Lou Popovitch remembers a time when an Asheville police car was a regular sight around his house on South French Broad Avenue. Since he and his wife, Stewart, moved to the neighborhood almost six years ago, they’ve called the Asheville Police department many times to report incidents of theft, trespassing and drug sales outside their home.
The APD was always quick to respond and willing to help, Popovitch recalls. And while the latter hasn’t changed, the presence of officers certainty has in recent months. “It’s just become an absolute skeleton crew,” he says, noting that bike, foot and car patrols have “practically vanished.”
“We know how quickly things can go bad when there’s no police force present and there’s no perceived consequence,” Popovitch says. “That gives us concern, and it’s starting to make us feel unsafe.”
Popovitch’s observations are part of a broader issue plaguing the APD. Staffing is “without question” the biggest problem facing the department, says Chief David Zack. Since the start of 2020, 72 employees have left the APD, 69 of which were resignations.
As Asheville’s 2021-22 budget process gets underway, complete with public engagement sessions to brainstorm alternatives to traditional policing methods and repeated community calls to reduce the size and scope of the APD, some residents view any police presence as too much. Others are starting to see and feel the effects of a force stretched too thin — and Zack is worried.
“Whether you’re a private entity or are providing a public service, a 30%-35% daily loss of staff is going to have a major impact on operations,” he says, noting that the total department staff had dropped from 238 in May to around 160 by March. “I think we’d be hard pressed to find another agency who is dealing with as many big challenges as we are.”
Officer turnover isn’t a new phenomenon, Zack says. In 2019, APD lost 36 sworn and unsworn personnel. The year before, 39 employees left the department.
But this time, recruitment can’t keep up with the compounding resignations. In August, six new employees were hired to begin basic law enforcement training; three of those individuals have since resigned. Of the eight employees who began basic training in January, one has already quit. And hanging over the department’s day-to-day operations is the ever-present threat that more sworn and nonsworn staff could give notice and walk away from their positions at any point, Zack says.
In contrast, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, which has a total full-time staff of 418, had 29 people leave its enforcement division from March 2020 to March 2021, spokesperson Aaron Sarver said in an email. In that same period, 20 new employees were hired; the remaining nine positions were filled by detention center employees who wanted to shift into an enforcement role.
There’s no one factor that’s driving the APD exodus, Zack notes. Internally, it’s hard for APD staff members to see their peers resigning in droves. Despite efforts to address morale, officers “don’t feel supported,” APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse said in an email.
Add in the area’s high cost of living, regional competition among local law enforcement agencies to attract the best candidates, frequent leadership turnover, loud community criticism and the inherent dangers of police work, and conditions become ripe for mass resignations.
Some salary concerns will likely be addressed in the city’s upcoming budget cycle. A recent compensation study conducted by Rock Hill, S.C.-based Archer Co. and presented to Asheville City Council at a March 9 budget work session found approximately half of city employees were earning a salary below what other similarly sized and surrounding governments offered. The most significant discrepancies were found within the police, water resources, public works and parks and recreation departments.
To reach the new minimum pay rates outlined in the study would cost $4.5 million; to give raises to employees currently above the pay-grade minimum, thereby preserving differences between lower- and higher-wage workers, would add another $3.3 million. Proposals under consideration would either implement all salary changes at once or over a two-year period.
If the recommendations are adopted and incorporated into the 2021-22 operating budget, the minimum salary of a police officer would jump from $37,000 to $44,738. The maximum salary of a senior officer would increase from approximately $50,707 to $59,901.
When asked if the anticipated raise would be enough to attract qualified candidates, Zack shrugged. “It’s a start.”
Long wait, more worries
Having fewer officers on the beat directly correlates with the time it takes APD to respond to 911 calls. In January, it took officers two to three minutes longer to reach the most urgent calls for assistance than it would have taken in May 2020 — a big difference during life-or-death situations when every second counts. The average response to the lowest-priority calls, a broad category that includes breaking and entering, vandalism, missing persons reports and reckless driving, was about 30 minutes longer than May levels.
Those delays will only lengthen as the city prepares for an expected return of tourists as COVID-19 restrictions lift and warmer weather sets in, Zack warns. “What’s it going to look like in June or July, when downtown businesses are all open later in the evening?” he asks. “It’s a major, major concern right now as we think about how quickly we can respond to emergencies.”
