It wasn’t the best of years; it wasn’t the worst of years. During 2007, Asheville saw increases in many types of crimes: Homicides almost doubled compared to last year, and burglaries were also up. In addition, the city had more shootings, traffic fatalities and increased gang and hard-drug activity. Not all the news is grim, however: Rapes declined by about half, and overall, the crime rate remains pretty low.
Capt. Tim Splain, who heads up the Asheville Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division, said it’s too soon to know if the increase in homicides (there were nine this year—more than in the previous two years put together) represents a trend.
“We’ve seen changes in the homicide statistics over the years,” Splain told Xpress. “We’ve gone from the early ‘90s, when we had about twice the number we did this year, to where it’s decreased pretty steadily. We’ve enjoyed a nice honeymoon period where we haven’t had too many homicides here, and most of them are still between people who know each other—they’re not stranger homicides.” Besides, he noted, “It’s a one-year statistic. Maybe next year or the year after we’ll see if it’s a trend.”
According to police statistics, Asheville had nine homicides, 24 reported rapes, 232 robberies and 983 burglaries. Last year there were five homicides, 47 reported rapes, 229 robberies and 876 burglaries.
Splain voiced concern about the homicides’ impact on the community, though he also cautioned against drawing premature conclusions from the numbers. “When we have murders, that doesn’t help people feel that they’re safe,” he noted, adding, “I’m concerned about every murder; I’m just not concerned about this statistic—yet.”
A particular concern has been the increase in shootings, with incidents such as a 15-year-old opening fire at a birthday party in Montford in September drawing media attention.
“There’s been about a 21-percent shooting increase in the past two years—and that causes us concern,” said Splain. “Young people especially seem much more ready to use a firearm to settle differences than before.”
As for burglaries, he noted: “Whenever the economy is bad, there’s going to be more burglaries, larcenies, gas drive-offs. People steal more when times are tough.”
Much of the violent crime appears to be related to gang activity, said Splain, making it a high priority. The APD is hiring special gang investigators and tracking gang-related crimes to turn up the pressure on more blatant gang activity.
“A lot of our assaults, our robberies, are gang-related,” Splain said. “With gang activity and street-level drug dealing, you’re not going to get rid of it altogether. But if you can get them to adopt some middle-class values—go underground, be quieter about it, be less intimidating to the public and community—it makes it a lot easier.”
Trafficking in hard drugs such as heroin has also increased, and this, too, is related to other criminal activity.
Meanwhile, as the city becomes more densely populated, Splain said the APD expects crime rates to rise. Already, Asheville had a record number of traffic fatalities this year, he noted.
And although the crime rate for the city as a whole remains low, it’s much worse in some areas, such as housing projects and lower-income neighborhoods. That’s where a lot of the gang activity and crime in general are concentrated, said Splain. But while some of those neighborhoods are improving as the APD has focused attention there, crime has spilled over into surrounding areas.
“We’ve seen a reduction in drug and violent crimes, but we’ve pushed some of it out, so in the areas directly adjoining, we’ve seen a slight increase in the same type of activity,” Splain told Xpress. “No matter how much enforcement you do, there’s going to be a displacement effect,” which he blames on an underfunded court system.
That, he said, accounts for the record number of habitual felons arrested this year: 115.
“If all those people got processed and went away to jail, you’d see a significant decrease. But because it’s not funded, the DA’s office was only able to prosecute about 50 of those,” he said. “The system makes it such that we can’t effectively police the streets.”