Why are officers leaving APD?

NOW HIRING: As Asheville Police Department officers continue to leave the agency, other departments are beginning to take notice including the Winston-Salem Police Department which put up a billboard along Patton Avenue seeking to recruit officers. More than half of the officers who have left APD have gone on to other departments, including within Buncombe County. Photo by Scott Southwick

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.”

Lateral moves 

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

FRESH START: Chief Zack says that APD’s current class of basic law enforcement training cadets, who started June 28, won’t start work until spring 2022 at the earliest. Photo courtesy of the Asheville Police Department

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.”

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27 thoughts on “Why are officers leaving APD?

  1. jonny D

    This is a perfect example of lack of leadership from the city council and Chief Zack. All that money and support for a cliche movement and they forgot about their own people.
    I say send the council packing and the Chief with them. Let someone break into one of their homes and see who they call. It is dropping the ball big time when you decide to make decisions based on news stories and crap on the internet. I support the local police even if their leaders don’t. Another sad example of the downfall of Asheville…

    • luther blissett

      “they forgot about their own people”

      Do you know what percentage of APD officers live within the city limits? (I don’t. Maybe that information’s available.) Or do you have a different definition of “their own people” that’s somehow the opposite of a “cliche movement?”

      We know that there are ongoing institutional problems with APD: no department goes through as many chiefs in as short a time without internal strife. There’s a reason why it was Chad Nesbitt who got the tip that led to the previous chief’s speedy resignation. There’s a reason why Rondell Lance struts about like he’s the real chief, having led the FOP for 24 years.

      Anyway, what does “support the local police” actually mean? What’s the difference between supporting the police and not supporting them? Is it “paying them more”? Paying them more is a line-item on a budget, and if that’s what they need then property taxes can be adjusted to cover it. (The TDA could cover half of APD’s budget with next year’s marketing budget. Defund the TDA to fund the police.)

      But it doesn’t feel as if people who say “support the police” mean “pay them more.” It’s usually accompanied by “let them do their jobs.” It feels like they mean “give cops a free pass.” It feels like they mean “if a cop thinks it’s the right decision, who are we to judge?” It feels like they mean “just shut up.” That’s not acceptable. The city is not a cop-ocracy. Policing is a municipal function. Cops are not superheroes with some unique innate capacity to save the world. They are members of the public granted special powers — by consent, and with oversight — and paid to do so.

    • Kevin

      > Let someone break into one of their homes and see who they call.

      Oh no, who will they call when they want someone to say, “Sorry man there’s not much we can really do. Have you considered getting a security system?”

  2. dyfed

    Asheville’s media provides a consistently bigger louder platform for people complaining about the destruction of card tables stocked with water bottles that citizens who have experienced assaults and robberies.

      • dyfed

        Yes. The protesters and activists have been granted much more free publicity than the plights of those affected by our ludicrously high crime rate. Next question?

  3. Richard B.

    Though Ms. Randle does an excellent reporting job with a thorough, in depth story without apparent bias, the answer to the Headline Question is quite simple.
    It is the Liberal acquiescence to, and acceptance of, all that’s wrong with woke ness and cultural acceptance of obvious criminal behavior.

    It is the unavoidable outcome of the new paradigm of Justice set in motion by Obama and Holder years ago.
    And that is, – that whether a perpetrator is a perpetrator, or a victim is a victim, – is dependent wholly on the skin tone of those involved.

    There is no question that law enforcement officers everywhere have been made the scapegoats for what has amounted to cowardly behavior from those in charge of our city,
    state, and federal political entities.

    • PM Smith

      The media’s bias is apparent with the capitalization of the word “black” in every article, while not capitalizing the word “white”. While not blatantly discriminatory, it is still the media’s way of taking sides in what should be balanced reporting of facts.

      • Mountain Xpress follows the guidance of the Associated Press in capitalizing Black. Here’s the relevant section from the AP style guide for your reference:

        Black (adj.) Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges.

        Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.

        • Feel the Burn

          So maybe leading instead of following would be the better answer. Wouldn’t capitalization of any race above another in its very definition be racist?

          • Richard B.

