Buncombe commissioners denounce Asheville police officer's beating of accused jaywalker
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 — Al Whitesides recalled a drive he took nearly two decades ago, when he was heading south with his family.
"The policeman pulled us over and that's when I was reminded of what I went through in the '60s — how it is when you're driving being a black man," the commissioner said.
"What's unfortunate is, here we are almost 20 years later, and the same thing is going on. We've got to stop it, and we cannot afford to have this go on."
Commissioners during their regular meeting Tuesday night denounced the treatment of Johnnie Rush, a black resident who last year was punched repeatedly in the head, choked and shocked twice with a stun gun by Asheville Police Officer Christopher Hickman after he was accused of jaywalking and trespassing.
The meeting also included an update from community leaders whose work was funded by the county's Isaac Coleman grants, a program launched a year ago for neighborhood groups in underserved communities. Coleman was a civil rights activist and community leader in Asheville for more than four decades.
During his regular remarks at the beginning of the meeting, commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman said the footage showed "one of the most disturbing incidents that's been captured on video in our community."
"This incident is disturbing because of the level of violence inflicted on Mr. Rush," he said. "It's also disturbing because of the corrosion of trust that it creates between law enforcement and citizens, and between community and local government as a whole."
Commissioner Ellen Frost said the work funded by the grants were an example of "resilience" and hard work by the community.
"But I would be remiss if I didn't mention Mr. Johnnie Jermaine Rush," she said. "Because he was doing everything we want everybody to do. He just finished working 13 hours, he was carrying his food home from the restaurant he worked in, and he was walking."
She added, "We can't be silent. We have to go forward with hope and drive and push."
The charges against Rush ultimately were dismissed, and Hickman resigned in January, five months after the incident.
Body camera footage is not public record but was obtained by the Citizen Times last week. Asheville City Council has since released additional personnel information on Hickman, petitioned the court to allow public disclosure of additional video footage from the incident and has called for an outside audit of the police department.
The Asheville Police Department is not part of county government, though three Buncombe commissioners — Newman, Whitesides and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara — live within city limits.
Whitesides said he worries about his grandchildren and others.
"It's not all law enforcement officers, no," he said.
"But it's like cancer: If you don't take it out, it'll just get worse."