It’s no secret that officers are quitting the Asheville Police Department in droves — it’s front-page news in The New York Times. A June 24 article for the paper shone a national spotlight on the APD’s staffing shortage as being among the worst in the country.
Out of 238 sworn positions with the APD that were filled at the start of 2020, 87 were open as of June 30, and all but three of those vacancies were created by officer resignations. Those vacancies, combined with vacation time, family medical leave and other occasions that require time off, mean that the department is operating at about 40% of its full strength capacity during each shift, according to Chief David Zack says. In a June 2 press release, the department announced that it would stop responding to a number of crimes, including simple assaults that have already occurred, petty theft, trespassing and more, “as a result of the staffing crisis.”
What’s less certain is why officers are choosing to quit. While the department ties the start of its resignation wave to June 2020, coinciding with local and national protests over the murder of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd by white former police officer Derek Chauvin, nearly all of its former officers are unwilling to talk about the conditions that led them to leave.
Xpress reached out to more than 50 former APD officers about their resignations. Only two agreed to share their thoughts, both under the condition of anonymity out of fear of professional consequences at their new jobs.
“There’s not a single issue,” says Asheville’s Police Chief David Zack, of why his force has been depleted. “When you start taking into account just the way that police officers are portrayed and vilified, in combination with the wage, in combination with just the stress of the profession, there’s been no one single factor.”
Those issues aren’t unique to the APD. But according to the two former officers, the department has its own undercurrents that may also be contributing to its losses. While those former officers’ reasons for leaving only sample the range of opinions behind all APD resignations, their perspectives provide insight into an agency that’s struggling to stay afloat amid local calls for massive overhauls to police practices and funding.
Tone at the top
One former APD officer tells Xpress that a primary reason they chose to leave the department was what they call a lack of support from leadership. The officer believes the APD has been caving to anti-police public opinion rather than standing by its rank and file. Some of that criticism predates the racial justice protests of last spring.
The source points to the APD’s handling of the use-of-force case against another former officer, Anthony Sorangelo, as the start of the issues. While arresting an intoxicated man on Feb. 11, 2020, Sorangelo punched the man after he became agitated and combative, an action the officer claimed was necessary to gain the man’s compliance.
Zack, who had been sworn in as chief a week prior to the incident, had promised to stabilize the APD after the back-to-back resignations of former Chiefs Tammy Hooper and Chris Bailey. The department also faced allegations of racial bias stemming from the 2016 shooting of Jai “Jerry” Williams and 2017 beating of Johnnie Rush, both Black residents. (Both Sorangelo and the man he punched are white.)
The new chief determined that a criminal investigation into the Sorangelo incident was necessary, according to an APD press release. The officer was charged with a misdemeanor for simple assault in June 2020 and terminated from the APD in September. But this February, Judge Calvin Hill dismissed the case against Sorangelo after Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams presented his evidence in the case. Sorangelo now works with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.
The Xpress source says that what they describe as a presumption of Sorangelo’s guilt caused many APD officers to lose confidence in Zack and other department leaders. September, the month of Sorangelo’s termination, saw 16 officers resign from the force, the highest of any month since the start of 2020.
“I get it if an officer does something illegal. But when an officer acts within his legal rights, they’re cleared through the initial investigation. And then a new chief comes and backtracks and says, ‘We need to make an example of this.’ … In my opinion, they were just out to get [Sorangelo], which makes my blood boil,” the source says.
The former APD officer says the unwillingness of department and city leaders to accept accountability during last year’s racial justice protests also pushed some officers over the edge. They claim that Chief Zack and City Manager Debra Campbell regularly offered support and guidance to officers in private but publicly condemned the APD’s actions to appeal to Asheville’s City Council and local media.
The source points to one incident, which made national news, where officers destroyed water bottles and other supplies at a protester medical station. “As soon as that incident happened, [Campbell] immediately condemned it. She said it was inappropriate and should have been handled differently. But the fact is, that order came down from higher up,” the source explains. “She was a part of that decision, but then she puts the blame on the police department and trash-talked them in the media.”
According to an after-action report released by the APD in March, the decision to destroy the medic supplies “was made by the highest-ranking supervisor on the scene. City spokesperson Polly McDaniel says Campbell was not involved except by authorizing “a general delegation of authority for all tactical decisions to the chief of police and the APD during the protests.”
“Our Asheville police officers are community heroes, people who stayed in place serving our neighborhoods during the pandemic,” Campbell added in a statement provided by McDaniel. “They deserve our thanks and special appreciation during this time when their numbers are down.”
Backlash to backlash
Another former officer says that, while a majority of officers have quit in response to intense community criticism during and after last year’s protests, others chose to leave earlier this year after the initial resignations created immense pressure for those who stayed. The source explains that the staffing shortage caused some officers to be pulled from high-level, specialized positions to cover patrol beats.
