Having spent his entire career at the Asheville Police Department, few people understand the culture and history of Asheville like interim Chief Mike Lamb.
“In my 25 years with APD, I have been in and around Asheville in several different aspects and I’ve seen the community change over the years,” Lamb says. “I have come to realize that we can’t employ one policing strategy for the whole city of Asheville. Different communities have different expectations and different needs, and it is important that we understand that as a department.”
Under his command, Lamb plans to strengthen the force’s collaboration with the community, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and residents.
“I think we have great opportunities now. I have my experience, but I also have a command staff that has great internal experience and has been brought up from within the agency,” Lamb says. “I believe that our institutional knowledge combined with several innovative ideas that we have will propel the department into a strong and positive future. We just need the staffing to be able to pull it all off.”
Keeping it local
An Asheville native, Lamb graduated from A.C. Reynolds High School and later Western Carolina University, where he received his bachelor’s in criminal justice. Lamb says a community policing program led by former APD Chief Will Annarino during his senior year of college is what inspired him to apply to APD.
“I thought it was really neat that [Annarino] had different segments of the community come and speak in the class. He taught about community policing concepts and collaborating with communities to have longer-lasting solutions to crime,” says Lamb. “Going through the class and hearing from Chief Annarino and other community members piqued my interest in the Asheville Police Department, so before I graduated in ’97, I applied.”
Since being hired in February 1998, Lamb says, he’s worked in almost every capacity within the Police Department, rising through the ranks to deputy chief in June 2023 and now interim chief after the abrupt resignation of former Chief David Zack on Dec. 15.
“It was definitely not a call I was expecting,” Lamb says of Zack’s departure.
According to Lamb, everyone at APD was under the impression Zack would remain on for at least another year or two. “We knew [his time] was going to come at some point, and he stated on multiple occasions that it was his goal for the next chief to come from within the department.”
Despite Zack’s abrupt exit, Lamb says the former chief did not leave the department in disarray. “While [Zack’s departure] was sudden, I think he has set us up to where we are in a good place to move on and continue excelling as an agency.”
Part of Lamb’s confidence stems from the many roles he’s held within the department: He previously oversaw the Public Housing Unit, APD’s Gang Unit and served as a member of APD’s Emergency Response Team, leading it for nine years. Lamb led the Community Engagement Division, served as the Patrol Division executive officer and Charlie District commander, where he oversaw the Central Business District, South French Broad, River Arts District and neighborhoods along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.
That downtown perspective is particularly valuable as APD weathers complaints about perceived safety in the core business district.
“I enjoyed my time as Charlie District commander. It was a really strong time for the department because we had a set number of officers who did nothing but build relationships with people downtown,” Lamb says. “Having those relationships and knowing the needs of the community at that time really helped out.”
Lamb says his experiences across the different roles within APD has made the transition to chief easier.
“Being able to serve in so many different roles helped give me a greater understanding of the whole department’s operation and all of the various units and divisions that we have within the agency,” Lamb says. “Also, because of many of those roles, I had the opportunity to serve in collaboration with other internal and external partners, which helped me to build good relationships with the Sheriff’s Office, with state and federal agencies, as well as with local organizations such as the Asheville Downtown Association and different residence councils.”
Reviving a community focus
Lamb says the department’s culture has been one of the biggest factors that has kept him in Asheville.
“As a department, we have developed really strong relationships and bonds over the years, and I think that has helped set us up as an agency to get where we are today. People know what the expectations are, they understand leadership styles, and they understand the goals and vision that helps to create a stronger department.”
Lamb emphasizes the importance of community engagement and collaboration and says he would like himself and his executive team to be “out there engaging with the community and with officers,” as well as with other city departments and other stakeholders.
“Sometimes it’s hard for me to sit in the office, so I would like to be out in the community more,” Lamb says. “If people want to have a meeting outside the agency within their community, I’d love to be able to go and speak to folks so they can see the executive team.”
Additionally, Lamb says he intends to further develop and improve the department’s relationship with Asheville City Council.
“I think it’s important to have a strong, positive relationship with Council so that they have a good understanding of what the agency is doing and how the agency is aligning with their goals and priorities,” Lamb says. “Thankfully in my time in the Community Engagement Division, I was able to talk and meet regularly with a variety of Council members. I think it is something that we are continually working on.”
Lamb also spoke about the APD’s relationship with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. He says that while the two departments have had communication breakdowns in the past, officers from both departments generally have “a great working relationship on a day-to-day basis.”
“Asheville Police Department officers and Buncombe County deputies have a great boots-on-the-ground relationship, and that has never changed. For example, we recently had a string of car break-ins, and with APD and Buncombe County deputies working together, we were able to determine at least one of the rings that was doing these break-ins,” Lamb says. “Sometimes, we as administrators just need to get out of the way and let the officers do their jobs.”
Lamb notes that he is in regular communication with Sheriff Quentin Miller, and they are working together to “collaborate and merge resources together so that we can provide more presence.”
“People that commit crimes in the City of Asheville don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries, so they’re not just going to commit crimes in the city, they also go out in the county and commit crimes,” Lamb says. “Both of us have a variety of stakeholders that have expectations of both of our agencies, so it’s important for both of us to work together to meet the public safety needs of the community.”
Recruitment and officer morale
Lamb says staffing levels still continue to be the biggest issue APD faces, with the department down 38%. APD should have 238 officers at full staff. As of now, APD has 174 officers, which includes 10 cadets graduating from Basic Law Enforcement Training and officers on medical, family, vacation or military leave.
The department calculates the percentage it’s understaffed by the number of officers actively serving the public.
“To put it into context, the number of officers that we have right now is less than the number that the department had when I was hired in 1998,” Lamb says. “Asheville’s population has grown drastically since then, so it amazes me daily the work that our officers do with the reduced staff. They’re still able to be out there protecting the community, but I’m constantly concerned about their safety and the community’s safety, so it really has to be a priority to get our staffing back up.”
Lamb says recruitment efforts have been successful, with four officers undergoing field training, and another five getting ready to start Basic Law Enforcement Training. The department also has been successful in recruiting officers from surrounding departments.
“Over the last year, we have been able to hire five lateral transfers,” Lamb says. “Historically, we had only had two laterals since 2015, so that’s been a great improvement.”
While staffing levels are slowly rising, officer burnout is a growing concern. Lamb says the department is taking a holistic approach to mitigate burnout. APD offers officers access to mental health clinicians and a wellness coordinator to help officers manage their nutrition and physical fitness and increase mental health awareness.
“We have also prioritized building a culture of being able to do nonpolice activities together. We will often do 5K races together, Spartan races and other things where we get together in our off time to be able to decompress,” says Lamb. “We also try to foster a strong family environment and encourage officers who are starting to feel burnout to come forward and ask for either rest days off or for help through the different services.”
As for Lamb’s personal goals of 2024, he hopes to have ‘interim’ removed from his title.
“The city manager is still determining what the best path forward is, but I am definitely interested in serving permanently as chief,” Lamb says. “I think the department is on a really strong path, and my goal in this position, whether as interim now or in a more permanent role in the future, is to continue with that momentum so that we can keep serving our community effectively.”