Asheville Police Clarify Gang Statements, Turn Attention To Improving Community Ties

Aug 5, 2019

New Asheville police chief Chris Bailey steps into his role in the wake of events that have created distrust in communities of color. In July, the Asheville Police Department apologized for statements on gang activity in the area which were criticized as racial profiling.  

Residents and City Council members stated the information singled out specific Asheville neighborhoods without enough context. Michael Hayes, a community activist who serves on the Citizens Police Advisory Committee, said the police department's statements concerned him. He said he couldn't make sense of the department citing 1,100 documented gang members in Asheville.
 
"My first thought was that was a dangerous narrative," said Hayes. "Now you're starting to think that every young black man you come across is affiliated with a gang. That becomes dangerous because now you have a fear of something you shouldn't even fear."
 
Hayes said he worried how these statements about rising gang violence would affect policing in communities of color in Asheville.  
 
"You have to wonder are the police going to take a more active approach to asking a young black man what he is doing downtown as compared to a young white man," said Hayes. "Young black men get stopped for no reason too much anyways, so now we're looking at justifying their reasons for stopping and asking questions. It's just not fair."   
 
Incidents like the 2018 beating of Johnnie Jermaine Rush, an unarmed black man, by Asheville police officer Chris Hickman, influence the way communities interact with the police department in the area.  
 
"There has to be better communication," said Hayes. "There has to be clarity. There has to be transparency."
 
Bailey said he understands why people were upset by the way the data was communicated about gang activity.
 
"We have to provide context on information that we're giving out," said Bailey. "We don't want to demonize an entire community or persons of color, and make it seem like everyone that lives in certain neighborhoods are part of a gang or are criminals. It's exactly the opposite."  
 
Hayes said he wants the police department to acknowledge the economic factors impacting neighborhoods around Asheville.
 
"It's not a racial thing. It's a poverty thing," said Hayes. "It's the fact that the economic gap, the wealth gap, is so large here in Asheville."  

Hayes said he doesn't think there are enough opportunities for young people to find work or activities during the summer. He said he wants the City of Asheville and the police department to tackle these problems before blaming them on gangs.
 
Bailey said part of his previous role in Indianapolis was addressing gang activity. He said he wants to take a big picture approach in addressing these issues in Asheville.
 
"Hopefully people recognize that we didn't get here overnight and it's not going to be solved overnight," said Bailey. "I can guarantee putting handcuffs on or arresting our way out of the issues we have aren't going to solve the issues, either."
 
As Bailey grows into his new role, Hayes hopes he and other officers make an effort to know the neighborhoods they serve over the next few months. Hayes said he wants residents to be seen by the police as human beings, "rather than a statistic."
 
"See me as a person so I can see you as a person," said Hayes. "Let's have a conversation. When that happens, you get a better understanding of the communities you serve. You won't have preconceived notions that will have you coming in thinking everyone is a gangster or a drug dealer or doing something illegal."