By Sally Kestin, Asheville Watchdog
Fox News last week told a national audience that Asheville has seen a 31% increase in violent crime in the last five years. “Asheville once touted as a top-10 tourist destination back in 2017, but with crime raging, the city now ranks, get this, in the top 10% of most violent cities in America,” anchor Todd Piro said. “That’s tough to believe.”
Yes, it is.
The 31% increase is not current. It refers to a period ending in 2020, when crime had increased nationwide. Violent crime — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — went down in Asheville in 2021.
And the reference to Asheville being among the most violent cities came from an analysis, also based on 2020 data, that combined all violent crimes — a potentially misleading way to view the statistics, said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
For instance, Wilmington, a city of 115,000 people on North Carolina’s east coast, had double the number of murders as Asheville but a lower overall violent crime rate: 685 violent crimes per 100,000 population versus Asheville’s 805.
Since the beginning of 2022, Asheville has seen an uptick in aggravated assaults, defined as attacking someone with the intent of causing severe injury. But the raging crime, carjackings and Mexican drug cartel activity described by Fox News?
“Crime is a serious issue and one that I hear about as a top concern for our community,” said Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer. “Is our community unsafe as the picture is painted by Fox News? No, absolutely not.”
Sheriff: Asheville is safe
The Fox News report blamed Asheville’s left-leaning politicians for the city’s purported violent crime problem. “CRIME SOARS IN DEM-RUN TOURIST TOWN,” said the chyron. Another chyron proclaimed “TOWN BECOMING HUB OF ANTIFA.”
The segment featured ex-Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan, a former Democrat who blamed “leftist politicians” for what he said was anti-police sentiment in Asheville. Duncan, who retired as sheriff in 2018, ran the department for 12 years, replacing Bobby Lee Medford.
Duncan said in the segment that crime started to climb as those leftist politicians set an agenda that included reducing the jail population. He also said Antifa and activists were active in Asheville and described the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 as “riots.”
Duncan’s successor, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, told Asheville Watchdog, “We’ve seen some violent crime numbers go up,” but like Asheville Police, the Sheriff’s Office saw a decline in violent crimes in 2021.
Miller said he has not encountered an anti-law enforcement sentiment. “The Buncombe county commissioners have stood with me 100%,” he said, supporting pay raises and new equipment.
The jail population did decline, especially during the worst of Covid, as some non-violent inmates awaiting trial were released. But the sheriff said, “We didn’t see an increase … as far as crimes being committed.”
An online version of the Fox News report said, without citing any details, that there was evidence in Asheville “of increased Mexican drug cartel activity in the area, according to multiple law enforcement sources who spoke to Fox News Digital.”
Sheriff Miller said, “Fentanyl is killing our folks locally,” as it is across North Carolina and the U.S. But the drug-dealing arrests in Buncombe thus far have not included Latinos. “We haven’t really seen as you would call it the cartel,” he said.
More people today are armed with weapons and guns, said Miller, an Asheville native. “But as far as Asheville being safe, I think it’s safe.”
No discernible difference
Herrmann, a former crime analyst supervisor with the New York City Police Department, said he looked at crime statistics in cities with liberal and conservative majorities last year and found no discernible difference. “There were plenty of Republican-mayor cities with crime also going up,” he said.
Mayor Manheimer said, “Fox News is doing their best to try to highlight these evil Democrat blue cities like New York and Chicago and L.A., and I guess now we’re going to focus on Asheville. It is a continuation of this theme of, ‘You should worry. You’re not safe in your own home. You’re not safe in your community. You’re not safe walking down the sidewalk.’ And that’s not the case in Asheville.”
Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week took aim at Manheimer, whom he described as wearing “complicated eyeglasses that all the girl bosses now wear.” Under her leadership, Carlson claimed, Asheville as a beautiful place “should have no crime, but it has a lot now.” And he said Asheville had “a lot of carjackings.”
Carjacking is not a criminal charge in North Carolina. Asheville police spokesman Bill Davis said the department has had 16 robberies involving theft of a vehicle since the beginning of 2021. Four police press releases or news reports in the past two years mentioned “carjackings,” including one in February 2022, when police said a man forced a 91-year-old woman from her car and drove away.
Chief cites officer vacancies
Asheville Watchdog dug into the city’s crime statistics and found violent crime in Asheville disproportionately affects Black residents, especially young Black residents.
“There certainly are people that are at higher risk,” Manheimer said.
But the violence, the mayor said, “is fairly isolated in our community. And it’s not typically random.”
Asheville Watchdog made three requests over two days to interview Asheville Police Chief David Zack about crime trends, but Davis said he “has a very busy schedule.”
Zack did find time to talk to Fox News and said the exodus of more than 100 officers since May 2020 had limited the department’s ability to be proactive and visible. He was quoted as saying, “There certainly have been questions about support [for police] from elected officials, from the president of the United States right on down, so it’s not just local leaders.”
