A proposal to hire three new detectives at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office divided the county Board of Commissioners on July 21 — and not just along party lines. Democrats Amanda Edwards and Al Whitesides joined the board’s three Republicans in a 5-2 vote approving the move, which would match a $375,000 federal grant with $734,000 in county funds through fiscal year 2025.
Two of the new positions, explained Democratic Sheriff Quentin Miller in a presentation to the board, would be undercover narcotics detectives targeting the “large-scale drug trafficking corridors” that run through Asheville to urban centers such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Knoxville. The remaining hire would primarily investigate arson cases, of which the county has solved fewer than a third since 2015.
Board Chair Brownie Newman, a Democrat, said he was confident that Miller and his force would “be able to hold some additional people accountable” with the new resources. But he questioned whether further enforcement would be the most effective approach for the department, especially regarding opioid trafficking.
“We’ve been fighting this war on drugs for forever, and I’m skeptical that it’s the best investment of our dollars, frankly,” Newman said. “There’s a lot of different strategies that we need to be pursuing to tackle it; we don’t have enough treatment.”
After Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara said she would oppose the funding, Republican Anthony Penland, who is running against her for the same District 2 board seat in November, challenged his colleagues to ride along with a deputy and watch enforcement in action. Beach-Ferrara countered that she had done so with not only the Sheriff’s Office, but also the Asheville and Charlotte police departments.
“I would respectfully ask that, in the future, you consider that your colleagues on commission have done their due diligence and are taking a very deep dive into one of the most critical policy issues of our time,” she admonished Penland. “We need to move past a very tired script in which if you have a conversation where you disagree, it means you’re anti-law enforcement.”
Meanwhile, Edwards said that she had been prepared to vote against the measure but changed her stance after talking with the families of county residents impacted by opioids. “A vote for this is not a vote against reform,” she emphasized, adding that she would continue to speak with the sheriff about implementing 21st-Century Policing and other changes.
Following the vote, the commissioners read numerous messages related to law enforcement as part of the board’s general public comment period. The overwhelming majority, including “several dozen” emails and voicemails that Newman condensed into a single message due to their similarity, demanded that Buncombe officials defund the Sheriff’s Office and detention center by at least 50% and reinvest the money into community services.
Those messages were consistent with over a dozen comments delivered during the county’s June 16 budget hearing, as well as thousands of comments received by Asheville City Council calling for the Asheville Police Department to be defunded. Community demands for systemic changes to law enforcement have escalated in recent months following racial justice protests throughout Western North Carolina catalyzed by the May 25 police killing of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd.