Taking back the neighborhood

“We want those drug houses shut down!”

With this comment, Claxton Area Neighborhood Association President Tom Hayes set the tone for a Feb. 12 meeting between concerned residents of a small North Asheville neighborhood and Asheville Police Department representatives.

The choir room of the Merrimon Avenue Baptist Church (which graciously donated the use of its space) was filled nearly to capacity; 16 Asheville police officers and detectives, including Police Chief Will Annarino, attended.

The neighborhood in question, tucked in between Charlotte Street and Merrimon Avenue, includes sections of Hillside Street and Annandale Avenue.

Neighborhood residents, fearing for their safety, sought reassurance and answers from the police in the wake of a spate of recent crimes: open drug activity, especially in and around at least five suspected crack houses on Hillside Street and Annandale Avenue; a shooting on Jan. 16 on Annandale Avenue; the Jan. 7 beating death (still unsolved) of local musician Gene Brown on Charlotte Street; and the arrest of Demetrius Jones at a Hillside Street house for the Dec. 6 murder of Charlene Major and her young daughters, Shanika and Octavia.

Both police and residents blamed the crack houses for much of the increase in violent crime in the neighborhood.

Hayes, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, notes that drug activity and crimes such as break-ins and robberies have seemed to increase appreciably during the last five to eight years, culminating in the more violent crimes of the past few years. (At the recent City Council retreat, however, Police Chief Will Annarino reported that, citywide, the crime rate is down 11 percent — see “Sound the retreat” elsewhere in this issue.)

“Until 1988, I never locked my door,” remembers Hayes. But that open-door policy ended that year after a robber walked in. Since then, his house has been broken into three or four times.

But the crime situation truly hit home on Jan. 16 when Hayes heard gunshots on Annandale Avenue. “I was in my house around 3 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon when I heard gunshots,” Hayes recalls (he lives on Linden Avenue near one of what he calls the “known drug houses” on Annandale). “I ran outside and [tried to talk to] these wild-eyed people, who kept saying they had to get out of there.”

Fellow neighborhood resident Tony Bradley actually witnessed the shooting. “I saw a guy shoot a gun at another guy as they were running up the street in front of my house,” he says. “They were going up Annandale toward Claxton.” Two other shots whizzed toward the Claxton School playground, according to Bradley. The shooter turned himself in 10 days later — partly because, as APD Capt. Tom Aardema put it, “his picture was splashed all over the media.”

The Feb. 12 meeting — facilitated by professional mediator Paul Godfrey, who also lives in the neighborhood — consisted of three parts: an APD report about the crime-prevention and law-enforcement measures already in place in the neighborhood, a question-and-answer session between residents and police, and a wrap-up discussion of “next steps.”

Senior Officer Mac Creason, the APD’s troubleshooter for the North Asheville District, announced that the APD had recently won a national award for community policing. He went on to assure attendees that the department is trying to find permanent solutions to the neighborhood’s crime problem — a task, he emphasized, that will require cooperation between the community and police.

And lest neighborhood residents think the APD isn’t doing anything about the drug activity and violent crime, Creason pointed to a display beside him that featured the photographs of nine habitual drug felons who have been arrested in the neighborhood during the past year. He noted that they’d received sentences of 80 to 105 months — an average of about eight years. But, he cautioned, “It takes time to prosecute drug cases.”

Creason went on to give the addresses of four crack houses in the neighborhood — two on Hillside and two on Annandale. Later in the meeting, a woman asked, “If you know where the houses are, why can’t you just go in and search them?”

Detective David Rutledge explained that it isn’t that simple. “There are important constitutional issues involved,” he said. “This is not a police state. You must have clear probable cause to make the search, or the consent of the house owner. And search warrants themselves are an extensive process. You can’t just show up.”

Rutledge further pointed out that law enforcement is interested in closing these houses down, not making simple drug-possession arrests. He alluded to several active, ongoing investigations. “We must have an informant make multiple buys; we want to arrest for drug trafficking, not for simple possession [which could be the case based on a single buy]. Investigations can take up to a year. We want to be able to seize the house, and hopefully, it’ll be sold to someone who’ll be a good neighbor.”

But even if a resident is arrested and incarcerated, or a house is seized and sold, that doesn’t necessarily mean the problem will be solved. As Detective Forrest Weaver put it, “When we arrest one, [another dealer] might go in.” Further, friends or family members of the owner of a seized property might buy the house, and the cycle will continue.

During the question-and-answer session, residents asked a series of focused questions, including:

What does one have to actually see in order to document drug dealing in a police report? (Answer: an obvious act, such as people exchanging money for drugs, etc.)

