Shared concerns about crime and an understaffed Asheville Police Department fostered an unusual alliance in today’s partisan times. An advocacy group called Asheville Coalition for Public Safety formed in October, bringing together community members of all political stripes who are concerned about crime, mental health, drug use and the unhoused population.
Step one to solving these issues, the group believes, is to entice more people to become Asheville police officers.
ACPS says higher pay and appreciation from the community are the carrots needed to attract new hires to start their careers in Asheville and keep current officers from leaving for other municipalities. The group doesn’t have a mission statement, says co-chair Honor Moor, but its goal is to “support the Asheville police force and other first responders.”
APD has 96 open positions, which is 40% below its capacity, according to spokesperson Samantha Booth. The department has 142 sworn officers and four recruits in basic law enforcement training, Booth says.
In a 2021 Xpress article on APD staffing woes, starting salary was one reason cited for shortages. Two former APD officers also cited a lack of public-facing support from APD Chief David Zack and City Manager Debra Campbell during incidents when the APD was under scrutiny and reassigning officers with specialized training to lower-level beat positions to compensate for the diminished force.
Other high-profile incidents that have led to tension among some Asheville residents and the APD include the destruction of water bottles in a medic station by officers during a 2020 protest and disputes surrounding a demonstration in Aston Park in 2021 where several people were arrested. The latter incident in particular galvanized some ACPS members.
“We could see that the Police Department had taken a lot of negative publicity,” says Moor. “There was a lot of negativity surrounding the Police Department and lack of support from the public in the past 2 1/2 years.”
In September, Fox News alleged that Asheville had experienced a large increase in violent crime in the previous five years, but data published by Xpress counters its claim. Nevertheless, the perception persists that crime and litter in Asheville, especially downtown, have increased, prompting a 60-day downtown safety initiative on May 1 that includes assigning more law enforcement downtown and adding more cleanups of litter, syringes and biological waste.
Karen Ramshaw, who has spent three decades overseeing property management for Public Interest Projects, a real estate developer behind numerous downtown venues including The Orange Peel and Malaprop’s, says, “I think we’re having a community come-to-Jesus [moment]. At some point, you have to pay for what you say you value.”
‘Elephant in the living room’
Moor describes herself as a longtime Democrat and started the Facebook groups The North Report, for North Asheville, and WNC Common Ground, which seeks to unite individuals of similar beliefs. Co-chair Bailey Stockwell, who describes herself as an independent, runs a conservative-leaning Facebook group East Asheville for Safety and Truth, or EAST, and has participated in the Oakley Neighborhood Association. She has also appeared as a guest on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” discussing Asheville’s crime.
The two women met during the 2022 campaign season; they also knew each other through Facebook. Stockwell says she’s been advocating for APD on EAST, which she created for East Asheville residents. But the group’s focus continually landed on the temporary homeless shelter at the Ramada Inn River Ridge Plaza. Stockwell and Moor discussed creating ACPS to “be the louder voice than the ones who are always up [speaking during public comment at City Council meetings] talking negatively about APD,” Stockwell says.
They arranged a meeting at Green Sage Cafe on Merrimon Avenue and invited residents who had similar concerns about crime. The 15 people who came to its first meeting “felt like there was a proverbial elephant in the living room in Asheville with the growing vagrancy problem that we could all see no matter what neighborhood we lived in,” Moor says.
According to its email list, ACPS supporters include residents, downtown business owners, former Buncombe County Tourism Development Advisory Board member Himanshu Karvir, real estate broker and former 2022 City Council candidate Alex Cobb, Joe Brumit of Brumit Restaurant Group, which operates Arby’s restaurants in the Southeast, and Clarissa Hyatt-Zack, a real estate broker and wife of the police chief.
“This was not a group of people who are what you would call typical activists,” Moor explains. The group usually has 15-17 attendees at each of its quarterly meetings, Moor says noting a recent meeting attracted 50 people.
APD Community Engagement Division Capt. Mike Lamb has attended several ACPS meetings at its invitation. He tells Xpress that attendees inquire about crime trends, staffing and recruitment.
“Their questions are not unlike a lot of the other questions we get from community groups and stakeholder groups,” Lamb says. “They’re concerned about police presence and a lack thereof.”
In addition to speaking with law enforcement, members of ACPS also met with the leader of a local harm reduction group, which seeks to minimize problems caused by substance use, such as distributing clean syringes and the overdose reversal drug Narcan. Steady Collective Executive Director Peyton O’Connor says she met five ACPS members at a coffee shop in Weaverville to answer questions.
