SBI to consider probe of Asheville police beating
Warning: This video contains graphic content. An Asheville police body camera captured this encounter near the corner of Biltmore and Short Coxe avenues in August 2017. Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE - The State Bureau of Investigation will reconsider requests that it investigate the police beating of a man suspected of jaywalking and trespassing for crossing the parking lot of a business already closed for the night.
A decision could come as early as Wednesday, a bureau spokeswoman said Tuesday.
District Attorney Todd Williams had planned to speak with SBI Director Bob Schurmeier, spokeswoman Patty McQuillan said.
The SBI has already twice declined to look into the Aug. 24 beating of Johnnie Jermaine Rush by Asheville Police Officer Chris Hickman. Body camera footage of the beating has elicited outrage from residents and some public officials.
After the SBI declined the first time in January, the APD began the criminal investigation on its own, but Williams has said he opposes departments conducting police brutality inquiries into their own officers.
He made a second request to SBI special agent James M. Schandevel Friday, which the special agent declined.
On the same day, the SBI issued a statement explaining the decision. The five months it took for APD to make the request, and the presence of a police non-criminal internal investigation would make a state investigation too difficult, the statement said.
Williams then sent a letter to the director requesting the SBI takeover the criminal investigation and that it start a separate probe into the leak of the video of the beating to the Citizen Times. It was unclear whether Schurmieir would consider investigating the leak.
The Tuesday acknowledgment by the SBI that it will reconsider whether to investigate the beating followed addition revelations by the city Monday night.
Police have determined Hickman had four previous confrontations with members of the public that it considered unacceptable, City Manager Gary Jackson said.
Hickman was told to turn in his gun and badge the day after the beating, according to the new timeline information released by Jackson. Hickman resigned Jan. 5, just before Police Chief Tammy Hooper could fire him.
Some of the statements made Monday by Jackson contradict what Williams has said about how much of the body camera footage the district attorney saw early on and whether he called for the Asheville Police Department or another agency to conduct a criminal investigation, which some say is key to dealing with potential police bias.
After a more than hour-long meeting in closed session Monday night, the City Council voted to release the additional information on Hickman, whose actions six months ago didn't become public until Feb. 28 with the release of a story and video of the video obtained by the Citizen Times.
A furor followed among residents and city leaders who said they were outraged by Hickman’s action and the lack of information at a time when police are trying to build community relationships, especially among black residents.
Hickman is white. Rush is black. He said Hickman used racial slurs while he was hospitalized from injuries suffered in the beating.
Video captured by Hickman’s body camera and given to the Citizen Times shows him striking Rush in the head repeatedly while Rush is pinned to the ground shocking him twice with a stun gun.
The confrontation happened after another officer working with Hickman told Rush he could be cited for jaywalking and trespassing.
Rush attempted to flee, then stopped and was tackled by police.
Jackson released new information on the timeline of events to members of the media who had waited in the council chambers as the elected officials discussed the issue behind closed doors. The council did not reconvene after the closed session and Jackson read the statements with only one other person, City Clerk Maggie Burleson, sitting next to him on the otherwise empty council dais.
The city manager declined to answer questions, such as whether he thought police or other staff should have told him about the event before it was published by the media.
The city released the normally confidential personnel information under a state law that allows its dissemination if it is "essential to maintaining public confidence in the administration of city services (and) to maintaining the level and quality of city services."
The statute says the information can be released by the city manager with the "concurrence" of the council.
"The use of force shown in the recordings is, understandably, a source of great anger and concern within the community," Jackson said.
"I am concerned the public does not presently have access to all the information necessary for it to judge the city's response to this officer's actions."
Key points in the city's new timeline
According to information in the timeline updated Monday night:
- Rush made Aug. 25 complaint that initiated a police internal investigation. Prior to Monday it had been unclear who made the complaint.
- The same day, after reviewing Hickman's body camera footage, Hooper ordered that he immediately "be taken off the street and placed on administrative duty."
- Like in a previously released police timeline, Jackson said officers brought a copy of the video to Williams Sept. 15 to ask that charges against Rush, including assault on a government official, be dropped. Williams has contended, and did again Monday night, that he remembers only being shown a piece of the video. The district attorney said officers then took the video away with them and he was not able to review it further until three months later.
- The chief took the unusual step of ordering a review of all available footage, more than 58 hours, from Hickman's camera in which he had encounters with the public.
- Four other instances were found in the footage where Hickman "displayed discourteous and rude conduct to members of the public," although no complaints were filed after those events. Those actions were violations of APD policies, Jackson said.
- A supervising officer was disciplined for failing to follow new use-of-force policy, which requires supervisors to immediately send information about an incident. In this case, that could have been a statement from Rush or photographs of his injuries. The supervisor was ordered to undergo additional training.
- The non-criminal internal reviews into Rush's arrest and Hickman's other public encounters were completed "on or about" Dec. 15 and reviewed by a deputy chief Dec. 17. They concluded Hickman "engaged in excessive force" as well as "unbecoming conduct."
- Internal investigations are to be finished in 60 days, according to APD policy, but Hickman's investigations "due to (their) complexity," took three and a half months. If police had failed to follow written personnel policies, it could have given Hickman an avenue through the Civil Service Board to overturn any disciplinary or termination decision, Jackson said.
- Hooper reviewed the investigations then took the next step required by city policy to discipline or terminate an officer by setting up a Dec. 27 pre-disciplinary conference with Hickman. After the conference the chief decided he should be fired.
- Hooper met with Hickman Jan. 5 with a prepared letter of termination, but at the beginning of the meeting Hickman resigned.
- A request by Williams that APD ask for a criminal investigation by the SBI came on Jan. 10. A date for Williams' request had not been given in prior information.
- In other new dates, Hooper sent that request to the SBI Jan. 11. On Jan. 12, the SBI replied that it would "respectfully decline ... based on the completion of your four-month internal investigation which has led to the resignation of Officer Hickman."
- Jackson said Williams "then requested that the APD conduct the criminal investigation instead." Williams has said, and said again Monday night, that he didn't tell APD to do the investigation itself, but did indicate an investigation should still be done. Williams has said he disagrees with APD doing such criminal investigations of its own officers. On Friday, he made two more appeals to the SBI, including to its director, to take the case.
- APD's criminal investigation is nearly complete and should be submitted to the district attorney by March 12 "barring any unexpected developments," Jackson said. Williams will decide whether to prosecute.