APD staffing shortage reaches critical level

STRETCHED THIN: Fewer Asheville police officers on the beat means longer response times for the community and more work for the employees who stayed, like Sergeant Brien Griffin, pictured above. APD Chief David Zack predicts delays will only worsen as COVID-19 restrictions lift and more tourists return to the area. Photo courtesy of APD

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.” 

Crisis mode 

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. 

NOT HERE FOR LONG: Of the 14 new hires who participated in APD’s August and January basic law enforcement training, four have already resigned. Here, a class runs through training exercises in early spring 2020. Photo courtesy of APD

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. 

EXPECT DELAYS: According to a Feb. 23 presentation to Asheville City Council’s Public Safety Committee, police response times for the most urgent calls have increased by roughly two minutes. For low priority requests, it’s taking officers nearly 30 minutes longer to arrive than it had last May. Graphic courtesy of the city of Asheville

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.”

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About Molly Horak
Molly Horak served as a reporter at Mountain Xpress. Follow me @molly_horak

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30 thoughts on “APD staffing shortage reaches critical level

  1. kristie sluder

    Putting city-wide residents at risk is policy born of foolish thought from cowardice leadership.

  2. Crime Stats

    The whole force should resign and go somewhere they would be appreciated. Asheville doesn’t deserve them. Let all the citizens carry their guns and protect themselves. Asheville should get what it wants and what it deserves.

  3. Mike R.

    This is the most screwed up city I have ever witnessed.
    Priorities are for solving world hunger at the expense of basic and common sense priorities; like LAW ENFORCEMENT and a reliable WATER SYSTEM!

  4. blueridgeguvnor

    Mannheim is the worst Mayor AVL has ever had. I’ve never seen a more incompetent and callow City Government. Just a disgrace, the effects will be felt for years to come. Congratulations on destroying AVL !

  5. Mrs. J

    So much needs to be said about this that no one will say. Asheville has gone downhill since all of this started. The city and the people in it seem to forget that the economy is based on tourism. No tourists, no money, guess what folks people are not going to go to a place they do not feel safe. As Asheville turns into a place no one wants to go because there are no police and it’s so crime ridden and people sell those 500k homes for pennies on the dollar then what? Hen it’s too late, but you know what all those homeless tent people will have plenty of affordable handouts oh I mean housing. Can you blame these officers, Who the hell wants to work for a city that no one supports the police, not even their own boss The Chief. The Chief of Police in Asheville is just as guilty as the mayor, the citizens, and the city council for not standing up for his department but bowing to the pressure of all of the city leaders. He or she is not allowed to lead the department because if they lead as they seem fit and go against what the city wants they fire them, it’s no wonder they can’t keep one. The city has some BIG problems and it hasn’t even been a year time people wake up. It’s one thing to be Liberal it’s another to be stupid.

    • Angela

      Spot on! I’m what you would call an ancestral native of 14 generations, long before Asheville was even Mooresville. I have watched our lovely city go to Hell in a handbasket under this disgusting city council. So much so I have left Buncombe Co. because in my opinion it’s a lost cause. I didn’t vote for these people when I was a resident and I feel for those who also voted against this insane mayor & company. As for those who did vote for these people, enjoy! You get to own it and deserve all the b.s. Asheville has to offer.

  6. Robert Cummings

    Well….don’t people want to defund the police? Defund or dismantle law enforcement and crime will just go away, right. Asheville, you are getting what you asked for and deserve.

  7. bsummers

    Missing from all this is the fact that APD has always had a strong conservative contingent, who resent working for a progressive City leadership. Attempts to reform things away from the corrupt good-ol-boy system of the past, by various Councils and Chiefs over the years have met with dirty tricks, leaks, collaborating with GOP operatives like Chad Nesbitt etc. If there’s a problem with morale at APD, I promise you it’s not just a matter of pay and BLM protests.

    The fact that the people they swear to serve and protect decided to elect an all female, all Democratic Council may have been the last straw.

    • bsummers

      And don’t forget they have to answer to a Black woman as City Manager.

      “Well that’s just egregious, pardner!”

      • dyfed

        The Party would always succeed if it were not for the presence of so many kulaks and counterrevolutionaries amongst us!

        • bsummers

          If you like. I’m just saying there are large factors involved at APD that don’t get talked about much. If you want a successful police force, you might want to take a look at that.

          • dyfed

            Sure. Do you have any, y’know, ‘proof’ that the reason APD is demoralized, bleeding staff, and unable to fill positions is because they hate women and love to obstruct leftists? Something that isn’t ‘well, everyone knows’? Surely this isn’t just a bunch of hot-air accusations with nothing more than conspiratorial partisan animus and rumor to back it up, right?

        • Peter Robbins

          This is apparently a new thing amongst the local confederacy of dunces. They’re all on the lookout for the comminiss.

