Editor’s note: On Sept. 10, reporter David Forbes and photographer Jonathan Welch accompanied Capt. Daryl Fisher of the Asheville Police Department on a five-hour patrol. Here is some of what they saw and heard…
It's just around sunset, and the drum circle's in full swing. The downtown streets are clogged with drummers, tourists and spectators. Shifting his broad shoulders while displaying his perennial smile, 22-year APD veteran Daryl Fisher slowly nudges a police SUV through the throng, waving occasionally.
“I think people believe we just put people in jail, that we don't care about what their situations are. That's just not true,” Fisher observes. “Unfortunately, we are tasked with the responsibility of taking away people's freedom. If it's a felony or some type of violence, we have to take action, but we can help keep a kid from doing drugs or someone from becoming an alcoholic. Someone's encounter with us may be the one thing they need to keep from getting worse.”
Downtown’s problems, he explains above the rising, pulsing throb of the drums, are mostly things like graffiti, public drunkenness or panhandling. Cops, says Fisher, often spot such nuisances even before they’re reported. “And a lot of the time, just our presence deters crime.”
Just past the Lexington Avenue murals, a man on a longboard stumbles.
“You all right?” Fisher shouts as we pass. The man glances over and limps on down the street.
“Pride hurt; he's fine.”
Befriending the community
Negotiating West Asheville’s back roads, Fisher steers us toward Pisgah View, an isolated, 13-acre public-housing enclave that he says is the city’s highest crime area.
Yet on this late-summer evening, there’s no sense of tension. People of all ages sit on the steps of identical dwellings. Kids play on lawns; the mood seems mostly festive.
Fisher's presence is definitely noticed, though. Some residents wave, and almost all stare at his car as he inches along the winding roads.
“Drug activity has been a constant,” he reports, “though I must say, the open-air drug market's not as bad here as it was five years ago. It moves from place to place. Once they open up, citizens call and tell us.”
Fisher attributes the decline to better policing plus improved community relations (“Folks just want to live here: This is their neighborhood,”) and cooperation with the Housing Authority.
“A couple of years ago, people wouldn't even leave their house,” he recalls. “We got our folks out of the car, meeting the people, talking with them: Befriend the community and they'll tell you what's going on. … Five years ago, kids wouldn't come outside.”
A man greets Fisher, who grins back cheerily. “We've arrested his son for dealing drugs, his brother for the same. Not him, though.”
Over the years, Fisher’s filled every role from beat cop to homicide detective. Now a captain with 125 officers under his supervision, he’s enjoying being back out on patrol. "I have to show I'm willing to do the same,” he explains.
Suddenly, Fisher's expression changes as a red truck sporting a big Confederate flag swerves in front of him, kicking up dust as it navigates the narrow streets.
“That's not a very smart thing to do,” mutters Fisher, quickly tapping the license number into his dashboard-mounted laptop. “This,” he notes, “has changed how we do everything. All this information at our fingertips: He's been to prison, it looks like; he lives in Pisgah View.”
The truck roars down the road, and Fisher follows for a while before leaving the projects. “They don't have any violations, no warrants out; I just can't believe they'd ride through Pisgah View with a big Confederate flag. Not very bright, but it's not illegal.”
Continuing down Haywood Road, we turn onto Patton, where Friday-night cruisers no longer clog the road. “We were having a large number of accidents — it was taking up a lot of our time,” Fisher explains. “Instead of ticketing everybody, we blocked off the turn lane. Eventually they just quit coming.”
Bridging the gap
Drivers heading west from downtown on 240 get a quick glimpse of Hillcrest’s rows of identical structures. The style is different from Pisgah View’s, but both complexes are largely cut off, with similar reputations and poor, predominantly minority populations.
And though Fisher's spent a lot of time here, he says the projects remain foreign territory. “We're outsiders; people who live here, they know what's going on in their own community. They can help us.”
Hillcrest will soon be less isolated, though. After a man was killed this summer trying to cross the interstate, City Council voted to reopen a pedestrian overpass closed in 1996 to deter crime.
“I'd like to have a dollar for every time I chased across that bridge,” Fisher recalls. “I wouldn't be rich, but I could buy a very nice dinner.”
And now, he continues, “The worry is that people will start coming back in, that the drug sales and criminal activity will pick back up. We had drugs, people having sex there, robberies. If it wasn't a regular customer, dealer would just take their money.”
“Assaulted him with a water hose …” the dispatcher’s voice breaks in.
“I wonder if the water was on or off?” Fisher wonders, his customary smile widening just a bit.
