About nine months after a proposed collaboration between the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and Asheville Police Department never materialized to address public safety concerns downtown, BCSO has launched its own initiative in the Central Business District.
Inspired by a September letter from downtown businesses, which spurred numerous meetings between business owners and county leaders, Sheriff Quentin Miller deputized Chief Deputy Herbert Blake to put together a proposal to return deputies downtown on weekend nights. Patrols started Jan. 26 and are currently scheduled to run through June on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 p.m.-2 a.m.
Miller’s focus is to make sure the community is safe, he says. “We’re going downtown because we’ve been asked by the business owners and employees to come in.”
Meanwhile, it’s been seven months since a 60-day pilot program by the Asheville Police Department sought to improve safety and cleanliness downtown. Business owners told city and county leaders that conditions worsened after the pilot ended, even though the city said it transitioned to an ongoing effort starting July 1.
“In the absence of significant progress, the city has fallen short in its duty and responsibility to its residents and neighborhoods. This requires rededication and realignment of proper appropriations to fund an increased public safety presence and urgent need to help protect our community,” wrote William Dissen, owner of The Market Place restaurant in a letter signed by the owners of more than 30 downtown businesses in September.
Dissen declined to comment further for this story. Mayfel’s owner Anthony Coggiola, who also signed the letter, says safety issues reemerged after the city’s pilot program ended June 25.
“The issue is very difficult for us; it’s very difficult to maintain safety and security for our staff and also our patrons. People that come in, whether they be locals or tourists, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “It had just gotten to a point where it was really bad. And this is the community, business owners, property owners and staff. We all kind of got together and tried to make our voice heard.”
While the September letter was addressed to Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Manager Debra Campbell and members of the Asheville City Council, its message also reached the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, including Chair Brownie Newman.
After hearing from business owners, Newman approached Miller in search of a solution, Miller says, leading to a series of meetings between BCSO personnel and owners and workers of downtown businesses.
“I think it’s important that the downtown [community] is inclusive in finding the solution. I’m excited about those opportunities to communicate. I’m excited [that] it seems that everyone is wanting to be at the table to find a solution,” Miller says.
Coggiola said he was grateful the Sheriff’s Office entered the conversation seeking solutions, and he was especially impressed with Donnie Parks, a former Hendersonville police chief and instructor at the N.C. Justice Academy, who has been consulting with Miller on a part-time basis since being hired last April.
“He’s just an outstanding gentleman. His ability to listen and to problem-frame, to move toward a solution. He has a method that he uses that is quite effective,” Coggiola says.
For Miller, collaboration with all stakeholders is pivotal.
“The plan is to keep them involved in finding solutions. But it’s also about collaborating with the Police Department and other entities, if you will, to assist us in finding a holistic solution,” Miller says.
Collaboration between the county’s two largest law enforcement agencies has been rocky at times over the last year, at least when it comes to downtown.
BCSO began conducting a 30-day initiative downtown on April 14 last year, with plans to coordinate with APD for a “highly visible and unified law enforcement presence,” but a summary report from the Sheriff’s Office in June revealed that collaboration didn’t happen.
“While the initiative could be deemed successful in its goal to identify the ‘root cause’ for the existence of crime and other problems or issues in the downtown Central Business District, the collaboration and partnership between the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and the Asheville Police Department unfortunately did not occur,” the report states.
“Both agencies had a downtown presence; however, only the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office was present in the target area. Both the Sheriff’s Office and Asheville Police Department were situated in the downtown business district; however, they were in separate parts of the downtown area. There was no true partnership or collaboration between the two agencies.”
Then-APD Chief David Zack later disputed the BCSO report about collaboration, both in an interview with Asheville Watchdog and in an October presentation to Asheville City Council.
“Unfortunately, the recent communication from BCSO suggesting APD did not want support from them was both disappointing and inaccurate,” according to an APD presentation on public safety given Oct. 10.
Zack abruptly resigned from the department Dec. 15, and while Miller doesn’t directly blame him for the interdepartmental friction, his tone about future collaboration is more optimistic.
“I like looking forward. I like to hit the reset button, if you will. [Let’s] look through the front windshield and not the rearview mirror. … I don’t think going backward is going to assist us to find the solutions that our community needs.” Miller says.
