An AVL Watchdog report written in June by Sally Kestin shows unsurprising discrimination in Asheville Police Department policing.
Click below to listen to the interview between news journalist Courtney Garcia and Sally Kestin.
Sally Kestin, a Pulitzer award-winning investigative journalist and the co-founder of AVL Watchdog, released a report in June through the news site showing a trend of discrimination in policing between Black and White people in Asheville. AVL Watchdog published the information after demonstrations erupted in Asheville and across the world protesting George Floyd’s murder.
“It was really much broader than just that one horrific incident of police brutality,” Kestin said. “It was about the much larger issue of mistreatment of Black people by police that has been going on in this country for years.
Before Kestin moved to Asheville, she spent 30 years as a reporter in Florida. She said she approached this story the same way she has always done.
“Whenever there was a particular case of something happening, I would look at what does this illustrate? Is there a bigger problem here that this illustrates?” Kestin said.
Kestin said the Asheville Police Department has a data portal on their website going back to 2012, showing arrest records.
“I got my old colleague, John Maines, who is a data journalist to help me do the data analysis part and then we were just sort of off and running,” Kestin said.
Kestin said their goal was to draw a conclusion from the arrest data.
What they found showed that since 2012, Black people arrested by Asheville police accounted for 33 to 40 percent of all charges while representing 12 percent of the city’s population.
“You can have a theoretical debate all day long about whether this is happening in your community but if you actually get the data and look at it and analyze it, you can really show the public here’s what this looks like. Here is what discrimination looks like and if you don’t think it’s real, just look at the numbers,” Kestin said.
Kestin said the report specifically examined common, low-level offenses that are considered highly discretionary. The report also looked at other highly discretionary charges such as disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, which are typically up to the officer on whether to charge the person or not.
“To have those arrest rates be three times of the Black population here really shows that there is a problem,” Kestin said.
Kestin said they also analyzed marijuana possession charges.
“We looked at that because the studies show that there’s really no difference in marijuana use between Blacks and whites so the arrest rates oughta be about the same,” Kestin said. “And instead it was like 40 percent Black compared or 12 percent of the population. So there’s clearly a problem here.”
Mayor Ester Manheimer said while the AVL Watchdog is new to Asheville, the city council members are not.
“You can see the historical trend. This is not a new trend,” Manheimer said. “We were aware of it and we have been looking at it.”
Manheimer said after the Johnnie Rush incident, where a Black man in Asheville was stopped by police on his walk home from work and then tased and beaten by an APD officer, the city started to address the policing disparities pointed out in the AVL Watchdog report.
“One of the other requirements we put in place was that we wanted quarterly reporting on all of the data,” Manheimer said.
But this came to a halt during the changes in chiefs Manheimer said.
“Long story short we are not getting those regular reports,” Manheimer said. “But there’s been a request to start that back up,” Manheimer said.
Manheimer said she is unsure if there have been changes in the data since implementing some of these changes in 2016 and 2017.
“I will say this, there was a plummeting of the number of use of force incidents being reported but I don’t have faith that that was accurate,” Manheimer said.
In 2019, Manheimer said the APD implemented written consent at traffic stops. She said written consent is the idea that if a police officer pulls someone over in their car, the officer must get written approval to search that person and their vehicle without probable cause.
“A lot of these incidents that turn into deadly incidents start over the dumbest things. Like they start over a broken taillight or some kind of reason an officer had to pull over somebody and then the whole scene escalates and a person gets killed,” Manheimer said.
Manheimer said many people do not realize they have the right to refuse searches if there is no probable cause.
“If you put in a procedure where the officer has to obtain written consent as opposed to verbal consent, then it cuts down on the number of times those searches happen,” Manheimer said.
Since the implementation of written consent at traffic stops the city has been looking at putting written consent in place for all personal searches.
“If a police officer comes across someone Downtown and they’re just walking down the sidewalk and they have a backpack or something then an officer would have to obtain written consent rather than verbal consent for that search,” Manheimer said.
Manheimer said the goal of these protocols is to deter those kinds of petty charges that sometimes result in pretty bad interactions.
APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse and Chief David Zack could not be reached for comment.
Asheville’s Black community are unsurprised by results
Rob Thomas is an Asheville native and the Racial Justice Coalition community liaison who was recently named WNC’s Peacemaker of the year. He said when the AVL Watchdog released the article he was not shocked but glad to see the proof.
“With me being Black and growing up in Asheville, I already knew. I didn’t need metrics and data to show and prove what I’ve witnessed and experienced first hand here,” Thomas said.
Thomas said the numbers are irrefutable.
“The numbers told the tale, itself. But I know the personal stories behind,” Thomas said. “I’ve literally been driving my car and it was a nice car so I get pulled over and I ask the officer ‘Why am I being stopped?’ And he gets an attitude. Being pulled over for being Black is completely normal to me.”
Student Body President London Newton, a junior at UNCA majoring in political science, said it was nice to have the numbers on something she already knew was a reality. But she also said she doesn’t like to give praise to baby steps.
“You guys are using the white man’s paperwork to justify what Black and Brown people have been saying all along,” Newton said.
