On the evening of Aug. 8, Andrew Fletcher and his roommate, David Goodman, were in their Kenilworth apartment. Fletcher, a musician who often plays with the Firecracker Jazz Band, had a show later that evening; in the meantime, he was in his home office, working on some future bookings.
Then a neighbor told them that their BB gun had just been stolen off their porch.
“We're thinking that someone stealing a BB gun isn't really a high-stakes criminal. Maybe a vandal, but not an armed individual,” Fletcher explains. So they got in his car to see if they could find the culprit and retrieve their property.
Almost immediately they spotted a “young guy, not even drinking age, maybe not even voting age” nearby who matched the description their neighbor had given them. He was carrying their BB gun, a specific model that they recognized.
“I get halfway out of my car, say, 'That's mine. Give it back and you can go, this will all be over,'” remembers Fletcher.
But the suspected thief, who was less than 10 feet away, pulled up his waistband, revealing a gun.
“First he displays it, asks, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'” And as Fletcher tried to de-escalate the situation, Goodman, unaware that he was approaching someone armed, walked up and asked him for the BB gun back. The man chambered a round, brandished the gun, and ended up wrestling with Goodman on the ground, striking him several times with the gun butt, says Fletcher.
At that point, another man of similar age approached and pulled his friend away from Goodman; they got in a white SUV and left the scene. The two roommates returned home, and Fletcher, worried about armed robbers in the neighborhood and Goodman’s injuries, called the police shortly after 5 p.m. to report the incident and give them the license plate number.
But it took an hour and 46 minutes for police and emergency medical personnel to show up.
The long wait
Fletcher had expected the police to be there “within 10 minutes or so,” he recalls. “I was calm and clear but adamant, and I asked for police to be sent right away, thinking there was a chance these guys were still in my neighborhood,” he explained later in a letter to city officials.
After repeated calls, Fletcher contacted Kenilworth community watch coordinator Robert Maddix, who called 911 and the police sergeant who served as the group’s contact person.
“I had told them that this guy had a gun and that my roommate was injured,” says Fletcher. “I had a plate number, a description of the vehicle. I thought this might begin and end really quickly.” But it was only after he called again around 6:45 p.m. and told them that Goodman was experiencing headaches and might need medical attention that help finally arrived.
In the interim, a frustrated Fletcher had resorted to social media, live-tweeting his lengthy wait.
“If I wanted to live in Detroit, I'd buy a winter coat,” he says now. “I went public with it because there were people I considered armed and dangerous in my neighborhood. When the police didn't show up, I felt obligated to keep telling the story.”
Fletcher has since received a personal apology from APD command staff. He says he had a good interaction with them and believes they're working to fix the problems that led to the delay, though he’s troubled by the news that the department is exceptionally short on dispatchers.
Anatomy of a breakdown
Fletcher's initial call was labeled a larceny, and two patrol officers plus a sergeant were dispatched to the scene, the APD reports.
But as they were heading to Kenilworth, an officer on Tunnel Road was pursuing a suspect believed to be the man who’d knocked down an elderly woman during a recent robbery at the nearby Wal-Mart, giving her a heart attack. The officers responding to Fletcher's call went to help their colleague instead.
“At that point [the officer chasing the suspect] was not responding to her radio,” Capt. Tim Splain explains.
Meanwhile, the department is grappling with limited resources to serve a rapidly growing population, APD officials say. “We're short officers, particularly in patrol; that's something we constantly have to deal with,” notes Deputy Chief Wade Wood.
The department has a system for prioritizing the many calls for service. And because the dispatchers classified Fletcher's call as a larceny rather than assault by an armed suspect, it took a back seat to the foot pursuit.
A 5:30 p.m. shift change further complicated matters. And though the sergeant who initially responded to the call did pass along word about the larceny, the evening shift supervisor “wasn't looking at the computer screen, seeing that the call had been upgraded” to an assault, Splain reveals, explaining that the relatively inexperienced sergeant assumed that the call would go back out to other officers, but “That's not necessarily the case.”
Initially, calls go to a dispatch screen on the computer in every police car. But when a call is held, it goes into a separate box. Supervisors generally check those to make sure they're being addressed; patrol officers do too, when they’re not dealing with more pressing issues. But during the shift change, no one checked, and meanwhile, Fletcher kept calling.
After Fletcher complained, the APD began looking into what exactly went wrong, but it took some detective work to piece it all together. “Normally we respond to a call for service in under five minutes; five to seven minutes at the most” for top-priority calls involving violent crime or an immediate risk, Splain reports, adding, “This was a real anomaly for us.”
In this case, “The evening shift came in, got busy right away, and the call got overlooked. It was a collision of a number of bad circumstances. Once that call was received, we own it,” says Splain. “We had a real good discussion of how all these factors came into play and led us to not respond appropriately.”
He can't remember another recent case where there was such a significant breakdown. During busy times, a supervisor might ask someone calling about an illegally parked car or a stolen flower pot if they can wait a few hours or even until the next day, but a delay on a call involving an armed suspect is extraordinarily rare, he maintains.
And partly because Fletcher remembered the SUV’s license plate, the APD was able to locate and charge the 15-year-old suspect relatively quickly, Splain reports.
APD Chief William Anderson has been the subject of controversy recently. And while some of it has concerned alleged cover-ups or malfeasance, the local head of the Fraternal Order of Police and other officers have charged that Anderson's management style has hurt morale, causing a higher than normal turnover rate.
Splain, however, says that law enforcement is “a rewarding job, but incredibly difficult: There's lots to learn before an officer is truly effective.”
Deputy Chief Wood blames the current personnel shortages on “our natural cycle of attrition,” specifically a recent spate of retirements plus some newer officers finding that they're just “not cut out for this.” The APD fields a high volume of calls, and it's hiring new dispatchers and adjusting individual workloads to reduce stress levels.
Wood says the department is “constantly assessing and re-evaluating” its response times. Over the last few years, the APD has formed special units for areas like downtown and public housing, and has tried to keep four to five officers plus a supervising sergeant working in each of the city's three districts at all times, using overtime or officers from other districts to fill in gaps.
But there are also geographic challenges: Kenilworth, notes Splain, is in the same district as “the long, narrow corridor” of south Asheville, so it can take those officers longer to get from place to place.
Usually, he maintains, the APD does a pretty good job of “stacking” lower-priority calls that it can respond to later. But that requires experienced communications staffers who can quickly assess whether an argument, for example, might escalate into something more serious.
The Kenilworth incident, says Splain, is still being reviewed, and as yet no decision has been made concerning reprimands or any other penalty for the officers involved.
In the meantime, Wood admits, “We dropped the ball.” But he swears that next time, things will be different.