On most nights, Lt. Matthew Kiser of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office has 12-14 officers per shift patrolling the department’s 656-square-mile jurisdiction.
“And that’s [on] a good night, folks,” he told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners and members of the audience during the board’s March 5 meeting.
In an effort to address what he sees as the department’s needs, which include increasing the number of patrol officers, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller asked the board for additional funding to pay for 21 new positions and to increase the number of vehicles that the county replaces annually. The Sheriff’s Office estimates that its requests would create a recurring annual expense of about $3.2 million.
These changes, Miller said, would be part of an effort to enhance 21st Century Policing practices within the sheriff’s department, a model that emphasizes trust between law enforcement agencies and the public.
“As a 25-year veteran of law enforcement, I’ve witnessed the highs and lows of this profession and, unfortunately, I think we’re in a valley right now,” Miller said at the beginning of this presentation. “I’m going to describe a portion of my vision to come out of the valley.”
Because this was not a formal budget request, commissioners did not vote on whether to allocate the requested funds.
While there has been little change in the number of patrol positions over past years, the sheriff’s department notes there has been steady growth in the county’s population and the number of tourists visiting the area. “We’re having a hard time keeping up,” Kiser said.
Miller wants to add eight patrol deputies and a crime prevention sergeant, additions that he said would increase patrol coverage from 12-14 officers per shift to 14-16 officers per shift.
He also wants to hire an evidence room technician. The county sheriff’s department has 31,000 pieces of evidence and two full-time employees to manage it, Miller said in his presentation. In contrast, he added, the Asheville Police Department has five full-time and four part-time employees overseeing the evidence and property room.
The county sheriff’s department considers roughly 33 percent of its evidence to be “high-profile” — cash, drugs and guns. Having just two people on staff, the department says, prevents the office from following the “two-person rule,” a best practice in handling valuable evidence, especially when one of those employees are out sick or on vacation.
For the county detention center, Miller wants to add four intake specialists and one detention facility detective. Lt. Jeffrey Littrell, who oversees operations at the facility, said intake specialists help prevent contraband from entering the detention center and evaluate whether new inmates have ingested alcohol or drugs.
Intake specialists also question an inmate’s arresting officer, asking whether the arrestee has been combative or has said anything to indicate that he or she might be suicidal.
A detention facility detective would investigate assaults on officers, which Littrell said have increased, and any reports of inmates possessing contraband. “If they choose to come into our facility and … conduct criminal activity and assault our officers, we want to be able to prosecute them to the full extent of the law and hold them accountable,” he said.
Miller also wants to add a technology officer, a policy analyst, a sergeant overseeing professional standards, a community outreach lieutenant and two community outreach advocates.
The department estimated these new positions would require an initial investment of about $1.27 million. This figure, Miller said, could be covered in part by $315,000 in federal housing revenue, payment the department receives from the federal government for housing inmates.
If the commissioners approve all of these requests, filling the new positions would cost the county about $1.6 million annually, which would increase the Sheriff’s Office budget by 4 percent over its current fiscal year budget.
The Sheriff’s Office currently has 267 vehicles in its fleet. The department classifies 144 of those vehicles as “priority one,” which include marked and unmarked vehicles that the department uses to respond to calls for service and other enforcement roles.
Pointing to a recent survey conducted by the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association and the FBI, Sheri Powers, the business officer for the sheriff’s department, said it is standard practice among law enforcement agencies to replace priority-one vehicles that have accumulated 80,000-100,000 miles.
The Sheriff’s Office currently has 48 priority-one vehicles with more than 120,000 miles on their odometer and 14 vehicles with more than 150,000 miles, Powers said.
“This deviates from best practice and was an obvious area of need for the sheriff in the way of safety and providing the services county residents expect of the Sheriff’s Office,” she said.
The department wants Buncombe County to provide about $1.6 million annually to allow the department to replace 40 vehicles per year.
“Historically we have been underfunded in that area,” Powers said. “Over the years we’ve had between 12 and 26 vehicles replaced over an annual basis, [which] sort of compounded the effect on out fleet today.”
Time to consider
Commissioners have a few months before they vote in June on the fiscal year 2020 budget. Board Chair Brownie Newman asked Miller whether it’s likely that his department will identify more funding needs between now and then.
“I think there will be other things,” Miller said, depending on what his staff hear from people in the community.
Commissioner Joe Belcher said constituents in his district want to see more patrols. “When I hear from the public when I’m out in the community, a lot of the things that you’re requesting flies over the top of their head,” he said. “They want more presence.”
Newman cautioned that the board probably wouldn’t be able to get to everything funded “at one bite of the apple,” but also said it would be important for the board to look at all of the department’s funding requests at one time.
Commissioner Al Whitesides agreed with Newman and added that he wanted to see how Miller would prioritize these funding requests. There’s a good chance, he said, that the board would not be able to fit all these requests into a single year.
“We need to be able to prioritize, so that we’ll know what you really need now,” Whitesides said. “Because at budget time, from what little I’ve seen so far, we’ve got a lot coming at us, but we definitely want to take care of what you need.”