Is downtown Asheville becoming more dangerous? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask.
Downtown resident Naydeehn Messier has no doubt about it. “I definitely feel as though it’s getting worse,” says Messier, co-founder of the Safe Streets Asheville Project. “That’s from everything I’ve seen and heard—and it’s going to keep getting worse until we do something about it.”
But ask Patrol Lt. Wally Welch of the Asheville Police Department whether downtown crime is increasing, and you’ll get a decidedly different picture. “The short answer is no—and I think the numbers back me up on that,” says Welch. “I think there’s a perception that downtown is kind of a scary place to be at night. But again, the numbers don’t really back that up for a city of our size.”
Meanwhile, Susan Griffin, who chairs the Downtown Association of Residential Neighbors, offers yet another take. “Most of DARN’s members have lived in other cities, and comparatively, Asheville’s still very benign,” she says.
Griffin adds, however, “There have been concerns, and we had a great meeting with [APD] Chief Bill Hogan in the spring. But I’ll admit most members of DARN aren’t the late-night crowd. We had some employees from downtown restaurants come to that meeting, and they definitely had concerns.”
One of those downtown workers was Kerry Wheeland, who waits tables at the Flying Frog and lives in the Grove Street area.
“Where I live is right there near the Hot Spot; there was a lot of loitering by people that would just stand around and drink,” Wheeland reports. “One of my co-workers witnessed someone getting beaten and mugged going across the Flint Street bridge, but he couldn’t himself stop and do anything because there were four of them. There was a whole series of break-ins in Montford, and friends of mine got chased through downtown by a drunk.”
At the moment though, she says, “Downtown’s gotten better. It always gets better over the winter; it’s definitely gotten better since the summer.”
The transient population, Wheeland maintains, poses particular problems for downtown workers.
“The homeless people that hang out downtown, they see where we work, and we have to kick them out of our establishments from time to time,” she explains. “When we go home or we walk down the street, they know we’ve got cash, know we make money. We become a target. It’s happened plenty of times where you see someone on the street that you’ve kicked out. They remember—and they’re none too happy about it.”
Messier’s group—formed in the wake of several high-profile muggings and beatings of lesbians and gays this summer—focuses on anti-LGBT violence, though it also looks at overall safety on downtown streets.
And as downtown Asheville’s population increases and the economy worsens, concern about street crime has also risen. In November, after downtown business owners petitioned the city for increased law enforcement in front of Pack Memorial Library and a passer-by had his windpipe crushed while trying to stop a fight there, the city removed two benches that had become a gathering place for transients.
The numbers game
The APD’s crime statistics for the Central District (which includes downtown) give a mixed picture, with most categories holding steady, some increasing sharply and some even showing declines.
Armed robberies, for example, are down. Between July 1 and the end of November, there were six reported in the area, compared with 23 during fiscal year 2007-08 (which ended June 30). Rapes, on the other hand, are up. Eleven were reported in all of 2007-08, and there were eight between July and November of this year. Simple assaults, too, have increased, with 68 in the last five months, compared with 133 in all of 2007-08.
Meanwhile, gang-related incidents have skyrocketed, with 91 in the five months since July 1, compared with 22 in the entire last fiscal year. Welch, however, says that’s due less to an actual increase in such crimes than to the fact that the APD now has a special anti-gang unit in place.
“We’ve just gotten better at identifying [gang-related crime]; 10 years ago we had similar issues,” he notes.
Part of the problem is that the APD doesn’t have separate categories for things like muggings, for example. Instead, they might fall under a number of charges, including armed robbery and assault, depending on the exact nature of the incident. But those charges also apply to a lot of crimes that aren’t muggings and/or aren’t directed against strangers.
As for the rise in simple assaults, notes Welch, “When there was nothing downtown, the numbers were lower. As we increase our size and as downtown becomes the entertainment mecca it’s become, with a bar on every corner, it’s an easy leap that that feeds the jump.”
Messier, however, doesn’t put much stock in the APD’s numbers—especially when it comes to populations that believe the police will ignore them, or to crimes the police have little hope of solving.
