APD taking longer to respond to 911 calls despite policy change

Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack
RESPONSE TIME: Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack says it’s too soon to say why APD hasn't improved its 911 call response since ending in-person responses to certain minor crimes last June. Photo by Mark Barrett

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.”


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13 thoughts on “APD taking longer to respond to 911 calls despite policy change

  1. Mike Rains

    8.2 minutes to 9.0 minutes reduction in response time over one year. 40 seconds longer. Yawn, Folks this is literally statistically insignificant; particularly if you stop and think of the number of variables that can affect response times besides just lowered staffing. As Chief Zach correctly points out, things like traffic, weather, location of call, time of day of call all play a role in timing. If we were talking several to many minutes difference, you’d have my attention.

    Regarding APD currently, I strongly believe that Chief Zach has done an amazing job managing and changing APD from the pitifully led force under “Chief” Tammy Hooper and some of those before her. Zach is a “cops cop” and also knows how to manage.
    Violent crimes have indeed been reduced and there has been a concerted effort to take these armed sociopaths (mainly drug dealers) off the streets. I only wish the courts would play a stronger role in sentencing. Regarding the lesser crimes of larceny, car theft, aggravated assault etc. , the removal of these homeless camps around the city during the pandemic have helped reduce those numbers somewhat.

    Finally, anyone that thinks crime is going to recede in the future is in denial. This country continues to get worse with respect to law and order and I don’t see that changing. We need those additional officer positions filled and we need to support our well qualified hard working police chief and his force.

    • Mark Barrett

      It’s not my role in this to debate the significance of the decline in 911 response times from a law enforcement perspective. Different people will have different thoughts and that’s OK.

      But from a purely statistical perspective, a 9.8% increase in response time is not “literally statistically insignificant.” The number of calls is in the thousands,. Although not all get a response, it’s still a large sample size.

      By the way, your math is off a bit. The difference between 9.0 minutes and 8.2 minutes is 48 seconds. (One tenth of a minute is 6 seconds.) I’m not suggesting that’s a big problem, just trying to clear up a misunderstanding.

  2. octobia

    This article doesn’t address the possibility that many of us have stopped calling the police for “minor crimes” because we know they won’t come and when you call them they tell you there is nothing they can do. It raises the question: what are they good for? In Texas we found out they’re no good for active shooter situations in elementary schools. In Illinois we found out they can’t keep you safe at a parade. A young black man found out they can riddle you with 60+ bullets (and 30 misses). Tell me again that the police are our friends!

    • Mike Rains

      Ok. The police are our friends and we need them. We do need a professional force. They need to be paid better than they are for the dangerous work they are asked to do. You cherry pick several recent instances (which are easy to judge from the sidelines), but there are so many more of instances where dedicated police officers help maintain safety and order.

      However, police cannot do it all. As a society, we have to have a stronger bias towards tougher sentencing and we do need much stronger mental health support for those in our society struggling with that.

    • Mark Barrett

      I did look into the question of whether people are less likely to call police. It is possible that some people didn’t make calls for minor incidents in the period after the change was announced.

      However, I did a spot check of reporting of some common crimes potentially affected by the policy and didn’t find a trend one way or another. Violent crimes were not affected by the policy change and the number of them them reported fell also.

      Keep in mind the periods the story compares, June 2020-May 2021 and June 2021-May 2022. It seems unlikely that people’s confidence in police and willingness to report crimes would have caused an 18.2% decrease in reported property crimes of all types over such a short span of time.

      And, remember that George Floyd died in late May 2020, just before the beginning of the first period. Nationally, that resulted in a drop in confidence in police as measured by Gallup in the summer of 2020. Confidence increased some in 2021. Whether attitudes locally fit that pattern is hard to say, but it’s hard to imagine that confidence in police during the summer of 2021 — and thus, willingness to call about minor crimes — would be a lot less in the second period than in the first.

  3. G Man

    ” 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%.”

    This kind of stuff keeps me from finishing the article. How do “three categories” include the four categories listed? …and why is rape a “lower-priority call”?