Already, the response rate isn’t great, says Tami Bebber, community manager of the Lofts at South Slope apartments on Coxe Avenue. In January, she called the APD to report a series of smashed car windows outside the property. It took officers about four hours to respond, she says.
“We had several people in the building whose cars had been damaged, and they waited around and waited around for someone to show up,” she recalls. “I totally understand why it took so long, because it wasn’t an emergency, but if we had more officers I’m sure it would have been a much quicker thing.”
To help focus APD response on immediate needs, the city’s four patrol districts were reduced to three. Several detectives were reassigned to patrol duties, Zack told members of Asheville City Council’s Public Safety Committee at a Feb 23 meeting, as were specialized units. An in-person report office run by nonsworn personnel is operating in South Asheville, and the number of officers assigned to local schools is down to three.
Downtown resident Steve Stevenson hasn’t had any negative experiences with crime but he is worried that APD officers wouldn’t show up in time should he call for assistance. “If the city doesn’t staff its police force adequately, many of us can and will leave,” he wrote in an email. “Taxes are quite high in Asheville, and taxpayers in return naturally expect high-quality services and a safe environment.”
Several downtown businesses have also shared concerns about the decrease in visible police presence, says Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association. Downtown foot and bike patrols were put on pause as APD officers have been pulled in other directions, causing some members to worry, she notes.
“In my opinion, a safe downtown has that balance between the appropriate level of police presence and activity, as well as resources and programs for people in need and to prevent crime in the first place,” Rogers says. “They’re in the middle of this Reimagining Public Safety process, so I’m interested to see how those two dots get connected.”
A city without police?
The Reimagining Public Safety process Rogers mentions is one way the city is engaging citizens in the budget process. In September — before Asheville City Council approved a 2.5% cut to the APD’s annual budget — a public safety survey garnered more than 250,000 responses and 19,000 comments. Another 461 residents attended virtual listening sessions to brainstorm which police functions and resources could be reallocated to other city departments or service providers.
Recommendations from those sessions prompted Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell to share a series of priorities for the 2021-22 budget, including a new model for school resource officers to mentor students; enhancing safety in Housing Authority communities; and consolidating the county’s 911 emergency call center.
Campbell also stated her intention to create a rapid-response team for mental health, homelessness, domestic violence and drug and alcohol calls, similar to the CAHOOTS model pioneered in Eugene, Ore. She’s yet to publicly detail any of these plans or what funding may be needed to advance them.
Meanwhile, activists like Greenleaf Clarke Prentice view the current staffing shortage as a way for police divestment to happen organically. “We’re already seeing high amounts of violence and harm at the hands of the police and we’re also seeing lower staffing numbers now than ever before,” Clarke Prentice says. “It’s an easy avenue — don’t rehire to fill the empty spots and use that budget in other ways.”
For his part, Zack is adamant that any move to shift responsibilities away from the APD won’t actually shrink the department’s size. He’s all for diverting tasks away from the department and having other agencies take the lead on the scene, but he doesn’t see a way to make that safely happen without a police officer present in case something goes wrong.
He points to Buncombe County’s Community Paramedic and Post-Overdose Response, a team of three paramedics, a mental health clinician, a peer support specialist and a program manager that responds to 911 overdose calls. To expand a program like that and ensure enough people remain available to respond to concurrent calls, in different parts of town, 24 hours a day, will be a massive undertaking.
“If you think the resource allocation is equal to 50 police officer salaries, you’re fooling yourself,” Zack says. “We welcome the investment, we’re not fighting it at all, we’re just telling you it’s going to require a heck of a lot more than you think it will.”
But if some in the city don’t want to see a police presence, Popovitch of South French Broad Avenue does. Neighborhood association leaders lobbied for years to get more police coverage into the area before South French Broad was “finally” redrawn into the downtown patrol district, he says.
“We were going to get more officers than we ever had before to help do proactive policing instead of the reactive calls we’ve been dealing with,” Popovitch says. “And no sooner does that happen than everything starts to go crazy in 2020. It’s disappointing. We were making progress.”