in order to better serve our community, with the goal of decreasing use-of-force incidents,” said Christina Hallingse, Asheville Police Department public information officer.
While APD made efforts toward decreasing the overall use of force, including fully deploying body cameras and an increased emphasis on de-escalation, some community members feel a 61 decrease is not the complete solution needed.
“It can also be looked at as, 61 percent decrease from what level? So you were already at unacceptable levels, so telling me you’re only doing half as bad is not really good news,” Mullen said. “For the African-American community, particularly the community living in public housing, I doubt they have felt 61 percent decrease in police overuse of force.”
Conant said he felt the decrease in overall use of force is overshadowed by the leaked footage of Rush being beaten and the fact that the community and City Council were completely unaware of the incident for months.
“It doesn’t matter how few use of force incidents we have if our system lacks transparency and fails to protect citizens from police brutality,” Conant said.
Conant urges community members to stay involved, and with continuous involvement changes can be made through Asheville City Council.
“Show up to city council and committee meetings, read local coverage of important issues and learn everything you can about the way our city and county governments work. Asheville is a growing city, but we’re still small enough that it’s possible for anyone to make difference if they know how to approach the system,” he said.