Policing the police

by David Forbes October 26, 2014

Amid ongoing public controversy and internal divisions, an in-depth look at city government’s plan to overhaul the Asheville Police Department

Recent weeks have seen a contentious struggle over the leadership of the Asheville Police Department, with a petition by 44 officers calling for four major concerns to be addressed and asserting an “overall lack of confidence” in the department’s leadership, criticisms about a staffing shortage, faulty radar detectors, surveilling peaceful protests and more. Yesterday, the Asheville Citizen-Times editorial board called for an outside evaluation to address “APD unrest.” Some members of the community have also defended Chief William Anderson, asserting that the complaints are coming from a group of disgruntled officers. A majority of Asheville City Council recently confirmed their confidence in his leadership.

During this debate, city staff and elected officials have repeatedly referred to a strategic plan to reform the department and, they claim, address many of its issues. Back in July, the Asheville Blade analyzed this plan and what led to it. Due to its renewed relevance in the ongoing debate about the future and leadership of the APD, it’s time to put that analysis back on the front page.

— David Forbes, 10-26-14

By any measure, the Asheville Police Department has had a rough few years.

In April 2011, Chief Bill Hogan resigned in the wake of the missing evidence scandal. Around the same time, the city had to settle an infamous sexual harassment case involving racist and sexist text messages, which caused further backlash when the officer involved was demoted, but remained on the force.

In 2012 William Anderson took over as the new chief, promising “the highest level of integrity.”

But the honeymoon was short, and Anderson spent much of 2013 embroiled in controversy. First, Anderson’s son was involved in a car wreck (and later charged with a DWI), a case that the chief admitted he initially mishandled. Some of the chief’s critics, including veteran APD officers, asserted that the misconduct went further, into a cover-up and attempts to intimidate dissenting officers.

An internal city inquiry largely cleared Anderson of wrongdoing in that incident, though it did find that he had erred in calling one of the dissenting officers into his office and that there were real issues with morale. Some leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police also sharply criticized Anderson’s leadership and earlier this year, one officer sued the department.

Some leaders, like then-Mayor Terry Bellamy and Asheville City Council member Cecil Bothwell (who chaired the Public Safety Committee) gave Anderson their enthusiastic endorsement as a reformer who had already made measurable improvements. But whether one felt the chief or his opponents were in the right, the fights were still clear evidence of a major split within the department.

In response, city management went with its usual process for thorny situations like this one, hiring some outside consultants and starting a plan to overhaul the department. In October, the public weighed in, expressing skepticism about what good the process would do, but telling APD leaders and the consultants they wanted to see change.

On July 7, the city unveiled its new strategic plan for the APD’s next three years. The police are a big part of the city government, with 224 sworn officers, 52 civilian employees and a $24.2 million budget.

So what’s in this plan? How does it affect Ashevillians? How is local law enforcement going to change?

A lot of the 51-page plan calls for further plans, in what may seem like a mere bit of a bureaucratic juggling. But importantly, it lays out areas the APD will probably overhaul over the next few years, and gives some indication of how on-the-ground approaches to policing may change throughout the city.

So think of it less as a technical manual for how local police going to change (for better or worse) and more of a to-do list of changes the department (and city government) are going to put their attention toward, cash permitting, with the more precise plans rolled out over the next few years.

The public is invited to weigh in on the plan this week, with a meeting 5:30 p.m. Thursday, July 17 in the Public Works building.

The word is ‘benchmark’

This plan talks about “benchmarks.” It talks about “benchmarks” a lot.

Translating from city government jargon a bit, what the plan’s saying is that the APD needs to compare itself to departments of similar size in similar cities, find out what they’re doing right (or “best practices,” in another rampantly-used bit of city gov-speak). Then the APD should copy or modify it, measure how the approach works here and then keep comparing itself over the course of several years to see if the method works in Asheville.

This approach isn’t entirely new, of course. For example, the APD has adapted the High Point crime deterrence model, but the new plan sets “benchmarking” in areas ranging from leadership to disciplinary processes to pay to better communication with the public.

It also synchs with an approach shared by both City Manager Jackson and Mayor Esther Manheimer. In her first Council retreat, earlier this year, Manheimer emphasized that she wanted to see city goals (and public safety is a big one) tacked to more measurable criteria for Council and staff to assess their progress.