By doing this, Newton said it perpetuates the cycle of not valuing experiences of BIPOC as much as numbers.
Newton said what comes from these numbers is not going to be fixed with reform but instead, requires a total overhaul of the system.
“You can’t fix a system that was built to be racist,” Newton said. “You just have to get a new one which is a lot of work and also is going to crumble some people,” Newton said.
Newton said not everyone wants to challenge those in power.
“I also think that not everyone has the privilege that I have of being able to imagine a world without police and a world where we keep each other safe because it is a really far-out idea,” Newton said. “It’s completely opposite to what we’ve grown up believing.”
Lack of results coming from the city
Kestin said in the past when she produced stories exposing discrimination, results sometimes followed.
“We had laws passed. We had people that went to jail, people who got fired,” Kestin said.
Kestin said every time she writes an article about the city she sends out emails to all seven city council members.
“Only two of them have ever gotten on the phone to actually talk to me and give me an interview. The others just want to send an email and not really subject themselves to questioning,” Kestin said.
Kestin said if Chief David Zack or the city manager, Debra Campbell, or anybody in the city council did anything as a result of what the report pointed out regarding discrimination in Asheville policing, she has no idea what it is. She said politicians are supposed to be held accountable to the public and the media should be the conduit for them to express their views on important issues.
“I don’t know whether it’s a result of how they are with the media in general here; that this is how they behave with the Citizen-Times and WLOS and MountainX. If this is just how they’ve sort of operated,” Kestin said. “I’m hoping in time we have an impact and can change that culture and hold elected officials more accountable to the people that put them there.”
Throughout the past several months, Manheimer said city council meetings have almost constantly focused on reforms in policing or what the city manager calls reimagining public safety. But she said the city has a long way to go.
reforms in policing or what the city manager calls reimagining public safety. But she said the city has a long way to go.
“We have a lot of significant work to do in terms of changing the system we’re operating within if we’re really going to move the needle on this data that you’re looking at,” Manheimer said.
Thomas said most city council meetings address zoning, development and business deals rather than racial disparities in the community. Because city staff and elected officials have to focus on the whole community he said it is hard to focus on the specific disparities affecting a specific demographic.
“I do understand that they don’t have the easiest job,” Thomas said. “There are certain things that are put in place to where they can’t be discriminatory in a positive or negative way. They can’t just do something specifically for Black people. You have to be more thoughtful than that.”
Newton said some city council members are at a crossroads between speaking up on the realities of the policing in Asheville and the ability to get anything done at all.
“Which is really unfair that public officials are put in situations where they can’t say what the reality of the situation is because they could ultimately make it worse,” Newton said.
Newton said she understands the dilemma of having experienced it as the student body president.
“I’m pretty bold. I’ve pissed people off. And I’ve definitely probably burnt some bridges since I’ve been president,” Newton said. “If I say what the reality of the situation is I’m not going to get shit done.”
An apparent over Policing in Black and brown communities
According to the report, over policing in high-crime areas, which typically consist of a large Black demographic, would explain a lot of the data’s racial disparity.
“If you sit around and wait for someone to do something wrong and criminalize everything that they do already of course they’re going to have higher rates on quote-on-quote crime, which really depends on what you choose to criminalize,” Newton said.
Newton said there are lower crime rates in white neighborhoods directly related to how heavily policed they are or lack thereof.
“If we truly recognize these numbers and why these numbers came to fruition and why we’re living in the reality we’re living in, we have to also come to terms with the fact that the system is not just broken, it was made to be racist, so it’s working,” Newton said.
Kestin said the data shows the systemic racism in the community.
“When you hear from police departments ‘It’s just a few bad apples,’ and you look at the arrest data like this and it shows a problem this wide. It’s not a few bad apples, it’s a culture problem,” Kestin said.
Newton said there is a clear issue with how much power police officers should yield.
“Should we be having people walking around with weapons that could kill people policing communities that aren’t their own when we live in this racist society where either way these punitive forms of punishment and this band-aid way of addressing quote-on-quote crime is just not going to work, it’s not,” Newtons said.
Newton said by taking away community resources for safety we are just perpetuating racism and crime and poverty, creating an ongoing cycle.
“These officers are not only going in and hurting communities,” Newton said. “They’re literally draining communities of the things they need to not need police.”
Newton said by criminalizing people and upping the crime rate the police are making themselves needed in communities.
“How am I going to not need police if we don’t have a rehabilitation center for homeless people? How am we going to not need police if we don’t have the mental health resources for people so that they don’t snap and lose their shit? How are we going to not need police if we don’t have a way to protect children from predators who are going to put them in shitty situations? They make themselves needed.” Newton said.
Thomas said although it would take fast and drastic steps to appease that he is happy to see how things are formulating in the community. He said a lot of the changes that have been advocated for for years are being written into policy over night.
“I am excited that things are actually moving towards change,” Thomas said. But I don’t plan on becoming complacent. So even though I say I’m happy that things are changing that actually motivates me to try that much harder and to keep pushing and to keep working with the community.
Courtney Garcia — firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here to read the original AVL Watchdog report.