BOONE — The Boone Police Department issued a statement prepared by interim Police Chief Andy Le Beau on June 18 about its policies and outreach efforts in response to questions received after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the two subsequent protests in Boone.
The questions include topics such as minority sensitivity training, how the department promotes and hires personnel, use of force, body camera usage and current ways the department protects people of color.
“We hold the philosophy that if we police ourselves and hold ourselves to a high standard, then our community will have a police department that everyone can be proud to call their own,” Boone Police stated. “We have truly exceptional men and women who serve at Boone PD and we are striving together to be a model police department in all aspects. We strive to impartially enforce the law and treat all members of our community with dignity and respect. With all of this said, we understand that trust must be earned and we will continue to develop and grow relationships with all community groups to best serve Boone.”
Organizers of the May 31 and June 7 protests in Boone have recently met with staff of the police department, Boone Police stated. These meetings have included members of the Appalachian State University Black Student Association, and one meeting was joined by App State Police Chief Andy Stephenson. Boone Police stated that it was grateful for the help of Cornerstone Summit Church Pastor Reggie Hunt, App State Deputy General Counsel Toussaint Romain, U.S. Buildings owner Tommy Sofield and Boone Town Manager John Ward to help facilitate these meetings.
“We have begun meaningful dialogue and making plans with these young leaders to continue to develop our relationships and increase our understanding,” stated Boone Police.
The department explained that it began mandatory training in 2016 on state-mandated topics such as minority sensitivity, equality in policing, implicit bias and other community policing topics. In 2019, the Boone Police leaders determined that these classes were insufficient and sought out expert instructors to teach the topic of implicit bias. Appalachian State University Professor Chuck Claxton and Hickory Police Department Lt. Steve Hunt (ret.) taught a daylong class on “community policing before the crisis and implicit bias.”
The department stated that its command staff met with a prominent civil rights leader in January this year to arrange further implicit bias training.
Four years ago, the department began inviting members of the community — including minority communities — to sit on promotional process boards to help assess candidates for promotion. According to the department, four ethnic groups were represented on a lieutenant process during its last promotional process in 2019.
“This gives community leaders direct input into who we promote,” the department stated. “In our hiring practices, we have collaborated with ASU’s internship program and recently with their Basic Law Enforcement Training program, which has led to increased diversity within our department.”
A June 4 meeting conducted by Black in Boone — a black-led advocacy group — led to a discussion of the group’s hope to start a civilian oversight board for community accountability of local police. According to Black in Boone, the group would have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary actions and dictate police policies, priorities and budgets.
“The board shall not include police representation, and will have primary representation from ethnic minorities, those most impacted by policing and incarceration,” said Mary Lyons, a group organizer, during the June 4 meeting. “We trust that they actually want to improve and have been taking steps to improve. We want to make sure we can do it in a more sustainable, community-led way.”
Boone Town Council Member Nancy LaPlaca said she supports a community oversight board, but said she thinks the power of the board should be carefully considered by the community, town council, police department and town manager. She felt that there should be police representation on a community board. Council Member Dustin Hicks also would be open to the idea of the oversight board if community members who are engaged with Black in Boone brought the idea to town council.
“I think that’s one of the best things we can do within the frameworks that we have to get police to be beholden to who they need to be beholden to as much as possible — which is community members,” Hicks said. “I think that would be a wonderful thing for us to do, and I think it’s very possible for us to do it.”
The conversation comes as some around the nation have made calls to “defund” the police. CNN reported that to some, defunding the police means reallocating some — but not all — funds away from police departments to other agencies such as social services. The news network explained that others want to see a reform of policing entirely by disbanding police and following a model of community-led public safety.
“I personally think that in the long run … we need to be thinking about alternative institutions that can do the work of public safety but not necessarily do it under the institution of the police,” Hicks said. “We need to be creating institutions, and I don’t think that will happen overnight.”
Hicks suggested that the police structure could be temporarily maintained while work begins to defund certain practices of the police that might be better suited for others in the community.
LaPlaca said she thinks the police budget should be reviewed and that the town should look at whether monies should go to other organizations that directly serve the public.
The department addressed community questions regarding the 8 Can’t Wait campaign — a project by Campaign Zero. The campaign includes eight suggestions for policies on the use of force: banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation, requiring a warning before shooting, requiring exhausting all alternatives before shooting, a duty to intervene, banning shooting at moving vehicles, requiring the use of a force continuum and requiring comprehensive reporting. Boone Police stated that a “vast majority” of the suggestions were already included within its Use of Force Policy.