It's getting dark now, and Fisher points out the sites of memorable crimes back in pre-gentrified Montford. “We had a couple of homicides over there; we'll still have a rash of car break-ins once in a while." Today, swank bed-and-breakfasts and restored mansions rub shoulders with modest rentals and families who’ve been here since the bad old days. Across the way, the Nine Mile restaurant is packed.
Meanwhile, the gangs and open-air drug markets, he reflects, are “always on the move; you're trying to second-guess them. Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong.”
And despite all the changes, Montford’s still bookended by housing projects: Hillcrest and the smaller Klondyke Apartments.
“We don't have to place officers here constantly anymore,” Fisher notes. We approach a group of young men drinking beers, music playing in the background, and one moves off.
“Oh, he doesn't have to go anywhere,” Fisher tells them; “I just stopped to say hey. Don't spill your beer,” he says, and they laugh nervously.
“Folks that don't want to talk to us make me suspicious,” Fisher reveals. “Not that they're doing anything wrong; it just makes me wonder.”
Shiloh and beyond
It’s not a project — just a south Asheville neighborhood of small ranch homes plus some derelict housing. Nonetheless, “We're told they're bringing the open-air drug markets back around here; we used to have a huge, huge problem,” Fisher recalls.
“We used to have several abandoned trailers like this one, but now the city's taking them out. We've found over the years that if we can utilize the federal system, it takes criminals off the streets for longer, makes the community safer. It does my heart good to drive through these neighborhoods.”
From there, we proceed to the east Asheville Walmart, its huge parking lot slowly emptying as the shopping day winds down. In one corner, two officers are looking down on River Bend Park, telling some transients to leave. Fisher says he's seen more homeless people in Asheville, particularly downtown, since the city revived. But this is an open-container problem, and after a brief conversation, the police let them go.
“This seems to be a popular gathering point for people who don't have anyplace else to stay, especially during the warmer months,” Fisher explains. Since the recession, homeless families with children are increasingly common.
The officers are "two of our new ones," Fisher reveals, grinning as he introduces them. A massive APD shakeup has resulted in “14 brand-new sergeants and three new lieutenants: an administrative nightmare.” It takes about two years to fully train an officer in everything from handling conflicts to navigating the back roads, he notes.
After 26 weeks of police academy, new officers spend six to eight months with a mentor. “Most of them do well,” says Fisher; the training goes beyond the required state curriculum, including things like “verbal judo.”
“When you encounter citizens, tell them who you are and what you're doing there. Don't leave it for them to guess,” he elaborates. “If they're involved in some form of criminal activity, you ask them things like, 'Is there any legal reason for you to be doing this?' or ‘Is there any way that I can gain your voluntary compliance?' If they say, 'Up yours,' you might have to take action, but we try to get them to understand that's not the right thing to do.
“Even times we take action, we hope the folks are nice, even folks we have to fight. Of course, during the fight, you're not nice. But after a fight, that's when I've found I get the best information from someone.”
“They realize it's not personal: It's a job; we have to do it. If folks decide for whatever reason they don't want to go to jail and we've got reason to take them there, we've got to take action. But every time we do, there's a lot of paperwork. Just from a traffic stop, I have to fill out two pieces of paper. I tell the new ones, you'll have five minutes of fun, two hours of paperwork.”
“Hey, police!” a child shouts as Fisher starts a foot patrol back at Pisgah View. “Give me a toy.”
“I don't have any; that tire looks like a pretty good toy,” he responds. Bathed in the streetlights’ orange glow, Fisher walks the streets and then the darkened dirt paths behind the buildings. Pointing toward some latticed concrete fences, he explains: “They'd hide behind here when a car comes by, then jump out and sell drugs. One July 4 two years ago, we actually had some folks shoot commercial-grade fireworks at us from behind these. Not just at the cop cars, but at us individually.”
A man and woman are arguing nearby. “Is there a problem?” Fisher asks, emerging suddenly from the shadows and illuminating the scene with his heavy flashlight. “You got anything to tell me? Everything OK?”
Throwing up his hands, the man quickly leaves as neighbors mutter.
“Y'all be safe,” says Fisher, noting, “She's mad about something; won't say what, though.” He points out a row of newly renovated apartments established to give children “a safe place from the bad element out on the street, where they can learn life skills and become better citizens. Theoretically, we do the weeding and they do the seeding.”
A motorcycle shatters the night’s relative quiet. “There's Officer [Scott] Pruett,” Fisher says, laughing; he explains that he's showing us “how different it is from five years ago.”
