It was May 1, and Capt. Tim Splain, an 18-year veteran of the Asheville Police Department who’s the head of criminal investigations, was in the firing line (metaphorically speaking) at the latest session of the city’s ongoing Citizens Academy.
“Let me be clear: Hip-hop does not cause gangs,” Splain declared after asserting that local media had blown police statements concerning the extent of local gang activity out of proportion. “Gangs have always been around; they arise when you have a lot of inequality. You have a lot of ‘haves’ in Asheville, but you have a lot of ‘have-nots’ too. They’re isolated in areas like public housing. The question, then, is how—with no education and no money, no power—how they’re going to get that stuff. They’re going to band together, and they’re going to take it.”
The increase in shootings in Asheville over the last three years is mostly due to gang violence, he said, and purely local neighborhood gangs are being replaced by national affiliations.
Splain detailed names, territories and affiliations of Asheville gangs. He shared photos from alleged gang member’s MySpace pages.
But Asheville resident Jumal Jackson was doubtful. “Doesn’t seem to me that you’ve got a gang problem so much as a clique problem,” he said. “Are you going to blame every random shooting on gang violence?”
Again, Splain blasted the media: “You sell more newspapers … if you’re talking about gangs. They want to hype everything.
“A lot of the big problem we’re having right now [is] with the wannabes,” he added, “because they feel like they have to prove themselves.”
The district attorney’s office, he noted, has started putting a “Death to Gangs” designation beside the names of known gang members charged with a crime, barring them from getting a plea bargain.
Earlier, police Chief Bill Hogan provided an overview of his department’s roles and the challenges it faces. There were also demonstrations by the APD’s specialized SWAT, explosive-devices and hostage-negotiation teams. But Splain’s presentation on drugs and gangs drew the most questions. Crack, he said, is Asheville’s most problematic drug, and he noted that the area has particularly high-value marijuana.
“There’s some really good weed around here,” he said, drawing laughter. “That’s a relatively recent trend. It used to be that pot was just pot; that’s not the way it is anymore.”
That prompted Jenny Bowen to ask how the APD would react to decriminalization, noting that it’s been proposed in a bill before the House of Representatives. “Would marijuana decriminalization help the APD by freeing it to concentrate more on these other drugs, or would it hinder things?”
“I understand that, for a lot of people, it’s no worse than a beer or a glass of wine,” Splain responded. “But the DEA … research says it’s a gateway drug … and I’ve seen that some too.
“In the end … if Congress passed a law, if City Council agreed, we would do that.”