3 Buncombe Commissioners Seek Public Safety Reforms, Angering Sheriff

Apr 3, 2018

Buncombe County commissioners Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Al Whitesides, and Ellen Frost are calling for extensive public safety reforms - a call that brought a sharp and quick rebuke from county sheriff Van Duncan.  

The statement from the three commissioners came a day after a court ordered additional police body camera footage released of an incident last August involving a then-Asheville police officer beating an unarmed black man.  That officer, Chris Hickman, resigned from the force in January and was charged in March.  He's facing three counts, including a felony assault charge.  Beach-Ferrara, Whitesides, and Frost in a joint statement called the incident and its aftermath "a crisis in our community on par with the opioid epidemic", adding "incidents like this should never happen again.  But they can, and will, unless we take proactive and ongoing steps to prevent them."   

Among the reforms the three are seeking include use-of-force, de-escalation and implicit bias trainings for all law enforcement agencies in the county.  They also want a county Human Rights Commission (similar to what the city of Asheville is looking at creating) and an independent team to review incidents where a law enforcement officer uses force.  (The full statement can be read below)

Buncombe County sheriff Van Duncan quickly responded to the calls, calling them a "slap in the face."  In a statement originally posted on the sheriff department's Facebook page, Duncan said he was "taken aback" by the Rush beating, but "some in elected office are taking advantage of this situation to drive a very anti-law enforcement agenda that I can promise you will impact your public safety and the safety of those that serve."  He also questioned whether the trio can legally enforce some of the reforms they're seeking.

Statement from Buncombe County sheriff Van Duncan, originally posted on the department's Facebook page

Duncan is retiring at the end of this year after three terms in office.  Seven candidates are running to replace him.  Five are Democrats, and voters will determine which of those will receive the party nomination in the May 8th primary.  Republican and Libertarian candidates are running unopposed for their party's nod.  Beach-Ferrara and Frost are not on the ballot this year.  Whitesides is, but he's running unopposed for re-election.


As Buncombe County Commissioners, we are gravely concerned about the excessive use of force on Mr. Johnnie Rush by an Asheville Police Department officer and the ensuing delay in the administration of justice. In August 2017, Mr. Rush, an African-American downtown resident, was assaulted by a law enforcement officer after being stopped and detained for allegedly jaywalking on his walk home from a 13-hour work shift. Mr. Rush is one of our constituents, and an assault on his dignity is an affront to all of ours.

This is a crisis in our community on par with the opioid epidemic. It must therefore receive the same level of open dialogue, honest assessment, collaboration across agencies, and robust funding by the public bodies who are duty-bound to serve and protect our constituents.

Incidents like this should never happen again. But they can, and will, unless we take proactive and ongoing steps to prevent them. Asheville City Council has initiated steps to redress the systemic factors that resulted in the stop, arrest, and excessive use of force on Mr. Rush and the subsequent delay in the administration of justice. We support those efforts and seek to build on them to protect all citizens in every corner of Buncombe County.

We propose the following immediate actions to address this crisis. We look forward to discussing these ideas with community members, advocates, fellow members of Buncombe County Commission and county staff, Asheville City Council, the Buncombe County Sheriff, the Buncombe County District Attorney, and the Buncombe County Public Defender.

1) We advocate for all law enforcement agencies in the county, including the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and all local police departments, to review current use of force and de-escalation policies and to revise them, with community input, to reflect best practices and principles as outlined in “The Final Report to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing<https://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p311-pub.pdf>;”

2) Buncombe County will fund use of force, de-escalation and implicit bias trainings for any law enforcement agency within the county;

3) We will join Asheville City Council in funding and seeking the extension of the 60-day body cam footage retention period to ensure that this footage is available for review when citizens have been afforded the opportunity and right to counsel;

4) Buncombe County will fund a pilot of a multidisciplinary “Use of Force Response Team” within county government that is empowered to receive referrals and reports from the county’s Human Rights Commission (see below), community members, local law enforcement agencies and the District Attorney’s Office. This team will include an attorney, a social worker/victim advocate, and an individual with a law enforcement background. The team would be tasked with: 1) conducting an independent review of body cam footage; 2) assessing needs of victims and making appropriate referrals to victim services; 3) providing legal assistance with filing reports of use of force; and 4) notifying local governments of the occurrence of use of force incidents. Given the City of Asheville’s pledge to fund an attorney position with some parallel functions, we encourage ongoing communication and the exploration of coordination with this new position;

5) Buncombe County will create a Human Rights Commission that is empowered to investigate reports of harassing, violent or discriminatory conduct by public employees toward residents; to receive reports of discrimination related to public accommodations, public services, and private businesses; and to make policy and budgetary recommendations to County Commission regarding human rights issues in Buncombe County to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and respect;

6) Buncombe County will fund proposals to create trauma-informed responses to use of force incidents by law enforcement agencies and community stakeholders to recognize how these incidents injure not just individuals but the communities they are part of;

7) Buncombe County will continue to fund the Justice Resource Center; and

8) We call on the District Attorney’s Office, in collaboration with law enforcement agencies across Buncombe County, to develop protocols for requesting investigative assistance from the State Bureau of Investigations (“SBI”) in all use of force incidents and for responding to such reports, consistent with the recommendations contained in the NC Conference of District Attorneys Best Practices Committee’s report: http://pceinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/20161200-Investigating-and-Prosecuting-Use-of-Force-Incidents-in-North-Carolina-Best-Practices-Committee-North-Carolina-Conference-of-District-Attorneys.pdf.

We believe that our community can - and must - do better to end racial bias and excessive use of force in policing. Doing so requires all hands on deck and a commitment to change at the individual, community and systemic levels.

Al Whitesides, Ellen Frost and Jasmine Beach-Ferrara serve on Buncombe County Commission, representing Districts 1 and 2.