In North Carolina, a lesson for police about trust

The Observer editorial board

A crowd listens last week at an Asheville Citizens Police Action Committee meeting on a beating of a black man by a city police officer.
A crowd listens last week at an Asheville Citizens Police Action Committee meeting on a beating of a black man by a city police officer. AP

An Asheville police officer pummels a man in August. A review of his behavior uncovers four other questionable incidents. He isn’t forced to resign until January. The public, including city officials, isn’t made aware of what happened until February – and then only because a whistleblower leaked a video of the event to the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Though now-former police officer Christopher Hickman has been charged with assault, among other things, and the victim, Johnnie Jermaine Rush, is finally being heard, the case is the worst of all worlds for police. It suggests reforms the Asheville police department announced in 2017 to head off brutality and abuse were more theory and window-dressing than committed practice; that police officials were more concerned with their image than building public trust; and that the worst fears of its black residents are all-too-real.

All police departments should take note.

In some ways, it is the kind of incident that is more problematic than a questionable police-involved shooting, because although those shootings rightly garner an enormous amount of attention, they are much rarer than the kind of infraction – jaywalking – that allegedly sparked the Asheville event. It’s the everyday, common interaction between an officer and a citizen that seeds the ground either for an increased level of distrust that helps no one, or a more respectful, collaborative relationship that can make a community safer and the job of a police officer easier. The lapses were compounded when Asheville was allegedly rebuffed when it asked the State Bureau of Investigation to open a criminal investigation into the incident.

Jaywalking and other such offenses should almost never be elevated into an officer tasing, handcuffing and punching a man walking home after a long shift at a local restaurant. Every sworn Asheville police officer had been trained to understand why. Officers were taught to use “verbal techniques to promote rational decision making” and avoid “physical confrontation unless it is immediately necessary.” They were also told to prevent excessive use of force by colleagues when they could and “promptly report their observations to their supervisors.”

That’s all great advice and hallmarks of good policing – but only if there is follow-through in real time by officers.

Police departments would increase their credibility by proactively alerting the public when something has gone wrong. Officials can, without violating personnel privacy, clearly explain why it happened, how it is being handled and what steps would be taken to lessen the chances it would re-occur.

There must be a way to do this consistently and honestly without violating personnel privacy concerns. The more often this kind of event reaches public awareness only because of a leak, the less likely the public will trust police to police themselves.

Radical police transparency might mean short-term pain and bad headlines. But the long-term benefits would help us all.