The downtown safety initiative the city of Asheville implemented during May and June is permanent — at least for now.
At a Downtown Commission meeting July 14, Assistant City Manager Rachel Wood said that portions of the 60-day downtown safety and cleanliness pilot have transitioned into ongoing services. She told the attendees that the pilot “received very positive feedback and encouragement to continue.”
The program increased the presence of law enforcement downtown, focused on litter removal, addressed poor lighting and launched a team of firefighters to address the concerns of business owners and the needs of unhoused people downtown.
Wood told the Downtown Commission, which makes recommendations to City Council about downtown development, that city employees are exploring which of the pilot’s many efforts can be implemented for “the long term.” Among those efforts, she identified safety and cleanliness as top priorities and said city staff is working to enhance those efforts. Additionally, she said the pilot demonstrated the importance of providing resources and guidance to business owners and residents.
Wood briefly recapped observations from the pilot, as well as data gathered during the two months. Asheville Fire Department Lt. TJ Fortenberry and Deputy Chief of Police Mike Lamb briefly addressed the commission as well.
Xpress gleaned six takeaways from the downtown safety initiative update. The July 14 meeting can be viewed on the city of Asheville YouTube channel at avl.mx/cvm.
1. The importance of proactive law enforcement and supportive services
The downtown community has been increasingly vocal about crime, including assaults and persistent fear. In March, workers from seven downtown businesses shared concerns and frustration over what many referred to as “vagrancy” at a listening session organized by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.
During the pilot, the APD made 888 contacts with businesses and shared loss-prevention strategies and steps to reduce crime. APD gave 463 verbal warnings, issued 56 citations and made 94 arrests. “Our enforcement activity is getting close to where we were pre-pandemic,” Lamb told the commission. “We made some key arrests with some folks that were really causing a lot of issues downtown … and that also sends a message insofar as compliance.”
Before the initiative, community members said there didn’t appear to be consequences for “outrageous behavior,” Lamb said. “So, that was our goal in the initiative, to say, ‘Yes, there are consequences for outrageous behavior.’”
However, City Council member Sage Turner, a commission board member, questioned the number of verbal warnings issued and asked what could prompt further law enforcement action. “Is it ‘everyone gets five warnings?’” Turner asked. “What’s the process there? Will it be indefinitely verbal warnings?”
Lamb responded that it’s up to the officer to decide which action to take. He said just the presence of uniformed police officers encourages compliance. People “understand if they don’t comply — and these are usually trespassing or loitering, some very minor charge — that there’s going to be a consequence with that,” he said.
Lamb also updated the commission on APD’s staffing, saying the department is currently “breaking even on [new hires with] retirements and the handful of resignations.”
Wood said APD would continue to have a proactive presence, with downtown as a priority.
“We heard a lot of community support for continued presence of public safety,” Wood said. “We also need to have additional engagement from the public to ensure we’re able to sustainably interrupt patterns of violence and reduce crime citywide.”
The Asheville Downtown Association, an advocacy group for businesses and residents, surveyed employees and customers in February and June for input on the community’s concerns. In February, the top concern of 199 people surveyed was “reducing homelessness,” and in June the top response of 117 people surveyed was “reducing criminal activity.” In February, 68% of those surveyed reported feeling unsafe downtown during nighttime compared with 62% in June.
Additionally, 45% of respondents in June said they felt safer during the daytime, up from 34% in February. Fewer respondents said they felt “very unsafe at night”: 21% in June compared with 30% in February.
2. The Fire Department’s community responder program will ‘ramp up’
The pilot launched a community responder program with four staffers from AFD. Wood said community responders initiated 361 “proactive” interactions and responded to 85 calls for service. The team also conducted 115 wellness checks, which included administering first aid and wound care.
When encountering people who may be in crisis or unhoused, the community responders tried to direct them to services. Wood told the Downtown Commission, “They’re assisting where they’re able.”
The community responders work daily from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. The program will continue as a pilot. “We’re looking at how we ramp up our service model to ensure it’s meeting the gaps in community needs,” Wood says.
According to previous Xpress reporting, AFD’s community responder program covers some of the same ground as Buncombe County Emergency Medical Services’ four-person mobile community outreach team, or MCOT.
3. Cleanliness is still a priority
During the pilot, eight volunteer cleanups occurred, and over 4,000 graffiti tags were removed.
The city also will continue to clean up biohazardous waste as well as “hot-spot cleaning,” meaning in areas where litter tends to accumulate.
Asheville City Council approved a contract with Steri-Clean North Carolina at its June 27 meeting for up to $200,000 in biohazard cleanup, in addition to picking up roadside litter. However, the program is funded through money from the American Rescue Plan Act, and plans are unclear after that funding runs out, the Sanitation Division’s report notes.
4. Poor lighting was fixed, and parking garage safety should strengthen
The safety initiative addressed a need for increased lighting downtown, which was often mentioned by residents, Wood said. The city’s Traffic Engineering Division focused on street lamps, identifying 54 lighting issues. Of those, 41 were resolved during the pilot, according to the city data shared in the presentation.
“We’re working with Duke [Energy, the power company] as well as other entities to get the remaining issues resolved,” Wood said.
Parking garages will get more security cameras. The city’s Information Technology Services and Transportation departments are installing 11 new and two replacement parking security cameras this year, said city spokesperson Kim Miller.
The city also issued a request for proposals for security services for its 14 parking garages to supplement its two guards.
5. Interdepartmental coordination was addressed
The pilot addressed overlapping areas of specialization.
“This effort brought staff who maybe haven’t been in the same room together in the same meeting room where we were able to talk about cross-departmental collaboration,” Wood said. Staff members from different departments who may need to collaborate were brought together to create “opportunities to have those conversations.”
For example, Wood said parking enforcement officers are now trained to report streetlight outages, potholes and graffiti. “Over the past few years, as we’ve been pretty much working in a virtual environment, those conversations haven’t taken place,” she said.
Wood said the Planning and Urban Design Department’s downtown manager, Dana Frankel, who served as project manager of the pilot, led meetings and retreats to bring city employees together. Many positions, some with high turnover, have reestablished relationships, she said.
6. A new staff role will address constituent services
Asheville residents shared frustrations about interacting with the city, Wood said.
“People want clearer, more effective ways to route their concerns, specifically related to those who are unhoused or experiencing mental distress,” she said. Currently, the city website directs questions about homelessness to special projects coordinator Stephanie Gilliam via the email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gilliam was moved into a constituent services role June 1. She’s working on internal protocols to improve responsiveness to resident and business owner requests. Wood said Gilliam is trying to create better internal networks “to ensure that we’re not just responding, saying, ‘Thank you, we’ve received your email,’ but have those good processes in place to ensure that we truly resolve the issues.”