When the Asheville Police Department announced in June 2021 that it would no longer send officers to the scenes of certain minor crimes because of a staffing shortage, it fueled fears that the city was steadily becoming less safe.
Those fears may have been overblown. More than a year after the policy change, the overall number of crimes reported in the city has actually fallen. The number of reported violent crimes in Asheville in the 12 months after the change was down 9.3% compared with the 12 months that preceded it, an Xpress analysis of APD figures found. Reported property crimes fell 18.2% over the same period.
While that potential downside of the policy hasn’t emerged, neither has its intended benefit. APD had stated that its goal was “to improve response times for emergency calls made to 911.” Instead, response times increased from an average of 8.2 minutes for the highest-priority calls (crimes like homicide, armed robbery or domestic violence) in the 12 months before the shift to 9 minutes in the 12 months after. Response times also rose for three categories of lower-priority calls, which include incidents such as rape, kidnapping, breaking and entering, and motorist assistance, with increases ranging from 13.2% to 26.3%.
APD Chief David Zack says the department has made progress in arresting perpetrators of gun-related crime after dissolving a team of officers focused on drug crime and starting one concentrating on violence. That, he said, has lowered the number of new violent crimes reported. He says it’s too soon to say why APD’s response to 911 calls hasn’t improved at the same time, but he argues that the slower response times don’t indicate that ending in-person responses to lower-priority calls was a mistake.
“Where would we be had we not made the change? … I can’t tell you, but I can tell you it would probably be worse than what the numbers are currently,” he says.
To critics of the department and its budget, such as West Asheville resident Grace Barron-Martinez, the drop in crime after the policy change is another piece of evidence indicating that it’s possible to redirect police funding for other city services without negative public impact. She believes the announcement of the change was part of a strategy to fend off cuts in spending on police.
“They said that to scare people, and it worked,” she says. APD’s announcement came three weeks before City Council adopted city government’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year; that budget called for $29.26 million in police spending, down only slightly from the $29.29 million budgeted for the department in fiscal year 2020-21. In an effort to bolster police recruitment, Council also approved a pay increase for beginning officers of more than 20% as part of the 2021-22 budget, bringing their starting wage to about $45,000 per year.
Zack counters that the policy change was made “solely to improve response times for the highest-priority calls” because a loss of officers was already creating problems.
“APD could come up with a cure for cancer, and those same individuals would criticize us for it,” he says.
Focused on the worst
APD is authorized to have 238 police officers, but only 184 of those slots were filled as of late June, says department spokesperson Bill Davis. He notes that the department lost 59 employees in 2020, a figure that includes both officers and civilian workers, and 39 in 2021.
Zack says the APD staffing situation was similar in June 2021, when the decision not to send officers to certain incidents was announced. The list of crimes affected by the policy change tends toward those in which damage is relatively minor and the chance of apprehending a suspect is low, or in which an officer’s physical presence will probably make less of a difference to the outcome. Examples include fraud and — if suspect information is lacking — offenses like theft from a motor vehicle, thefts of less than $1,000 in value and minor property damage.
An officer not responding in person, Zack emphasizes, does not mean that a crime will not be investigated. The APD asks residents to continue reporting these incidents online at avl.mx/brk or by calling 828-252-1110.
Nonetheless, if all other factors remained equal, the decline in both crimes and in-person trips to crime scenes would have presumably reduced APD’s workload. So, if the number of officers available is roughly the same as a year ago and reported crime has decreased, why was the policy shift followed by longer 911 response times instead of shorter ones?
Zack says that’s not clear: “You can’t make instant analysis.”
He and other APD employees say there could be several possible reasons for slower responses. Asheville and Buncombe County governments consolidated their 911 services in January, they say, and that combined call center is also short staffed. The location of crimes during a given period could make a difference, Zack says, noting that APD analyzes crime data to determine where best to position officers.
The COVID-19 pandemic may also play a role, says Deputy Chief James “Jim” Baumstark. The number of vehicles on the road has increased as worries about the coronavirus fade, he notes, potentially meaning officers have more wrecks and other traffic-related incidents to deal with. Police may also have to navigate more traffic when responding to 911 calls.
The department was unable to provide figures on how many incidents to which officers no longer respond have occurred since the policy change, how that may have changed from prior years and what percentage of those incidents have resulted in arrest.
Michael Lusick, an executive with the FIRC Group, which owns downtown hotels and other property, says APD officers “do a phenomenal job.” But, saying he is speaking only on his own behalf and not for his employer, he adds that he has noticed a decline in service.
Lusick, who appeared before City Council recently to back spending on police, says the issues appear to relate to staffing shortages. “We’re used to a certain level of service and support as citizens and businesspeople,” he says. “[Police] used to be there really very quickly. It’s just not the same as it used to be.”
Who ya gonna send?
Other police departments have made changes like Asheville’s due to a shortage of employees.
“Agencies across the nation have been forced to prioritize calls, and in many cities, this has led to nonresponse to certain types of crimes,” says Christopher Marier, a professor of criminology at Appalachian State University. “This is not unique to Asheville, and it is not unique historically.”
Marier says many law enforcement agencies “acknowledge this is unsustainable” and are offering incentives to lure new employees. “Far from defunding the police, cities and counties across the country have substantially increased public safety budgets,” he says.
Damon Williams, head of the police force at N.C. Central University in Durham and president of the N.C. Association of Police Chiefs, said Zack is one of several police chiefs around the state who have made similar moves to eliminate some officer responses.
“Do I think it is ideal? No. You want to see a police officer in front of you” after reporting a crime, Williams says. “Certainly the departments in North Carolina are experiencing critical shortages of officers, and I would define it as a crisis in law enforcement.”
He notes that several North Carolina cities have asked state legislators for the authority to send civilian employees to investigate some traffic accidents instead of sworn police officers. Julie Mayfield, a Democrat who represents Asheville in the state Senate, sponsored a bill that would grant that power to the city May 2. The General Assembly didn’t pass that measure or a handful of similar bills affecting some other cities during its recently concluded short session.
Officials in Asheville and other cities have suggested that public criticism and scrutiny of police, particularly in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis officer in 2020, is a major factor in the departure of officers. Marier, who has researched police attitudes, is skeptical. He says officers “have always felt unfairly maligned by the public” and that staff shortages nowadays are mostly caused by the same broad economic and demographic trends that have employers scrambling to find workers in fields ranging from firefighting to teaching.
It takes about 14 months from the time someone signs up to be an APD officer to the point where that recruit is fully functional on the job, department officials say. Zack says the department is close to stabilizing the staffing situation. But, he emphasizes, that’s not the same as being fully staffed: “This staffing crisis is going to continue for years, not weeks or months.”