“You show them the bullet holes in the mailbox?”
“There was a shootout between two guys; little 12-year-old girl got shot in the neck. She and her cousin were coming up the road; bullet went right through the window and into the headrest.”
Pruett roars up an embankment, hurtling across yards and sidewalks mere feet from residents’ stoops and front doors.
“That’s the good thing about having a motorcycle. … He does look sharp, doesn't he?” says Fisher.
Outside an apartment, some people are working on the truck with the Stars and Bars attached to it. “Anybody ever give you grief over your flag?” Fisher asks.
“I've walked through here many a night with a T-shirt with that on it, and no one's ever said nothing,” a white man replies as his companions unfurl a larger flag emblazoned with the words “Heritage Not Hate.” “They look at us like we're crazy, but they don't say nothing.”
“Well, to be honest, that's how I looked at you earlier,” says Fisher.
“We stopped near the river, and one of your officers was out there,” the other man pipes up. “He's a black guy; we didn't see him. We pulled in and that black guy got out; if he could've burned a hole through me, he would've. I don't think he liked it too well.”
“I'm sure you could understand why,” Fisher says.
“I think it's the way they was raised,” the man says, adding that he's not racist and has nothing against people of any color.
“Times sure have changed,” Fisher replies. As we drive off, he adds, “I don't believe a single word they said.”
Sheriff Duncan's Hilton
It’s quiet in north Asheville: no parties, shouting or foot patrols. “Not much crime up around here,” Fisher reports. There was one extended family dealing drugs, but, “We've put most of them in jail or prison.”
Instead, the biggest issue is “crash reduction, people speeding through. But with all the traffic-calming measures, they've gone back over to Merrimon. And they came over here initially because Merrimon was so full.”
“A lot of what we do,” Fisher observes, “is just basic problem-solving. Here, making the road narrower, adding a bike lane, putting in parking has really helped.”
The Drug Suppression Unit's doing a foot patrol through Hillcrest, the radio reports. At any given time, a quarter of the patrol officers are spread throughout the city, though occasionally they're concentrated to "saturate" a high-crime area.
“Quiet night through here,” says Fisher. “It seems to go in cycles.”
“Possible 1082 at Walmart,” the dispatcher interrupts.
Stopping midsentence, Fisher hits the gas, explaining, “Ten-eighty-two means a gun.”
Lights flashing, three APD vehicles surround a minivan. Several men (including some we’d seen earlier) stand with their hands on the vehicle, saying they're headed for Texas. They ask about the Xpress photographer’s presence, and Fisher jokes, “It's ‘Asheville Cops’: Don't you want to be famous?”
Asked if they have any warrants out, a man with a rope belt says, “Maybe," grinning through his tangled beard.
“Apparently you have a problem with rules,” Officer Nathan Ball scolds the men as they’re being searched. “I warned you that I didn't want to see your faces around here. If I see you again, your next stop will be Sheriff Duncan's Hilton.”
Five police cars have arrived, but in the end they let the men off with a warning. “One of the guys who left the park earlier got in an argument with the others, stopped someone, said they had a gun,” Fisher explains. “They didn't have a gun.” So one vagrant tattles on another and the APD gets called out in force? “Exactly.”
“One guy just got out of jail in Minnesota a few weeks ago for attempted murder. I asked him why he came to Asheville. He said, 'This is just where I got off the interstate.’ Thanks, buddy; we appreciate it.”
The radio chatter continues unabated as we leave the scene, a constant stream of rapid-fire abbreviations amounting to a separate language.
The police have their own culture. Like most departments, Asheville’s recruits heavily from ex-military and families with several generations in law enforcement. Fisher’s father was Waynesville’s police chief, and the father of one of the newer officers was Fisher’s first sergeant.
“I became a cop initially just for a job,” Fisher reveals. “After I got into it, I'm like, 'Wow, this is pretty cool,' whenever you're able to help someone out that wouldn't get that helping hand. On the other side, whenever you get to make the arrest of someone who's really a detriment to society and take them off the street.
“When I was a detective, I talked to homicide suspects. A lot of them have drug use in their background, drugs or alcohol. I talked to a guy that stabbed his friend because he wouldn't sell him marijuana. Another held his baby so tight against his chest that the baby smothered; that was in Pisgah View. I talked to several guys that shot people point-blank. You ask them why: 'I don't know.'”
Crossing the river, we arrive back downtown. It's late, and the drums have stopped.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.