Why aren’t mounted police or bicycle patrols used in the neighborhood? (Both types of patrols will be set up as the weather permits, reported Creason, noting, “It’s like stealth.”)

If a person videotapes cars — making sure to capture license-plate numbers — coming and going from suspected drug houses, can that evidence be used by police in later arrests? (Yes.)

Does the APD regularly patrol the area? (Yes — there are now ongoing, directed patrols in the neighborhood, as well as a foot patrol during every shift.)

Could the area around Claxton School be designated a “drug-free school zone,” making penalties for dealing and using drugs there stiffer? (Yes; Claxton School would have to give permission, however. According to Annarino, “Some teeth have finally been put into that law.” And Creason mentioned a new statute that would make it a Class E felony to deal drugs within 300 feet of the boundaries of a playground or public park. “I need to check on the details of that, though,” he noted.)

Some questions proved more difficult to answer: Why does it take so long for the APD to respond to some calls (or, sometimes, not respond at all), even when gunfire is involved?

One neighborhood resident recounted an incident last year when she and friends were grilling out close to the street, near the corner of Annandale and Linden. “People were suddenly running [up the street] with guns,” she remembered. “We called the police, and nobody ever came. … We were yelling to the police on the phone, ‘They’ve got guns!'” Despite four phone calls to the APD, the woman said there was no response.

Crime Prevention Officer Judy Bell emphasized that if the police response isn’t fast enough, one should call back and ask to speak to a supervisor. “This is your neighborhood: You have to take it back,” she declared.

Bell also suggested an after-the-fact strategy: filing a complaint against the department, particularly in cases involving violence. And, finally, she apologized for the APD’s failure to respond to those calls.

Hayes called Bell’s apology a highlight of the meeting. “She called me the next day to get the phone number of the woman, and I know she personally contacted the woman to follow up on the incident,” he told Xpress in a later interview.

Creason emphasized that when one calls the police emergency number, as much detail as possible should be given to the dispatcher. “When a [dispatcher] takes a call, they enter it into a computer and the computer prioritizes the calls. There’s a code for each type of call.”

Another Linden Avenue resident said he’d witnessed a shooting on Cornelia Street early last year. “It took the police 20 minutes to get there” after a 911 call, he said. “Shouldn’t they have been there sooner, because I was reporting actual gunshots going on at the time?”

Annarino — who prefaced his remarks by saying, “Please don’t think we’re making excuses; we’re human, too” — explained that, under the current 911 system, calls go not to the APD but to a Buncombe County dispatcher.

“We’re working to get control of 911,” he reported. “The response would, of course, be faster if 911 calls went directly to the APD.” In the meantime, he urged folks to still call 911 to report violent crimes or emergencies (though the police non-emergency number, 252-1110, should be used for non-life or -property-threatening incidents). “The 911 system tracks the phone number and address, in case you get in trouble or your phone goes dead,” Annarino explained.

In the end, at least a couple of potential solutions to the neighborhood’s crime problems were discussed.

Prompted by a resident’s inquiry as to whether he could e-mail potentially incriminating photos to the APD — and perhaps even set up a neighborhood Web page featuring such photos, along with a specific e-mail contact for the neighborhood — Detective Rutledge enthusiastically said, “Yes. A Web page with photos of license tag numbers, suspicious activity, etc. would be extremely important.”

Rutledge pointed out that the Web page could work both ways: “If we make an important arrest, we could send you a JPEG photo of the person, so you’d recognize them if you saw them in the neighborhood again.” Another advantage of the Web page, said Rutledge, could be an on-line discussion between police and neighborhood residents. “It would be great if you could feed us problems and we could send you possible solutions,” he noted.

Residents also seemed enthusiastic about setting up a Community Watch program. Officer Bell, who administrates Asheville’s Community Watch program, explained that, in order to post the familiar “Community Watch” signs, a neighborhood group must agree to hold regular meetings and follow other guidelines. She agreed to meet with residents to help organize the program and set up a telephone networking system.

In an interview after the meeting, Hayes said he thought it had been successful. “It made numerous voices one voice and helped to get rid of that sense of isolation,” he observed, adding, “A really good cross section of the community showed up, and it was great to be able to hear other people’s stories.” He revealed that he’s had several people stop him in the neighborhood to say how encouraged they were by what they heard at the meeting.

“As long as we’re realistic and practical and know these problems won’t be solved overnight, we’re OK,” he continued, adding that he’s working on setting up organizational meetings in the neighborhood. “To be a force in the city, we have to be serious and organized,” he said. “We must include schools, businesses, churches, synagogues.

“We want to make this a neighborhood that ‘s hard to do [drug] business in,” he concluded.

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