In 2021, while Asheville’s police force was drastically reduced, violent crime decreased.
When police departments add or lose officers, there’s not a direct correlation in crime, Herrmann said. “It’s a little bit of a leap to suggest that cops have this much of a crime-fighting skill,” he said.
Zack: Police vacancies at 42%
Cities across the country are hiring after losing officers in the past couple of years. “There’s no doubt that the social justice protests of 2020 and Covid have certainly strained all the police departments,” Herrmann said.
Zack told Fox News that Asheville is operating with nearly 42% fewer officers “every single day.” The department has 61 vacancies out of 238 sworn officers and another 26 in training or on leave, Davis said.
Manheimer said Asheville’s police department is understaffed, “and we’re working hard to build back the ranks to be able to keep our community safe and respond to calls for service when the call is made.”
The Asheville Police crime dashboard shows crimes against people down 10% in the past year and crimes against property down 20%. Those numbers include a broad range of offenses.
Since the beginning of this year, “violent crime is increasing,” Davis said. “It’s primarily attributable to the rise in aggravated assaults.”
Aggravated assaults are up 44% over the same period last year, and domestic-related aggravated assaults are up 64%, Davis said.
Robberies are also up, 29%. “The only violent crime that has seen reductions is rape, down 28%,” he said.
Asheville Watchdog sent the police department a list of questions about the increases: How many are drug- or gang-related? What are the demographics of the offenders and victims, and are the weapons being used mostly guns? Do the people involved have criminal histories for violence or drugs? Is the violence centered in or near public housing? Are armed gang members or drug dealers coming into Asheville from Charlotte, Atlanta or other cities? Have any assaults been random, aimed at residents or tourists? Is downtown safe?
Chief Zack, through Davis, answered one question: “There are loosely-organized, neighborhood-specific groups that could fall under a broad definition of gangs here in Asheville.” But within those groups, the chief said it was doubtful that police could build a case to prosecute members under the federal racketeering law designed to combat organized crime.
Perception of fear
Crime statistics don’t provide the full picture of crime in a city.
“What I’ve learned over the years is you can apparently slice and dice crime data however you’d like,” Manheimer said. “You can take five-year snapshots, ten-year snapshots, one-year, year-over-year.”
Asheville’s 5-year violent crime rate cited by Fox News, a 31% increase from 2016 to 2020, becomes a 15% increase from 2017 to 2021. And the most recent one-year look, from 2020 to 2021, shows a 6% decrease.
Each year, aggravated assaults made up the majority of Asheville’s violent crimes, accounting for about two-thirds to nearly three-quarters.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics samples U.S. households about crime victimization each year. “What they show is over half of serious crime doesn’t even get reported to the police,” Herrmann said. “When you tell me that your assaults are up, I’m going to say you don’t really know that because almost half of your assaults are probably not reported.”
Manheimer said some people suspect crimes in Asheville are going unreported because of the police department’s decision, beginning in June 2021, to no longer respond in-person to calls about theft, fraud and other non-serious crimes due to staffing shortages.
“I don’t know if that’s true or not,” the mayor said. “But I would have to think they would be more of the kind of smaller, petty types of things, not violent crime.”
Crime perceptions are also shaped by more homeless people in and around downtown. Asheville saw a 21% increase in the homeless, or unhoused population, in 2022 over 2021, leading to the belief by some residents and visitors that downtown has become dangerous.
“They see people who are mentally unwell walking down the center of the street, talking to themselves, and they are fearful,” Manheimer said.
Black residents disproportionately impacted
Here’s what the stats do say about crime in Asheville and who’s at risk:
- Black residents make up 11% of Asheville’s population but account for 31% of violent crime victims.
- Women accounted for nearly half of all violent crime victims in Asheville (46%), while men committed 80% of the crimes, according to data reported to the FBI for 2020, the latest year available.
The FBI data also show:
- Of 17 murders in Asheville in 2019 and 2020, 14 of the perpetrators and 12 of the victims were Black. Nearly three-quarters were 29 or younger, and all but three were males.
- Nearly 60% of Asheville’s aggravated assault victims in 2020 were relatives or acquaintances of their attacker. One in five were strangers.
- Of the reported robberies in 2020, 26% of the victims were strangers. The robberies occurred in public and private places, including one-quarter in a street or alley, 16% in a residence, 15% in a parking lot or garage, and 10% in a convenience store.
Herrmann reviewed Asheville’s crime statistics for Asheville Watchdog.
“Everything seems to be in line with the national trend, which was everyone had significant increases in 2020 when the pandemic hit and then some cities kept on going up a little bit in 2021,” he said. “I think overall the national trend is things are kind of getting back to normal. But the question then is really what’s the new normal going to be?”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.