“One of the concerns that came up during the conversation was about the syringe litter all around town,” O’Connor explained. She shared with ACPS members how Steady Collective’s syringe exchange works and about syringe disposal units. “One of the things I was able to talk about is that it’s not necessarily malicious when people find a syringe on the ground.”
She adds, “I was really touched that they were receptive to hearing about the work that we do.”
‘Support them, hold them accountable’
Gary Woods, an Asheville resident since 1979, believes criminals are aware that APD’s staffing is lower than usual. And they’re taking advantage of it.
Woods regularly watches City Council meetings on YouTube, and says he became aware of ACPS when its members advocated for the APD during a public comment session. “Their beliefs aligned with mine,” Woods says. He and his husband have “a few friends on the Police Department,” and he describes those friends as feeling frustrated with their jobs. “They say ‘we’re being held by the sins of my father,’” Woods says, “In a way, it’s true.”
Woods is concerned about crime in Asheville, which he thinks has increased. Woods says he has “noticed a significant increase in vandalism, a significant increase in aggressive behavior by panhandlers and a significant increase in vandalism out here in the Biltmore Park area.”
He’s been at ACPS meetings attended by Western Carolina Rescue Mission Executive Director Michael Woods (no relation) and City Councilmember Maggie Ullman. He also attended a City Council meeting to speak in support of those “willing to risk their life for the protection of mine.”
Woods from ACPS is African American. “Have I had bad experiences with law enforcement? Absolutely. But that’s not all law enforcement,” he says. Woods recalls the sensitivity responding APD officers showed him when his mother died unexpectedly. “They brought along the chaplain, and they could not have been more comforting,” he says.
Woods continues that he’d like to see an emphasis on accountability for “bad behavior without vilifying the entire police department and those that honorably serve,” he tells Xpress. “The popular misconception is APD can do no wrong with [ACPS], and that’s not the case. We’re all about accountability. But support them and hold them accountable.”
‘Standing in support of police’
Throughout the 2023-24 budget season, ACPS members attended City Council and Environment & Safety Committee meetings to show support of APD, according to Moor. (The Environment & Safety Committee was named the Public Safety Committee; the name changed in January.) The goal was to show “increased support from citizens,” Stockwell writes in an email.
The group recently expressed disappointment in the APD budget increase proposed by Campbell, the city manager. The 2023-24 budget proposal to Asheville City Council would allocate an additional $3.7 million to the Asheville Police Department, including a 6% increase for new officers. In an email to Xpress, Moor called the 6% proposed wage increase “pathetic.”
Moor also wrote to City Council members: “We thought you all would at least get to $50,000 entry level,” Moor wrote. “It is our hope you all consider returning to the budget to give an increase that will move the needle in hiring back the missing APD officers.” She described the salary increase as “not enough to incentivize people to work in one of the most expensive places to live in North Carolina.”
ACPS also pushes back against what it sees as unfair or unhelpful criticism of the department in the media. “Our hope is to encourage better rhetoric toward policing locally, to support pay raises for police and first responders, therefore improving recruitment and retainment, and encouraging local leaders to feel comfortable standing in support of police and the job they do for the city every day,” Stockwell writes in an email.
In April, Stockwell wrote a letter to the editor of Xpress criticizing the city of Asheville for sponsoring 103.3 Asheville FM — “a station that promotes a ‘weekly anarchist show’ with what appears to be a very anti-police agenda. … We believe the city of Asheville should avoid sponsoring a show that attacks another very important city staff department,” she wrote. [Read more at avl.mx/cpw]
Stockwell also wrote on behalf of ACPS to Asheville Citizen Times executive editor Karen Chávez and reporter Joel Burgess, criticizing what the group perceives was biased reporting on the arrest of Devon Whitmire, a Black man, by white police officers. “I have posted your article on several platforms and pages asking people to cancel their subscription,” Stockwell wrote. “You owe this city an apology for the article you put out and are in constant journalism ethics violation.”
‘Be part of the change’
Woods, from the faith-based Western Carolina Rescue Mission on Patton Avenue, spoke at an ACPS meeting in April. He spoke to the ACPS because “I am very pro-law enforcement,” he tells Xpress, and believes Asheville has “a minority of our population talking about defunding the police and talking about law enforcement in a negative way [and] their voice is the prevailing voice.”
Woods says he spoke to the group about crime downtown, how trauma impacts behavioral health and his thoughts on ending homelessness. He has been fielding questions via email from community members since speaking at the ACPS meeting, he says.
“I came away from it feeling hopeful because of the number of people there that realize there is an issue and want to be part of the change,” Woods says. “We have to want to be the change.”
Update, June 8, 7 p.m.: This article has been updated with Gary Woods’ views on police accountability.
Do you have more to add to this story? Contact the author at jwakeman [at] mountainx.com.