    Save the lies and the damn lies, load us up on statistics!

    • Mike Rains

      Presumably these are considered lower priority NOT because they may not be severe, but because they have already occurred and the perpetrator is long gone. I doubt too many rape calls are made during the act, but I’m sure a quick response would occur in that situation.

  4. Grant Millin

    It isn’t wrong to report on public safety trends; but introducing the 1990s and just saying, “Crime rates in Asheville have still not reached levels seen as recently as the 1990s.” …leaves a gap. There’s been some population increase—and a WHOLE lot more tourists come here since 1992. Tourists may or may not commit some of the Asheville crimes to a substantive level. I have yet to see anyone look into that issue.

    As part of the Asheville Public Safety Strategy I’ve called for we can expect an analysis that goes back to 1990. But I asked for a 20 year analysis of all crimes. Starting with 2002 will give Asheville citizens enough perspective without a longer 30 year graph. The amount of context should be significant; but not excessive.

    But overall if Buncombe 911 is staying close to answering calls within ten seconds, but that means more overtime, that means human beings doing lots of high stress work without slack in the system. APD patrol officers and detectives getting sort of a break with sending ‘low level’ crimes to a web form may seem like an answer to APD ‘slack in the system.’ The idea of ‘slack in the system’ isn’t about APD staff not working hard enough. Just applying more and more pressure on them could be a few things besides really reimagining public safety.

    But probably no one knows what the number APD Police to Citizen tool submissions has been and what the clearance rate is. A crime there may be a count of the forms… or maybe its how many forms APD officers process and then an actual crime is confirmed. I really don’t know.


    I was using Simplicity to look at crime within a mile of the East Asheville Ramada Inn. Since Sunrise closed there’s been a downward trend. It’s not a huge reversal though.

    The number of Asheville homicides this year is not a downward trend. There probably won’t be a big drop in Illegally Manufactured Fentanyl (IMF) deaths. If people think IMF should be decriminalized and the resulting deaths and casualties be written off as ‘victimless crime’, I suppose that’s another idea.

    I think starting with framing Asheville public safety issues as based in ‘maybe overblown fears’ and Grace Barron-Martinez helping the rest of us figure that out doesn’t give a full local perspective. There should be in-depth reporting on what the Asheville Public Safety Strategy needs to look at and what the desired outcomes from different local constituency perspectives.

    In the meantime, we can all take public safety more seriously it seems like. It is VERY improbable Asheville has experienced a major positive crime situational transformation. It is probable that fewer APD patrol units being available within the area of a 911 call has impact.

    One is impact is deterrence. EVERYONE should be in agreement that APD showing up after a crime has been committed is not nearly as awesome as deterring criminals from recommitting… and even better… keeping as many folks as possible from ever committing a crime is an ideal outcome for the Asheville Public Safety Strategy. And messaging can be part of that as we figure out:

    1. The necessary size of APD

    2. The desired size of APD

    3. The actual size of APD in variance to the desired and necessary size.

    It’s really weird to have to spell out how confused the situation really is and what to do instead. I would hope Asheville gets it together on how big a deal this all is.

    • Mike Rains

      I’m sorry, but you are “way overthinking” this. Essentially leading to paralysis by analysis. Violent (gun related) crime is out of control throughout our country, Asheville included. This makes policing ever more dangerous at a time when more resources are needed.

  5. R.G.

    Tourists definitely do commit crimes. And we have yet to learn the truth about the felony drug possession and subsequent overdoses by Floridians at the Grove Park back in February. Realizing that there is always more to the story/investigation that can’t yet be made public, I have been waiting and waiting for the mayor, the police, the fire department and/or the Grove Park Inn to make a very public statement to the effect that…Asheville is not a drug destination and that tourists will face the same penalties as will any member of the community, regardless of stature, allies, money, or race.

  6. Lou

    Any police department run by good old boys is done. They do not care about us. SCOTUS even said they are not obligated to protect us. Imma quit paying taxes, nothing I want to see happen is happening. They are all dragging us back into the middle ages. DONE.

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