“We are now talking about interim Chief [Mike Lamb]. And we’ve agreed that our staff will get together and sit down and have meetings [about what] it means for us to move forward. We’re scheduling meetings so that we can meet and have those conversations.”
Samantha Booth, spokesperson for APD, said meetings between Lamb and Miller have been productive in the month or so since Zack’s resignation.
“The Asheville Police Department recognizes the importance and welcomes a collaboration with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office to address public safety needs in the downtown area. We can implement effective strategies by sharing the necessary resources to address public safety needs by working together,” she says.
Miller stresses that it is not his intention to orchestrate a “takeover” of jurisdictions inside Asheville.
“The collaboration with APD is important to me, that we work together in finding positive solutions.”
Sheriff’s 2024 approach
Miller says generally, collaboration between county and municipal law enforcement offices is not uncommon.
After last year’s efforts, Miller visited Wilmington to observe a collaborative effort between the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and Wilmington Police Department, he says.
Those two agencies created a downtown task force in 2011 to provide “proactive policing to address issues and create a safer environment for the public by reducing crime,” according to the Wilmington Police Department website.
“The Downtown Task Force utilizes mounted patrol, foot patrols, bike patrols, Segway patrols, as well as vehicle patrols, to accomplish these goals and build working relationships with residents in the community, business owners and their employees, and regular patrons to the area,” according to the website.
Using that as a model, Miller envisions creating regular patrol teams downtown consisting of a BCSO deputy and APD officer to show a unified presence in the Central Business District.
In his proposal for the current patrols, Miller detailed two financial alternatives to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 16, dependent on a partnership with APD. He projected it would cost BCSO $88,000 to conduct the patrols independently for 26 week,s or $56,000 working together with APD, meaning a deputy would team with an officer for patrols. Commissioners approved the latter. It remains unclear how a funding gap would be made up if a partnership never materializes.
The initiative is paid for with excess funds originally slated for the BCSO school resource officer program. The reallocation will not affect that program or any other sheriff’s activities. Deputies sign up for the downtown patrols voluntarily and are paid $75 an hour in overtime pay.
Included in the program is pay for a monitor in the office’s Real-Time Intelligence Center, where officers will watch public and privately owned cameras whose access has been shared with BCSO and share any suspicious activity with the deputies on patrol.
The priority of the patrols is to prevent crime and repeat offenses through an established presence, not necessarily to make arrests, Miller says.
“Deputies will take the action most likely to reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses by those breaking the law. Action on the part of deputies will range from arrests, citations, to seeking assistance from trained medical and mental health professionals in order to triage certain individuals when appropriate. Deputies will arrest and hold offenders accountable for any unlawful conduct where, in the deputy’s discretion, arrest is appropriate,” according to its written proposal.
BCSO’s initial proposal outlined much more beyond downtown patrols, detailing a modified policing strategy — described as an extension to its existing co-responder model that prioritizes providing care over arrests when possible.
The wide-ranging proposal stems from BCSO’s evaluation of its initial downtown pilot last spring, in which the office identified three primary root causes of increased crime downtown: a lack of an appreciable law enforcement presence downtown, including a lack of collaboration between law enforcement agencies; a lack of adequate housing, clinical treatment and rehabilitative services for the homeless population; and a lack of collaboration among all the stakeholders attempting to serve the homeless.
While BCSO’s downtown patrols will help address the first issue, the other two identify deeper community issues that will require collaboration across many organizations to thoroughly address, the proposal acknowledges.
For its part, BCSO has hired Kendra Queen to act as project manager to help expand the sheriff’s existing co-responder model to a full-time, countywide approach, says spokesperson Aaron Sarver. That includes coordinating its Crisis Intervention Team training program, which teaches first responders about mental health issues and deescalation skills, he adds. Queen previously worked for Buncombe County in the Justice Services Department.
Miller hopes the co-responder model, along with further coordination among law enforcement agencies, mental health practitioners and homeless services organizations, including the Asheville-Buncombe Continuum of Care, will work toward a more holistic, long-term solution to downtown crime.
This part of the proposal has a long way to go before implementation, though, so for now Miller is looking forward to seeing results from the downtown patrols. He says he expects to release data and an assessment of the patrols by the end of April.