Boots on the ground

In probably the most important change, at least as it concerns interactions with the average citizen, the department’s going to overhaul its command districts and significantly change its organizational structure.

For nearly a decade, the APD has divided the city into three districts: Adam (West), Baker (North/East) and Charlie (South/Central). But Asheville’s changed a lot since that the mid-2000s, and seen significant population growth. So part of the APD’s plan calls for an overhaul of its patrol districts, studying call volume, neighborhood boundaries and the allocations of its resources and commanders to redivide the city. The plan also calls for changing the chain of command and the APD’s organizational structure around the same time.

Last year, it emerged that the APD was unusually short on communications staff, in the wake of a breakdown that saw an hour and 46-minute delay after an armed suspect was reported in a neighborhood. The plan repeatedly cites the need to operate in a time of limited resources, so a reallocation could be one way of trying to avoid a repeat of such incidents.

Notably, this particularly planning area will be overseen by Capt. Tim Splain. He’s long been an advocate of more cops patrolling the street and was one of the architects of the APD’s increasing use of the approach in recent years, including the creation of a patrol unit specially for downtown. [Editor’s note: since this original piece was published, Splain has retired from the APD]

Splain said he supports the return to a role closer to the pre-car days of police, with officers walking beats and getting to know the neighborhood and the people in it. The downtown unit has pursued this approach (not always without controversy). Now the APD as a whole may move towards it, especially if it’s reorganized with a new command structure overseeing smaller neighborhood districts.

Pay for patrols

One of the major sticking points in recent years was a lack of pay increases for police officers. In 2012 the FOP joined with the Asheville Firefighters Association to press Asheville City Council hard on the stagnant wages during the recession. As the local economy and city revenues have thawed out a bit, raises have come back, but pay still remains a concern.

Now, the city’s conducting an overall review of its compensation across the board, and the police plan calls for specific attention to the APD, what incentives it can use to retain officers (an Employee of the Month award is mentioned). This may, however, prove tricky in its implementation, depending on where the city wants the cash to come from. As the plan notes repeatedly, the city is facing limited resources, and employee pay is already the biggest part of the city budget.

The plan looks to improve non-salary perks as well. The APD’s already started to expand the number of take-home vehicles it allows for officers, and the city budget passed this year provides smart phones for all officers. The plan calls for speeding up plans to replace the department’s aging vehicle fleet with newer cars, and allowing more officers to take them home.

More use of technology and surveillance

In addition to better equipment and vehicles as perks, the plan calls for incorporating more technology into how the APD patrols the city.

In something that dovetails with the plans to reorganize beats for Asheville’s cops, the APD will use mapping software to help survey specific neighborhoods. The plan doesn’t specify which neighborhoods, but it does say the department should consult with the Citizen’s Police Advisory Committee in determining where and how to “survey” and with local colleges in carrying the surveys out. Police officers will also get additional training in how to incorporate Google Maps into their work.

It also calls for beefing up the APD’s crime analyst positions and transferring them to work more closely with its criminal investigations arm, as well as increased use of software to detect trends in the city’s crime early.

The APD’s also seeking grant funds to join the SafeCam program, registering private security cameras into a network the APD can monitor more closely and encouraging the installation of more cameras throughout areas like downtown and West Asheville.

In the public eye

Given the level of skepticism expressed in its public input sessions for this plan, it’s perhaps not surprising that the final version calls for outreach to just about every community: business associations, the elderly, youth and minorities. The APD, the plan notes, has a particularly strained relationship with the latter.

So the department plans to form more community watch groups and to “benchmark” its efforts with other police departments who’ve had more success reaching out to minority communities. It also aims to “recruit APD volunteers that reflect the community make-up” and work with the local Community Relations Council to assess how the APD trains its officers and approaches diversity.

As for communicating with the public, the APD plans to have a full-time Public Information Officer for the department, “benchmark” its social media efforts to those of other police agencies, get information out faster and increase its likes on Facebook, among other things.

Overall, the goal of the plan is that “the men and women of the APD want to continue to be recognized as one of the best departments in the state of North Carolina.”

At the same time, in their defense of Anderson last year, some Council members noted that the APD’s problems, the things that drove the formation of this plan, weren’t new. If this approach — and the current city leadership — can reverse that, remains to be seen.

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