Traffic investigators could help alleviate APD staffing woes

TEN AND TWO: Under the new law, civilian traffic investigators would respond to minor traffic accidents but would not be equipped with a weapon of any kind or have the authority to arrest or conduct a criminal process. Photo by iStock

We’ve all been there: backing out of the parking space one-handed while devouring a Bojangles biscuit and hitting an incoming car. 

Or singing your favorite Taylor Swift song so enthusiastically that you don’t notice the car ahead is stopped and bump into it at a low speed. 

OK, maybe we haven’t all been there, but accidents do happen. 

Most of the time, these and other minor collisions leave drivers unscathed and incur only minimal property damage. Still, North Carolina law requires all drivers who are involved in a car accident that causes personal injury, death or property damage to call 911 to report such incidents and wait for a police officer to arrive.

But a newly passed bill might change that. House Bill 140, which was signed into law in June after bipartisan support, will allow the city of Asheville and other municipalities to train and recruit civilians to respond to minor traffic accidents. Before the bill’s passage, the city of Wilmington was the only municipality in the state with such a program.

Democratic state Sen. Julie Mayfield of Buncombe County says she hopes the measure will free the Asheville Police Department to allow officers to focus on more urgent calls for service.

“If you back into somebody in the Whole Foods parking lot and you call 911, you’re going to get a uniformed, armed, sworn officer, even though that’s a ridiculous place to have such a person,” says Mayfield. “The goal [is] to expand the capacity of the Asheville Police Department by removing officers from these situations and allow them to be more available for calls that require their specific training.”

Speed bumps

According to APD spokesperson Samantha Booth, since 2018 roughly 10% of all calls to APD have been related to a motor vehicle collision. Police Chief David Zack says requiring officers to respond to property damage-only incidents is often a tedious and inefficient use of the police force, especially when the department has fewer officers. 

“It can be very time consuming, not only in the time that it takes to respond, but then to exchange information and file a report,” Zack explains. He noted that service calls to minor accidents can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour or longer depending on the circumstances. “It’s a relatively simple process, but it can draw officers away from activities that would be more productive.”

Asheville’s police force has been operating at a reduced capacity after police officers began leaving the department en masse starting in 2020. Since then, Zack notes, the department has been down 35%-40% of its staff on any given day.

In 2021, APD announced that the department would stop responding to certain calls for service, including some types of theft, simple assaults and funeral escorts, because of the staffing shortages. In 2022, Xpress reported that APD response time, including for calls related to homicide, armed robbery or domestic violence, continued to rise in spite of that policy change.

A civilian traffic investigators program may offer the beleaguered department a break, says Zack, though he adds that he had been considering the concept before APD began experiencing staffing challenges.

“What we’re talking about is freeing up officers to handle more serious matters or to do more proactive work,” he explains. “If there’s a faster, more efficient way to respond to these types of incidents, that’s what we want to explore.”

Following the blueprint

Since 2007, the Wilmington Police Department’s traffic investigators division, made up of six trained civilian investigators, have responded to more than 1,500 crashes each year. 

Asheville’s initiative would be modeled after Wilmington’s, says Mayfield. The legislation requires investigators to attend a training program designed by the Asheville Police Department in conjunction with the N.C. Justice Academy. 

Investigators will complete at least four weeks of field training with a member of law enforcement experienced in responding to traffic investigations.  The investigator positions would be paid, though a budget for the program has yet to be fleshed out.

House Bill 140 does not give investigators the power to issue citations to drivers. In Wilmington, if an investigator responds to a traffic accident that requires a citation, officers must be dispatched to the scene.

Under the new law, the investigators will be issued a uniform “substantially different” from sworn APD officers and will not be equipped with a weapon of any kind or have the authority to arrest or conduct a criminal process. Any vehicles issued to or used by an investigator will not bear markings or symbols that identify them as police vehicles. The vehicle may have emergency equipment and lights installed but will not use blue lights in any manner or form. Red and amber lights are permitted.

“They would get trained just like police officers do on responding to crashes,” Mayfield says. “I would think you would also want to train them on deescalation and implicit bias because that’s required for officers who are interacting with the public on a regular basis.” 

Zack adds that should the traffic investigators experience a dispute among the drivers or other safety issues, officers will be called to the scene. 

“We’re not reinventing the wheel, but we will be sitting and working closely with [the city of Wilmington] to discuss their experiences and what problems they encountered so hopefully, we don’t have problems rolling out our own program,” he explains. 

Over the finish line

Mayfield has introduced or co-sponsored similar bills since being elected to office in 2020 but those initiatives didn’t gain partisan support needed for approval. Mayfield attributes that lack of support to Asheville’s politics and national sentiments around policing over the last few years.

“My understanding — and nobody explicitly said this to me, but I just kind of picked it up — is that two years ago, we were way too close to the ‘defund the police’ movement. And for a lot of Republicans, [this initiative] sure looked like defunding the police, even though it’s not,” Mayfield explains. 

But in light of police forces around the state facing officer shortages, those attitudes may be shifting. During this year’s session, six bills aimed at expanding civilian investigator programs or giving municipalities across the state the power to create such initiatives were introduced.

“I think at that point people have started to say, ‘This isn’t just Asheville. This is actually being responsive to a serious problem that all of these municipalities are having,’” Mayfield says.

APD spokesperson Booth notes that even with the passage of the legislation, the process of creating a civilian investigators program in Asheville will take time as standards and training for the new positions are developed. How a traffic investigators program could impact APD’s budget or the department’s next steps haven’t been determined. 

“This is not a fast-moving process,” she adds. “Unfortunately, we just do not have those [details] at the moment.” 

Even though those details need to be hammered out, Mayfield says the passage of the bill will benefit the city in years to come. 

“This was the best possible outcome, and we got it once several Republicans got behind it and pushed it through,” she adds. “[This is] good news not just for Asheville, but every city [in North Carolina].”


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