            For several years now, I’ve been increasingly convinced that identifying African Americans as “black people” and Caucasians as “whites”, has powered the growing racial animus that begin in earnest during Obama’s first term.
            My definition of institutional racism is our governmental entities at the local, state, and Federal levels requesting boxes be checked to provide our skin tone in just about every form and document. As well as businesses when applying for a job, medical facilities, loan applications, polls, – you name it.
            Yet when I share this thought with friends and family, an uncomprehending expression crosses their face.
            Curious if other readers share my seemingly oddball thinking, especially folks f color.

    • Kevin

      So holding like 1 out of every 1000 bad apples a tiny bit accountable makes the job untenable for the good apples? Not likely lmao

  4. Wren

    So they’re leaving because they can’t just punch people in the face when they want to. Sounds like APD has a snowflake problem, to me. They make more money than most people in this city – their starting salary is higher than the median income! Bunch of crybabies. I hope they all quit.

    • luther blissett

      I’ll note in passing that the Chief and all three assistant chiefs of Winston-Salem police department are Black and the city’s population is 35% Black. That’s to say, W-S is not a city where policing can be configured as something done to one group of people on behalf of another group of people.

    • Feel The Burn

      Yep, probably the most ignorant post I’ve seen on Mountain Xpress in a while. Maybe you should do a “ride a long” with an APD officer before you post such a foolish comment. I think you would see that they more than earn salary they are being paid.

      • luther blissett

        Then campaign for a tax increase sufficient to pay them more. It’s a line item. You can plug the numbers into a spreadsheet and it’ll do all the math for you. Factor in similar salaries for positions in social work and mental health that would relieve the load on officers who aren’t trained to do that work. Campaign for them to be paid what you think they should earn, and then we can work out what “support” means beyond financial support.

        But maybe you have a secondary point. Maybe riding along with APD should be more like jury duty: that way it won’t just be people who like riding along with cops. APD should be willing to have members of the communities they patrol the most sitting in the car with them to explain their priorities and maybe learn some stuff.

        (‘Ride along’, though? One of the problems with American policing is that cops spend too much time viewing the world through a toughened windshield. How about a walk along?)

        • dyfed

          The idea that mental health personnel and social workers are somehow going to address the vehicle thefts, property crimes, and assaults that APD is too understaffed to respond to is a joke. The fact is that cops don’t want to work here because the environment sucks and the pay is not even close to competitive, and as a result crime is through the roof.

          The national BLM talking points about unbundling law enforcement make absolutely no sense in our community with these challenges (pursue that unbundling if you like, but it is irrelevant to our current urgent need for patrol cops). We need more cops, so we either need to pay them a lot more or otherwise make it somehow attractive enough to make up for subpar pay and a hostile community. There is no solution that does not involve a fully staffed traditional police department; we were pushing it five years ago and it’s a lot worse now than it was then.

    • G Man

      Who are “they”? Are you assigning a single incident to be a normal trait among all others? So, who is the snowflake?

      “They” make more money than MOST people in AVL? Really? I’d like to see some factual information on this. At best, the pay is above average, certainly not more than MOST people make.

      “Crybabies”? You just love irony, don’t you? They aren’t crying, they are leaving. You are the one crying.

  5. HILARY CHIZ

    Maybe we just keep choosing mediocre management. How many Chiefs have we had in the last five or ten years? Or maybe there is still an atmosphere of sabotage around APD; look what happened to Chief Hooper. I’m not impressed with any of the recent hires in City government.

  6. indy499

    Brooke, I assume someone at some point must have told you that the most dangerous sample size in the world is 1. Any guesses on the second most dangerous?

  7. Feel the Burn

    Why are officers leaving APD? This must be a rhetorical question or the author is making a funny. Hilarious!

  8. Mike R.

    The current state of APD is the culmination of years of poor management that allowed (maybe even supported) unprofessional conduct within the force.
    We moved here when Tammy Hooper was chief and I knew right away she was ineffective in that role. Her annual report was pitiful; main claim of progress was cleaning up an evidence room that had little control and organization. While certainly needed, there was little in the way of crime stats, improvements in the force, etc. Then along came the Johnny Rush affair and it was immediately clear that Hooper had no firm managerial control/influence over her force.

    On the other hand, I am extremely impressed with our new Police Chief David Zach. I have been following arrests throughout 2021 and APD has made significant headway rounding up all sorts of violent offenders. These people need to be taken off our streets. Most are drug dealers but all are carrying weapons illegally including the fact that many are past convicted felons.

