Exit the chief

by David Forbes November 17, 2014

As APD Chief Anderson declares his retirement amid controversy, the city faces a police department with a fraught history and an uncertain future

Above: APD Chief William Anderson, photo by Max Cooper.

In the hallowed tradition of big government news announcements, this one came after the clock turned over to four, last Friday.

William Anderson, chief of the Asheville Police Department since 2012, was out. He will retire at the end of the year. Before then, the city will name an interim chief while it proceeds in the usual “nationwide search” for a replacement.

To anyone watching the last few months of city politics, this outcome isn’t entirely a surprise. Critics from both the public and the APD’s ranks have hit the department’s leadership hard over surveillance, a shortage of manpower, low morale, faulty radar guns, labor disputes and more. The state chapter of the Police Benevolent Association recently waded in as well, criticizing city government and calling for an outside investigation. City administration agreed to have an outside audit to look into the issues and tagged Fire Chief Scott Burnette as a liaison to wrangle the whole issue.

Anderson had his defenders too, including some community members and, notably, Asheville City Council. Council member Cecil Bothwell in particular shot back at Anderson’s critics (with the exception of the surveillance issue, where he criticized the department) as carrying out a political agenda and at one point wrote in an email that state PBA director John Midgette should “piss up a rope.” He later apologized for his language but asked Midgette to apologize for his criticism as well.

While other Council members were less aggressive in their criticism, they expressed their confidence in Anderson and City Manager Gary Jackson, especially in a strategic plan to overhaul the department developed by them in conjunction with a number of law enforcement consultants.

The retirement announcement praises Anderson for increasing the department’s diversity and developing those plans:

During Anderson’s tenure, the department significantly improved the operations of the evidence room and established the public housing unit which among other things continues to build strong relationships between youth and police officers.  He led the department in the development of important plans aimed at community-based solutions for a safe and vibrant city.  Under his watch, the department put into place a comprehensive three-year strategic operating plan designed to improve operations and communications within the force.

Given the opaque nature of City Hall intrigue, the public may never know for certain if Anderson was prompted to resign by Council or Jackson or if he decided he’d had enough and left the chief’s chair of his own accord.

Over at the Asheville Citizen-Times, there’s a timeline of the controversies involving Anderson, stretching back to his handling of a drunk driving incident involving his son last year.

But a timeline with a bit more context would stretch back even farther: this is the second police chief to leave following a major controversy since Jackson took office in 2005, and it’s worth remembering that the APD’s turmoil, like that of any agency, didn’t begin or end with controversies about a single person. Chief Bill Hogan departed in 2011 after the evidence room scandal blew up, with subsequent revelations that oversight of that important piece of the APD’s duties was rather lacking.

Whether one believes Anderson was a reformer making difficult decisions in the face of factional strife or drastically mismanaging the department into increasing dysfunction, it’s clear that there is a major divide within the ranks of the APD, and within the public about its future.

In addition to the issues of morale and concerns about the leadership, there’s also an understated factor that could play a major role: pay. The department’s “step plan” allowing officers to receive regular raises while staying in the same rank has been frozen since 2008. In 2012, public safety workers showed up in force to push Council for a higher raise, asserting that stagnant pay and a rising cost of living were making it impossible for many of them to live in the city they worked for.

The APD’s sister agency, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, offers considerably higher pay to experienced rank-and-file jobs like patrol deputies and detectives, while the gap between what a regular officer and a high-ranking commander make is far higher in the APD. For more on that issue, here’s an analysis of the department’s pay situation. The city’s currently studying pay for all employees and plans to roll out some changes in March. If such changes don’t satisfy the officers’ concerns, expect to see more demonstrations like the 2012 push or the recent petition.

Outside the department, even the strategic plan admits that the APD has a troubled history with Asheville’s minority communities.

To take one particularly public example; just before Hogan’s departure news broke that the city had to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit concerning Sgt. Eric Lauffer — a drug unit commander who was the department’s 2008 officer of the year —  who sent a number of blatantly racist and sexist text messages to one of his subordinates. The city’s official position in court was that Lauffer had in fact sent the messages in question — “I must licky you” one read, while another asserted that with President Barack Obama’s 2008 election “grape soda, red kool-aid, fried chicken, malt liquor, menthol cigarettes and gold teeth will be tax exempt” — but was innocent of any wrongdoing. Lauffer was demoted but kept his job, understandably causing further controversy.

During Hogan’s tenure, the APD saw controversies and lawsuits over the use of force and questions about racial profiling.

Personally, I’ve witnessed a police officer speed through the yards of housing project residents on a motorcycle, absent any emergency, and feel comfortable doing so in front of a journalist, a photographer and an APD Captain.

As Anderson was Asheville’s first African-American police chief, internal strife during his watch was bound to bring up some of that fraught history, and some in the African-American community defended him. In a city still experiencing de facto segregation even compared to many similar places throughout the Southeast, those concerns will remain a source of tension — whatever process is pursued — and won’t go away overnight.

Right now, the environment after the retirement announcement is one of uncertainty and maneuver. Who will be the interim chief? After Hogan left current Deputy Chief Wade Wood took the job before Anderson’s arrival, but it’s entirely possible that Jackson will opt for someone different this time. Will that strategic plan actually deliver?

The PBA is calling for an overhaul while the interim chief is an office before the more permanent replacement takes office in June, and Midgette’s expressed cautious optimism after meeting with a consultant. The organization also wants a seat at the table during the department’s changes. Rev. Keith Ogden, leader of an influential alliance of local churches and a defender of Anderson, said his departure “saddens my heart.”

Council, while the target of criticism during this whole fracas, won’t make the final call: hiring of all positions except the City manager, clerk and attorney is in Jackson’s hands.

Some of this will feel like deja vu to those who witnessed the searching and promises of better during the days after Hogan’s departure and the formation. Expect more consultants, more listening sessions, more talk about “best practices” and “strategic goals.” City leaders have, multiple times, affirmed their belief in a process driven by professional staff and outside consultants to sort out these kind of thorny issues. I’ve seen members of the public, however, express skepticism about whether that process does any good.

A final note

To step out of the analytical mode, there’s something else the public should keep in mind.

It’s always a hazard when city policy’s discussed in technocratic terms that matters become too abstract, as if problems in a department were some natural misfortune akin to a storm or a bad harvest.

But the APD got to this state through the decisions (or lack thereof) of not just one person, but a number of people within the department, city management, on Council and elsewhere. More of that history — much of it buried in city files outside of the public eye — needs to see the light of day. While state law limits what personnel information is public record, government officials can choose to release more if necessary to preserve public confidence. They would do well to consider if that time has come.

Historically, city officials prefer to focus on assurances that their plans will fix any issues going forward. But how we got here is also important, including in the years before Anderson. Often in the discussions of the past few months the point was made that the APD had systemic issues. Well, how did that happen? Where do the roots of these issues lie? Did oversight fail? How? When? Why have divisions continued? Who was responsible?

The answers are important, and any account the city releases going forward needs to include them, or at least more information so the public can make their own conclusions. While Friday’s events may have closed a chapter, Ashevillians haven’t seen the end of this tumultuous part of the APD’s history.

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