“A lot of this is still going unreported: muggings, queer-bashings especially,” she asserts. “I can’t speak for anyone besides myself, but there’s a feeling that the cops aren’t going to do much about it. How many times when someone gets mugged is the attacker actually caught?”
Messier is not optimistic about the future either. “The city’s getting bigger; the economy’s getting worse. I know people that haven’t had a job for well over a month,” she says. “There isn’t enough space in the shelters; there isn’t really a safety net. Some people get desperate—they’re willing to do anything to get what they can.”
Messier also believes the LGBT community’s increased visibility around downtown could be a factor in such crimes. “As you see more people like that rise up and assert their rights, you see more backlash,” she notes. Compounding the problem, says Messier, is the fact that when “things … settle down for a little bit, people get a false sense of security.”
That includes her own group. After seeing considerable turnout for its first few meetings, the Safe Streets Project “hasn’t really been able to get anything going,” Messier reports, though two adjacent LGBT-friendly night spots, Scandals and Club Hairspray, did agree in September to cooperate on increased security arrangements, such as monitoring nearby parking lots, alleys and streets where patrons might be vulnerable to attack.
“A lot of people have mixed feelings about going to law enforcement if they get attacked,” says Messier, “but if they feel comfortable, by all means do it.”
Avoiding becoming a victim, she adds, involves taking such basic precautions as “be aware/be prepared: I carry pepper spray. A lot of it is in posture: Walk around with your head held high. If you feel threatened, yell. If someone starts coming at you, yell. Don’t be embarassed.” Messier also advises people to “Trust in [strength in] numbers, and stay off French Broad.”
And on these points, at least, she and Welch can agree. People out for an evening downtown, he notes, “can take some common-sense precautions to protect themselves: Go with a buddy, don’t drink and drive, don’t be an easy victim. “Your predator types,” he explains, “are looking for that kind of victim: the stumbling drunk that’s easy picking.”
The APD did recently announce the measures it’s taking to deal with downtown crime, including increased bike patrols, a “walking beat officer” who meets with business owners, as well as two dedicated officers per shift for the Central/South beat. The smallest in the city, it nonetheless accounts for more than 20 percent of the APD’s calls for service.
The police, notes Welch, have also tapped off-duty officers to conduct auxiliary operations in the downtown area, such as checking up on business owners. In addition, they’ve increased plainclothes operations targeting prostitution and panhandling.
Wheeland, however, feels the APD needs a more hands-on approach. “When I started working downtown about eight years ago, there would be regular foot patrols, especially in summer,” she notes. “You would see the same officers day in, day out. They were much more of a presence. Now there might be me and one other person in the bar, and if someone starts going crazy, for example, there’s not much we can do about it.”
“I think a lot of downtown crime has to do with nuisances: panhandling, quality-of-life issues, things revolving around homelessness,” says Welch.
Griffin sounds a similar note. “Cleanliness is really the big issue we get a lot of complaints about from DARN members, more so than crime. As downtown’s gotten larger, it’s hard to handle the amount of trash generated,” she observes.”
APD spokesperson Melissa Williams concurs, saying, “From what I can see, it’s the quality of life is mostly what gets people upset, especially as we get more people living downtown.”
But some areas, notes Welch, are simply more crime-prone. “You’re always going to have a criminal element near public housing, because there’s easy access to the drugs. We’ve done a pretty good job getting the prostitution displaced out of the [central business district], but now that’s become a problem over in the South French Broad area, and we’ve tried to attack that. Then you’ve got the usual areas: Pritchard Park; bars around closing time.”
Often, increased law enforcement in one area will simply push crime someplace else. With a daytime ranger in Pritchard Park and the Pack Library benches removed, for example, related crime might shift to adjacent areas such as Lexington Avenue.
Will such crimes become more common if the economy continues to tank? Welch gives a guarded answer, saying, “Well, I think it’s something we always have to guard against and be aware of.”
Griffin shares that concern.
“I can’t say that’s not something we’re worried about,” she concedes. “But I think the biggest problems are going to be for people who work or stay out late at night, leaving bars at 2 a.m. or after they close. They do need to be careful.”
But the APD, says Welch, is hardly turning a blind eye to the situation. “We probably spend more time and money on downtown than any other part of the city,” he notes, adding, “We really try to stay on top of it.”