At a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 18, at Central United Methodist Church, city of Asheville staff and police officers met with homeless activists and local nonprofit representatives to discuss a new law enforcement approach that focuses on more arrests in the city’s downtown. Responses varied, ranging from concerns about the impacts of a failing system to criticisms of the Asheville Police Department’s new strategy.
“What we have seen over the last few months is that downtown has become a difficult place for a lot of folks,” said Heather Dillashaw, who oversees the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative. Speaking to attendees, she continued, “It’s a difficult place for the homeless. It’s a difficult place for those who aren’t homeless sometimes. We have seen an increase in criminal activity and in nuisance behavior. I’ve heard that from everybody.”
City officials, police, and local activists arranged the meeting to discuss their concerns. About 40 people showing up for nearly an hour and a half to discuss the issues, voice their criticisms and hear from the APD.
Sgt. Jackie Stepp, supervisor of the day shift of the APD’s downtown unit, said that the preference for arrests over citations was a recent change in policy made by APD Chief William Anderson and the department’s command staff. She added that there was an 86 percent increase in violent crime downtown over the last month.
“Due to the increase in activity we have witnessed and due to the number of complaints we’ve received from businesses, residents, tourists, we have made a policy to stop issuing quite as many citations and start looking at arrests more often,” Stepp said. “That’s to try to alleviate this problem we’ve seen in the last few months.”
Stepp later asserted that the APD wasn’t being any more or less strict than before, but if officers encounter someone they’d already given citations to several times that day (for nuisance crimes like urinating in public, for example), they will arrest them rather than issuing them another.
“The chief and command staff were involved in that decision, and they decided we needed to be a little more aggressive,” Stepp said.
Some local ministers were very critical of the APD’s new approach. Michael Poulos of First Presbyterian blasting it as a “knee-jerk reaction.”
“What I’m hearing from folks on the street is that there is a new approach, that it has been more aggressive,” Poulos said. “That pains me. It pains a lot of people in our community who’ve seen the progress we’ve made. I know crime has spiked, but I don’t see how this is going to address that.”
Stepp responded that she hoped for more dialogue, and more prevention, before the APD has to intervene, as “there’s a small group of homeless individuals that are making life more difficult for the larger community of homeless individuals.”
Amy Cantrell, who heads Beloved House, said she felt like she’d “stepped into a time machine,” with policing towards the homeless resembling the more coercive approach she saw in the mid-2000s instead of what she views as the more constructive policies of the last few years. She said that she felt “betrayed” that the new approach was put in place by the APD without consultation with homeless service providers like her organization.
“I’m deeply troubled. I feel like we’ve gone 10 steps back,” Cantrell said. “I see people put in the paddy wagon down the street from my house and I know how undiginified that is, and it grieves my heart.”
“We’re seeing systems crumble,” she added. “We’re having to deal with the impact of that, as our health and treatment systems fall apart.”
Others who work in the nonprofit sector, including in the Buncombe County Detention Center and area shelters, sounded a similar note, noting that cuts are harming their ability to reduce homelessness and deal with the consequences of a shaky economy.
Several homeless or formerly homeless people in attendance emphasized the difficulty of finding even basic work in the Asheville area. Carlton Eller, who said he’s been in housing for three years, still ends up panhandling, holding a sign beside the interstate, because it’s one of the only ways he can get money.
“Sometimes that’s the only way to get enough money to wash your clothes,” he said. “I like working outside, working with my hands, but it’s real hard for us to get jobs.”
Bill Pence questioned if the intent of the police’s new policy was specifically to target the homeless, and if the more aggressive policy had a name. Steep said that someone’s housing status doesn’t factor into the APD’s decision to make an arrest.
Lt. Mark Byrd, who oversees the downtown unit, later said he preferred the word “proactive” instead of “aggressive,” as Stepp had earlier described it, to define the APD’s recent approach.
“If it’s just a play on words, that’s fine, but I don’t have aggressive police officers,” he said, and noted the new strategy is still being reviewed by the command staff. “What we’re encountering downtown right now is folks that are extremely intoxicated. We’re having to transport two to four people a day to the hospital.”
In response to worries about profiling or retaliation against homeless who file complaints about police behavior, Stepp asserted earlier that the APD investigates all complaints fairly.
“We’re professionals, and we handle every situation professionally,” she said. Dillashaw said she’d help people file complaints if they had concerns.
Troy Arbogast of the Asheville Homeless Network noted that the group has a police-watch program and asserts that some of the citations the group investigates haven’t held up in court. But he also praised the APD, adding that he’d had some good encounters with the downtown unit and “if [Stepp] is arresting somebody, she pretty much has a reason to.”
Many of the attendees left before the hour-and-a-half meeting reached its conclusion, which included proposals to examine creating more “safe haven” spaces or have similar meetings more regularly. But there were no firm conclusions about when next to meet, or consensus of the attendees for any specific policy shift.