    I would hazard a guess that policing in Asheville has gotten very, very difficult.

    First, we have a larger than normal homeless/transient/lost soul/miscreant/drug addicted population due to the generous support our community gives these folks. Some amount of the petty crime comes from this community normally and the larger the community, the more of a ongoing burden for the police.
    If I were a police officer, this sort of ongoing hassling/impact of police resources would get very, very tiresome. Many of these people are not going to change and simply continue to get into trouble with the law.

    Second, I believe we have a much larger hard drug problem than what is every spoken or recognized. This usage runs from addicts who live in and around the city as well as tourists looking for a hit while visiting the city. Yes, I really did say that. Hard drugs involve bad actors with guns and the willingness to use them.
    Most of this activity, if you study the arrests, is done by younger black males in and around our community. So as a percentage of the population, black males are much more involved in violent criminal activity, which is mainly why of the past focus by APD was on this population. HOWEVER, I would also state that there was very likely some imbedded racism within a good amount of the force that very likely took traffic stops, and other hassling actions beyond what was likely necessary. Still, based on crime statistics alone, you would expect that effective policing in this city would NOT reflect just the known demographics of Asheville; that is traffic stops of black people would not exactly mirror the 15% or so, black population in the city.

    Thirdly, Asheville’s “party town” atmosphere makes policing on weekends even more challenging than some quieter cities. Many young people come in to the center city to “party”, get high or drunk and basically let off steam. These folks do not live in Asheville, so in essence, locals have to fund this extra policing burden. I don’t think this weekend activity is insignificant either.

    APD management weakness (before Chief Zach) petty much the rest of Asheville City management over the years….which starts with a poorly elected City Council that has been much more interested in solving social issues then providing oversight of the key city services that are needed. This does not just include APD, I’ve seen poor management across a number of departments including Public Works, Asheville Water Department, Storm Water, Sanitation. And in some defense of these people, salaries of these employees and budgets of the departments have not been what was necessary for effective operation. One place we could obtain additional funds would be from the current tax money needed for Asheville City Schools (~$500/year). That would make a great supplement for these critical departments if we could all agree that merging ACS with Buncombe County makes the most sense administratively and logistically. We wouldn’t recoup the entire $500, but I’m sure a large portion of it due to the heavy administrative overlap with two school systems.

    Regarding those that have left or retired. My guess is that for some number of these officers, it was time to go and including some that were just not willing to change to a more unbiased, professional approach.

    All organizational crises are tough but they often provide a golden opportunity to rebuild to a new/better level. That is what I’m hopeful for. Part and parcel to that is for the community and City Council to fully support our current Chief, David Zach.. (Mayor Mannheimer seems to have finally come around).

    I very much believe he is head and shoulders over past chiefs and we should feel extremely lucky to have him leading this department. Let’s not screw this thing up and throw the baby out with the bathwater. Give your support and let him continue to lead.

    • luther blissett

      You have about eight months to assemble a slate of candidates who will run for county commission and city council on a explicit joint commitment to merge the city and county school systems. I’m ambivalent about it, but doing so requires consent at two levels of government.

    • Richard B.

      Mike R. calls it as it is. Excellent overview of the trials and tribulations that have been increasingly obvious to astute and informed – as well as unbiased – citizens.
      Especially noteworthy; – crime stats tell the story while the local media and politicians hide from the truth; “poorly elected” city council very kindly describes the current
      officials who have little experience and less knowledge as to how to run a city like Asheville; and, the previous Police Chiefs were ineffective because they were selected
      on the basis of social and cultural factors that the political leanings of Asheville citizens adhere to, rather than experience and competence.
      Kudos to Mike.

      • luther blissett

        “the previous Police Chiefs were ineffective because they were selected on the basis of social and cultural factors”

        William Anderson had more experience as a chief when he was hired than David Zack.

        Anyway, you’d be saying that if Asheville were able to hire the current Winston-Salem police chief. But maybe the blind squirrel found a nut here: if rank and file officers think the same way as Richard B. and Mike R. — and why wouldn’t we believe that? — then of course they’d treat their chiefs as token diversity hires with no legitimacy. At some point you stop looking at the coaches and start looking at the team.

        And if crime rates are up, doesn’t that mean that the police are… bad at stopping crime?

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