    • G Man

      So, it’s worse to be corrupt and conservative than it is to be corrupt and progressive?

  8. WNC

    Imagine that people who are task with enforcing the law believe in the law ( also know as being conservative).

    Imagine that people who want to only have our laws enforced on thee but not me ( also know as fascist, progressives etc.)

    If you want lawlessness try Newark NJ and similar areas around American. I think the workers comp rate would be high if you tried to make a living carjacking 2-3 cars at a time at stop signs in Buncombe County.

  9. Johnny D

    Finally, Some folks finally speaking the truth about this screwed up town. Definitely a lack of leadership. Put some of them in a patrol car and see how long they last with their passive attitudes against some nut jacked up on meth.
    Where the hell did everyone go? It is like a bunch of six year olds running the town. They all sell out for money, talk affordable housing, while they go on to Facebook and proclaim righteousness. tear down any historical site just for
    More expensive condos. I agree, this place has gone to hell.

  10. Hawkins Stan

    If your the one dialing 911; politics, property values, monuments, gender confusion, climate, and colors want much matter will it?

    • Peter Robbins

      All of the topics you list, Stan, have a public-safety aspect. They all contribute to a happier and more just community, and it’s easier to maintain order when you don’t have to rely entirely, or even primarily, on force. That’s what community policing — which for some self-defeating reason is now called “defund the police” — is all about. Or at least that’s what it was about before reality TV made paramilitary SWAT teams cool.

          • Stan Hawkins

            In my neck of the woods I hear the coyotes long before , and if I hear any sirens. A four hour response by police mentioned in the original post, did not remark on any volunteer “community policing” showing up at the Lofts in downtown Asheville.

            But, the good Lord gave me two ears for a reason, so I will accept your appeal to the senses.

          • Peter Robbins

            Of course, the story doesn’t mention community policing. Police don’t do it anymore. It was a once-popular strategy for police to coordinate with other agencies and secure enhanced public support. It has nothing to do with citizen volunteers assuming police jobs, if that’s what you were implying. Unfortunately, community policing went out of fashion when paramilitarism came into vogue. It’s time to bring the concept back to get better protection for the dollar. If you read the story carefully, you’ll find that Chief Zack supports the basic concept, but he warns that we shouldn’t expect it to result in lower spending on police right away.

  11. Feel The Burn

    In a way I would like to see Asheville defund the police and sit back and watch as it deteriorates into the cesspool of the Portlands and the San Franciscos. The problem is leftists scurry like cockroaches to the rural areas to flee the chaos they caused to begin with.

  12. Mike

    “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.” All one needs to know, right there in those two sentences. Those are ridiculously low wages for impossible work. Double them and retention would go up and it might be enough to attract the kind of professionals that are needed for modern policing which puts community engagement/ treatment first and enforcement second.

    Of course, we’d all have to pay more taxes to afford that- but that’s another discussion.

  13. BRO

    I’d love to see and hear a calm, rational approach to policing that is based in moderation. I’d love to see us better invest in policing by providing education beyond a 6 month course, and pay that is enough to be able to afford to live in the city should they wish. I’d like to see a system that moves towards true community policing – developing relationships with neighbors and neighborhoods, rather than seeing folks, especially Black folks, treated as potential criminals and dangerous suspects. I’d love to see a new approach to carrying guns, and honestly the mental health of the officers – as well as having mental health providers be part of certain response to community crises. Lastly, I’d like to see heavy recruitment for the police in communities of color.

  14. Roger

    What can one expect, after those whose “progressive” values have been hijacked by “regressive” partisans so full of hate and venom for past sins that all they can do is focus upon all the wrong ways to heal us of an “original sin” that “Northern Outsiders” want to blame completely upon the South, when in fact $.40 cents of every “king cotton” dollar went to enrich the industrial North. Yankees have their own version of Jim Crow but somehow fooled themselves into believing that they had nothing to do with inequality and other American sins they want to blame on everyone else but themselves. To them, “systemic racism” is not an American Sin, but a Southern Sin. How completely self-serving and backward could a partisan become before their ideology becomes too rotten to conceal the fallacy of it. Outsiders like Summers and Robbins are two of the most sanctimonious responders to this weekly paper, and their visceral attacks seem to me to be grounded in an effort to hide from their own inherent prejudices about race and historical fact. Shame on you for ignoring the real issues and for focusing upon the past instead of a future free of partisan hate and rot. I think the responders to this article have hit a nerve that deserves to be exposed for its partisan hatefulness and inherent wrongdoing. The one shining member of the present city council is a female of color native-born to Asheville and endowed with enough common sense to put the rest of council members to shame for their backward, regressive views about this City and its Citizens. Shame on the whole bunch of partisans who seem intent upon punishing us all for having a current, common sense view of these matters.

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