City Council Hears Results of External Investigation of Rush Incident

By Leslee Kulba- Mayor Esther Manheimer said that after hearing about the Johnnie Jermaine Rush incident, Asheville City Council asked for several investigations, among which was an external review.

The investigators were charged with identifying where the city failed and where it could improve before, during, and after the Rush incident. Council heard from the consultants hired for the external review at their August 28 meeting, and they will hear what the city is doing to prevent similar incidents September 25.
Presenting was Sean Smoot. He was accompanied by veteran police chief Charles Ramsey, who had been a top cop in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chicago. Both had served on Obama’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing. Smoot had been the lead investigator on a team of twelve for the Asheville incident. He was happy to report the Asheville Police Department was generally cooperative and eager to learn.

One key finding Smoot highlighted, on behalf of the firm 21st-Century Policing Solutions, was, “The Asheville Police Department responded to the incident in a timely manner and within the limitations of North Carolina law.”

Smoot reported that the Rush incident occurred over the night of August 24-25. The next day, a complaint was lodged, an internal investigation was launched, and the offending officer, Chris Hickman, was ordered to surrender his badge and gun. He was placed on administrative duty. The same day, Chief Tammy Hooper informed the city attorney’s office. The assistant city manager was informed a few days later.

The only curious matters were the State Bureau of Investigation’s denial of the city’s request for a criminal investigation. Smoot said he had otherwise only seen that happen to avoid disrupting another significant investigation already underway. The APD undertook its own criminal investigation within a week of the state’s refusal.

Another curiosity was the leaking of the bodycam video to the local daily. Smoot found the timing “suspicious,” as APD had completed their investigation and Hickman had already left the department. The report stated, “The leak of Officer Hickman’s body-worn camera footage may have undermined the formal criminal investigations already underway and may have compromised or impeded future prosecution of Officer Hickman.”

Other problems the investigators identified with the incident included: (1) Hickman should not have been a field training officer, as he had a record of breaking protocols, (2) Officers on the scene did not intervene when they had multiple chances to do so, and (3) The officers did not inform emergency responders about the multiple taser cycles applied to Rush.

The investigators determined, “The investigation into the incident, the involved officers, and supervisors appears to have been thorough, timely, and comprehensive. Further, interviews indicate that city officials, including the assistant city attorney, assistant city manager, and district attorney, were notified in an appropriate time based on the discovery of the complaint and early, almost immediate, determination by Chief Hooper that this was an extremely serious case.

The APD’s administrative response to the incident was consistent with policy and appears to have adhered to restrictions established by North Carolina legislation, with regard to the inability to release body-worn camera footage or personnel information related to any of the involved officers to the public during the aftermath of the incident.” Another weakness was a lack of defined protocols defining triggers for administrative response.

The only thing that may have been handled better was the delay in responding to the public once the incident was made known. In the 16 hours that lapsed, a narrative with several false claims was allowed to seep into the public psyche.

September 5, Hooper ordered a review of all of Hickman’s bodycam footage to determine if other incidents may have gone unreported, and more instances of policy violations were discovered.

The district attorney’s office was brought into the investigation September 15. On December 19, Hooper asked the DA to review bodycam footage again and determine if a criminal investigation would be warranted. January 5, after being reassigned and suspended, and with Hooper ready to deliver news of his firing, Hickman resigned. January 10, DA Todd Williams approved involving the SBI, but the SBI, satisfied with the investigation and Hickman’s resignation, declined.

Following the presentation, Councilor Sheneika Smith asked if the consultants had hosted opportunities for “community engagement with external stakeholders.” Smoot asked for clarification.

“Another viewpoint,” she said, could have led to “more balanced” findings. Noting the consultants boasted 350 years of combined policing experience, she said it sounded like, “The police were policing the police.”

To that, Smoot said the consultants only look at the facts and call balls and strikes. They know some of their conclusions will not be welcomed, and he suspected people behind the dais would not welcome what they had to say. He added he hoped the work would be a catalyst for more community discussion.

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