Buncombe DA--Police shouldn't investigate own brutality cases
March 5, 2018
ASHEVILLE - In more fallout since the airing of police video showing an officer beating a man after he had been warned he was jaywalking, the region's top elected prosecutor said officers should not investigate cases of alleged police brutality within their own departments.
District Attorney Todd Williams said Monday he wants a new policy for the Asheville Police Department in which suspected excessive force incidents are automatically sent to the State Bureau of Investigation.
That is already done with other types of investigations, such as when an officer kills someone.
"It’s my expectation that would occur in uses of excessive force as well," Williams said.
"They need to be investigated by an independent, neutral agency. This is how you avoid what we are presently dealing with."
Williams said in the future he would confirm with the police chief that a report has been made to the SBI.
Police Chief Tammy Hooper didn't return a call Monday afternoon seeking comment.
Hooper said Saturday that it is not uncommon for APD to do criminal investigations involving its own officers since it has the capacity to do it.
Large departments with more than 1,000 officers can easily do those investigations because it is likely the investigators do not personally know the officers, said Maria Haberfeld, a police conduct expert from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In departments of less than 50 officers, there's the risk of bias, or appearance of bias, Haberfeld said.
APD has 241 sworn officers, plus 53 nonsworn employees, but it would still be better to have an outside agency do the investigation, Haberfeld said.
In terms of timing, non-criminal internal investigations, which look into whether an officer should be disciplined or fired, sometimes start before criminal investigations. But Williams said the SBI should be contacted as soon as it "makes that turn toward a criminal investigation."
The SBI said Friday it turned down the January request for a criminal investigation into the Aug. 24 beating because it was submitted five months after the original complaint.
Hooper responded to that Saturday, noting her department often opens criminal investigations on incidents that are older.
The moves by the district attorney come after the Citizen Times published a story and footage it obtained from officer Chris Hickman's body camera showing him beating, choking and stunning resident Johnnie Jermaine Rush after an encounter in which police accused Rush of jaywalking and trespassing after crossing the parking lot of a business closed for the night.
Police said they started an internal investigation Aug. 25, when a complaint was made hours after the incident.
The department on Sept. 15 asked Williams to drop charges against Rush, including assaulting a government official and traffic violations. The district attorney agreed. He said he remembers only seeing a portion of the video at that time and it was taken away by the officers.
On Dec. 19 officers came back asking Williams' opinion on whether to start a criminal investigation, presenting the footage of the incident with Rush and three other videos, Williams said. The district attorney told the Citizen Times he was surprised officers had not already contacted the SBI.
Asked Monday whether he told officers that he was surprised, Williams declined to comment, saying, "I don’t want to get into how I’m characterizing the case."
After the denial of their January request Williams said he appealed again to SBI Special Agent James M. Schandevel to take the case. After being declined again, the district attorney wrote to SBI Director Bob Schurmeier appealing to him to have the bureau take over the investigation as well as to start an investigation into who leaked the video to the Citizen Times.
Video from police body cameras is not public record.