Asheville has become a cautionary “tale of two cities,” City Council member Sheneika Smith observed at Council’s meeting of Sept. 22.
There’s the city that sees Asheville Police Department protection as the only means to safety, Smith said, that claims “backing the blue” is essential to maintain order. And there’s the city that believes more police officers mean increased danger, that the only way forward is to divest from the APD and reinvest in partnerships that support the Black community.
Neither city was happy after Council members voted 5-2 to adopt a budget amendment that will cut APD funding by $770,000, a roughly 2.5% drop from the $30.1 million allocation originally proposed by City Manager Debra Campbell in May.
Smith and Brian Haynes voted against the measure, claiming it did not do enough to address the community’s concerns. “It does not advance our stated goals and instead perpetuates systemic racism,” Haynes said, adding that even with the new reallocation, overall police spending had increased by $4.1 million over the last five years.
The vote marked the final step in the city’s lengthy budget process for fiscal year 2020-21. In July, Council passed a budget with only three months of funding for city departments; members had agreed to revisit allocations for the remaining $105 million in the general fund budget after residents had shared their ideas about public safety. That budget gave the APD more than $5.5 million to sustain operations through the end of September; an additional $2.4 million had been allocated to the department for July in an interim budget adopted June 23.
Although the newly passed allocation reduces funding managed by the APD, it does not eliminate any existing city services. Seven positions currently handling animal control, communications and park patrols will be reassigned; roughly $350,000 in savings from recent police resignations and unfilled vacancies will be distributed as one-time payments to city departments and partner organizations. Campbell emphasized that if other public safety programs become ready to implement before the end of the fiscal year, additional cuts to the APD budget will occur.
Priorities for the 2021-22 budget cycle include the creation of a rapid response team for mental health, homelessness and domestic violence calls, Campbell said, potentially modeled after the CAHOOTS program currently operating in Eugene, Ore. She also hopes to further consolidate the 911 emergency call center with Buncombe County, develop mentorship opportunities for school resource officers and enhance safety in Housing Authority neighborhoods.
Unlike several past Council meetings, which have overwhelmingly been dominated by residents calling for police divestment and reparations for Asheville’s Black community as advocated by the intergenerational collective Black AVL Demands, several commenters phoned into the meeting to express anger that Asheville officials would consider any cuts to the APD. (Starting with its meeting of July 28, the city introduced new rules for public comment that some activists argued were meant to stifle dissent.)
“I would beg of you to not decrease funding for the police department,” said Andrea Olson, a caller from East Asheville, who told Council her husband is a former Raleigh police officer. “I want to see an investment to increase the protection of all of us citizens who are disturbed by what’s happening … Safety’s gone down; tourism is going to go down.”
Other public commenters, including Roland Williams of West Asheville, criticized Council for not doing more to protect all of the city’s residents. “As a Black man in this city, I’ve been racially profiled here in Asheville as young as 12 years old,” Williams said. “There’s a very deep-seated issue with the police force here in Asheville, and with the engagement of the Black and brown community and then to not do anything to directly affect that? It really makes me question the city’s commitment to this work.”
Keith Young, one of Council’s three Black members along with Smith and Antanette Mosley, ultimately supported the amendment. But he lamented a lack of input from the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, which he said Campbell (who is also Black) has generally disregarded. New policies must address the root of the issue and not just shift money around, he said, because at its core, policing is riddled with “huge disparities between Black and white residents.”
Smith dedicated her “no” vote to the Black community, thanking members for their continued engagement despite being “sick and tired” of the situation and the lack of citywide action.
“The path forward is not through reform. Reform is deferred maintenance; reform is what we should already have for basic protection,” Smith said. “From this point on, we’re going to look for something substantive, something that is worth our time, something that is worth our historic loss and something that is worth this occasion.”
After the vote, state Sen. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) released a statement vowing to introduce a bill next year to defund cities that reduce their police budgets. “While municipalities have control over their local budgets, the state legislature also has control over its budget, and I intend to help create an environment where public safety is a top priority,” the statement read. “The far-left Asheville City Council’s decisions are reckless and endanger public safety.”