“In fact, our use of force policy has far more protections than the 8 Can’t Wait recommendations,” Boone Police stated. “However, because of the 8 Can’t Wait suggestions, we have strengthened the language regarding the duty to intervene and emphasized further the mandate that de-escalation techniques be employed whenever possible. All of our officers receive Crisis Intervention Training that teaches de-escalation techniques and education about dealing with individuals with mental illnesses.”
Boone Police stated that its Use of Force Policy is 15 pages long and includes a detailed use of force continuum, state law language and specific instructions for post-arrest monitoring and care of prisoners to avoid in-custody deaths or injury, according to police.
If a citizen were to file a complaint of excessive force — which police stated would involve a criminal violation — the chief of police would request the State Bureau of Investigations to conduct an independent review. Their findings would be submitted to the district attorney of the 24th District (including Watauga, Avery, Madison, Mitchell, and Yancey counties) to determine if the use of force was lawful or if criminal charges would be appropriate. The officer(s) under investigation would be placed on administrative leave during the investigative process.
Boone Police would also conduct an administrative investigation to focus on policy violations. The department explained that during a criminal investigation an officer is afforded all of the constitutional rights that any citizen would be entitled to who is under investigation. In an administrative investigation, the officer is compelled to answer all questions and to answer them truthfully. Failure to answer all questions truthfully will result in a recommendation for termination regardless of any criminal proceedings.
“The command staff at the Boone Police Department conduct an internal review of all use of force incidents whether a complaint is filed or not,” the department stated. “The supervisor reviews body camera footage for each incident as part of the review. All officers are required to complete a comprehensive report for all use of force actions. If an officer’s actions were discovered by our agency that appeared to be a criminal violation, we would also refer the case to the SBI for investigation.”
Boone Police explained that the department implemented body cameras in 2013, and the department’s policy requires officers to use the body cameras when interacting with citizens. The system automatically downloads the video without any input from the officers. Officers can only view the video, but cannot delete or alter the video, as the system does not allow any type of manipulation of the video, according to Boone Police. While digital storage is expensive, the department has decided during the past several years to keep all videos indefinitely.
“Our officers have embraced the body cameras and all agree that they would not want to work without the cameras as this technology protects them from false accusations,” stated Boone Police. “Importantly for citizens, body cameras provide accountability for the officers’ actions.”
The department said it has been proactive in protecting people of color. Around 2016, the department began meeting with members of the local Latino community through a group that is now the Immigrant Justice Coalition to ensure that Latino community members are knowledgeable about how they can access Boone Police services and how the department can assist them. Boone Police have also attended both of the previous Faith Action ID drives in Boone, which provided identification for any resident in the community who may not be able to obtain a government-issued ID.
“This was a huge success to develop the level of trust for such a large group of Latino community members to show up knowing that law enforcement was going to be present,” Boone Police stated.
In 2014, the department began meeting with the Watauga Chapter of the NAACP to discuss topics such as use of force and body cameras, and the department said it still meets with members of the group on a monthly basis.
Additionally, the department has joined the Boone Mennonite Brethren Church — a local historic black church — for a community fish fry for the past two years. Boone Police stated that Rev. Mike Mathes has been a “great community leader” that has worked with Boone Police Sgt. Dennis O’Neal, who is assigned to that district to enhance the community relations between the Junaluska community and the police department.
The department mentioned its Community Contact program that began in 2013, in which officers visit businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, faith-based groups and any other types of community groups. Last year, Boone Police conducted a seven-month-long “Coffee with a Cop” series focused on topics such as forensic evidence, body cameras and its canine program. Several officers have also adopted classes at Hardin Park and participate in the Lunch Buddies program.
“We have the opportunity to have positive interactions with all children, including children of color, on a regular basis,” Boone Police stated.
Beginning in 2018, the department has held an annual police forum open to the public with a presentation about different aspects of the department. The forum was proposed by Boone Town Councilperson Sam Furgiuele, who said he requested the forum so that citizens could learn about police practices in Boone as well as directly engage with the police concerning issues.
At its meeting on June 18, the council voted to schedule a web-based police forum at 6 p.m. on July 22, with citizen questions due to the town clerk no later than July 8. The council also approved Furgiuele’s proposal to create a committee of the mayor, the five council members and six other members recruited by the council to discuss police issues and make recommendations if warranted, starting with consideration of the 8 Can’t Wait proposals.
“I have great confidence in the Boone Police and the department’s leadership,” Furgiuele said. “They have diversified their workforce and have focused training on de-escalation and the avoidance of deadly force. They have been active in community outreach. I nevertheless believe it is important that we continue our conversation and the increased transparency which discussion facilitates. Such a conversation is the starting point for any change which might be needed and beneficial.”
To view the full Boone Police question-and-answer document, visit wataugademocrat.com.