Former Asheville police officer Chris Hickman pled guilty Friday morning to three charges related to the beating of an unarmed African-American pedestrian in August of 2017, including one felony count of assault. But under a plea deal, Hickman can have those charges expunged if he completes a restorative justice program.
Hickman choked and shocked Johnnie Rush with a stun gun in August 2017 when he suspected Rush of jaywalking across Biltmore Avenue on Asheville’s South Slope. Hickman is white. The incident didn’t come to public light until six months later when body cam footage showing the incident was leaked to the Asheville Citizen-Times, which then released it and reported on it, making national headlines. Hickman was eventually charged with one felony count of assault by strangulation, and misdemeanor charges of assault inflicting serious injury, and communicating threats. He pled guilty to each of those charges Friday, but under a plea agreement those charges can be expunged if he completes the restorative justice program.
In a statement, Buncombe County district attorney Todd Williams said the restorative justice agreement went forward after a discussion with Rush. According to Williams, Rush "stated that what was most important to him was that the violation of his rights be recognized, that he receive an apology, and, if possible, that no one else should experience what he experienced." Williams says Rush and Hickman met in a "direct, mediated conversation' last fall. Hickman answered questions, took responsibility for the incident, and offered an apology during that meeting according to Williams.
Further details on what the rest of the restorative justice program that Hickman will go through weren't immediately provided, but Williams says it will be guided by Jon Powell of the Campbell University Restorative Justice Clinic. The website for the clinic states "RJC strives to bring victims and offenders together using restorative justice practices in an effort to foster collaborative healing, rather than specifically seeking punishment. Campbell Law students engage all involved parties in dialogue to address the specifics of a violation, how it occurred, why it occurred, and what happened as a result. The project aims to discover how people and communities are hurt as a result of crime, and seeks to find the best solution to repair the damage that has been done. Approximately 85 percent of cases referred to the RJC are successfully mediated, resulting in both parties coming together for a face-to-face meeting to address and satisfy their needs as a result of the incident.
The fallout from the Rush beating shook Asheville city government to its core. The six-month gap from when the incident occurred to when it became public, plus the timeframe and handling of it until Hickman resigned from the force in January 2018 increased pressure on then-police chief Tammy Hooper. District attorney Todd Williams dropped charges in several cases that Hickman investigated, while Asheville city council fired then city manager Gary Jackson while announcing a reorganization of reporting requirements within city government.