“I watched a lot of people who had worked hard to get positions that were not patrol, such as detective and school resource officer, or become specialized, like anti-drug or anti-crime task force units. Some were working those jobs for a long time, some even up to 10 years,” the former officer says. “I watched people from all of those categories get removed from their jobs and put back on patrol because of the shortage of patrol officers.”
APD spokesperson Christina Hallingse confirmed that some detectives had been reassigned to patrol duties due to the staffing crisis. Those officers did not see a reduction in pay.
As more officers left the job, those who remained were stretched thin, causing even more to leave as day-to-day operations became more difficult. “The snowball just kept rolling down the hill,” says Zack referring to the continued personnel losses.
The former officer also maintains that working in the city limits of Asheville is exceptionally difficult compared to the duties of law enforcement agencies in surrounding areas. According to the officer, Asheville experiences one of the highest police call volumes in Western North Carolina. The city also has a sizable number of homeless residents, and while Asheville’s population hovers around 90,000 people, millions of tourists visit the city throughout the year.
“You have to be on your A-game if you really want to prevent crime and try to ensure the safety of everyone there. It’s almost like the major leagues for Western North Carolina,” the source says.
But despite the high expectations from officers, compensation at APD has struggled to keep up with the area’s rising cost of living. Starting pay for new officers was around $37,000 for fiscal year 2020-21, while Asheville is the state’s most expensive place to live according to May data from the nonprofit Council for Community and Economic Research. “We were not in the marketplace by a longshot,” says Zack.
During its June 22 meeting, Asheville City Council voted 6-1 to approve a $201.67 million operating budget for fiscal year 2021-22, which included $6.7 million for increases in employee compensation, among them raising Asheville’s starting police officer pay to about $45,000 — a boost of more than 20%.
Zack says that while the increase is a start, he doesn’t expect it to solve the issue of staffing shortages. “We know for a fact that some officers left to work in agencies that paid less because they felt that they were going to be more appreciated in those communities,” he says. “It’s not just about money.”
Media outlets and concerned citizens are not the only people taking notice of APD’s staffing shortage. On June 4, the Winston-Salem Police Department installed a billboard along Patton Avenue advertising a website that seeks to recruit new officers.
“We are committed to providing our community here in Winston-Salem with exceptional service, and in order to continue to do that, we are constantly in search of good, professional police officers,” says Winston-Salem Police Department Captain Renee Melly. “Asheville, in law enforcement circles, has a very good reputation in this regard.”
After her department caught wind that Asheville was experiencing high numbers of officer resignations, she says Winston-Salem began researching why Asheville’s police officers were leaving. Based on a review of local media, she says, the WSPD found that a lack of support from local leaders and the community at large was the No. 1 issue.
“Although each agency has its own unique challenges, one area where we feel we excel here in Winston-Salem is in the support we receive both from the city and the department,” Melly tells Xpress. “Even in light of this past year’s events, the city and the community have stood by us and showed a tremendous outpouring of support. So that’s why we chose to extend our recruiting efforts to Asheville. We believe that we have here what they may be missing there.”
Melly says that her department has used recruiting billboards in other North Carolina cities in the past, such as Boone and Fayetteville; however, Asheville’s billboard is the only one currently in use. While she says the campaign has generated some interest, the WSPD has yet to recruit any Asheville officers.
Last fall, the Fort Wayne Police Department in Indiana unveiled a digital billboard message along Interstate 26 East near exit 33 also seeking new officers. And Chief Zack says he’s recently heard local radio ads recruiting officers from the Ocean Isle Beach Police Department, located on North Carolina’s coast.
“Everybody’s recruiting, and when they see the numbers of officers leaving Asheville, they see us as ripe for poaching and they’re taking full advantage of that,” Zack says. He notes that around half of APD’s recent departures have gone on to work with other law enforcement agencies, including those within Buncombe County.
Both former APD officers that spoke with Xpress say they have stayed with law enforcement after leaving Asheville’s department. They say that the difference between their new employers and APD is significant.
“It’s the polar opposite. It confuses me some days,” says the first source. “They treat their officers like adults. They allow me to do my job. They trust my decisions. It’s confusing how much less anxiety there is on a day-to-day basis.”
Turning the tide
Zack says that eight people are about to enter APD’s basic law enforcement training. That training lasts about a year, meaning those recruits won’t be on the streets until spring 2022 at the earliest. And even if the recruits graduate from the academy, they are not obligated to stay with the department.
“We had what we thought were seven really good candidates that graduated in December 2020. Six have already left,” Zack says. “As they came out of the training program and saw what the job entailed and went out and started physically doing it, they said, ‘No, this is not for me.’”
Despite the department’s challenges, Zack says that he is starting to feel “a different vibe” of community support and maintains that the APD will continue to carry on.
“We are hearing more community members speak up. We are getting more support from Council. Certainly them addressing the compensation issue shows a level of support. So I think that tide is turning,” Zack says. “We can’t concentrate on who left. We’ve got to concentrate on who’s still here.”