Some people see the glass as half full while others see it as half empty. The Council of Independent Business Owners got an earful of both perspectives during its Aug. 20 meeting when Asheville Police Chief David Zack and Republican state Sen. Chuck Edwards offered contrasting interpretations of the state of policing and crime in Asheville.
Chief Zack noted that while APD is still dealing with the loss of 84 police officers since January 2020, which he said leaves the department operating with a 25%-40% staffing deficit on any given day, operations at APD have started to level out.
“After going through an initial tough phase, we’ve really gotten our footing. Things have very much stabilized,” Zack said.
He noted that the department recently swore in four new officers and that 10 other recruits are in the process of completing the APD’s law enforcement basic training.
“Interestingly, we are getting some applicants from outside the Asheville area and from out of state. We appreciate that, but still I think it’s really important that we try and grab some homegrown talent as well,” Zack explained. “We are definitely looking at maybe some unconventional or new strategies with recruitment. That’s going to take a significant effort, but we certainly have to be more creative than we have in the past.”
Zack also said that while the Asheville Police Department had been hit particularly hard by resignations, the situation is not unique. Departments around the country continue to experience low recruitment numbers, with many officers leaving the profession altogether.
He also said officer morale is also beginning to rise in part to recent actions like Asheville City Council voting 6-1 to raise Asheville’s starting police officer pay by more than 20%, and local business group AVL Business Owners funding a billboard on Patton Avenue that thanks local police officers.
“When you think the whole world’s against you, really all you need to bolster your spirit and to bolster your morale is just somebody to say, ‘Hey we appreciate the job you’re doing,’” he said.
Zack also responded to a national report on Fox News that named Asheville as one of the nation’s top-10 violent cities. Verifying the report would require a deep dive into its ranking methodology, he said, but he pointed to recent APD statistics that show violent crime in Asheville has risen steadily over the last five years.
“To say that we have a violent crime problem, yes, we do. I would be disingenuous if I said otherwise,” Zack said. “With that being said, if we look at today’s numbers in comparison … it seems to be leveling. I wouldn’t say it’s going down by a statistically significant number; we have to see where we’re at at the end of summer and moving into fall, but I think we’ve stabilized somewhat.
“I think sometimes there’s a thought that this is solely an Asheville problem when it’s really not. We’re seeing, especially in major cities, rising violent crime,” he continued. “Our violent crime has not gone through the roof as it has in some communities. It has stayed pretty level, pretty consistent from where we’ve been over the last year or so.”
Sen. Edwards, however, painted a less promising picture of policing in Asheville. He said he appreciated Zack’s reassuring view of the situation but added, “I’m not as optimistic.”
Edwards said that Zack had provided a diplomatic analysis of Asheville’s policing and crime, but the issues are more extensive and distressing than the chief had described.
“That word stabilization bothered me in a number of ways,” he said. “I can get away with saying this where maybe he can’t: What we’ve done is established where the bottom is. We’ve established that the bottom is losing nearly 90 officers and we’ve established that the bottom is the decay that we’ve seen in police officer morale.”
Edwards praised local businesses that are providing support to officers but encouraged members of the public to put pressure on City Council and other leaders to stand in solidarity with police.
“I think we need to show up at City Council meetings and demand that they show support. I think that we ought to insist that City Council show up in a meeting with ‘Back the Blue’ T-shirts on. I think we should insist that the City Council pass resolutions in support of police officers. I think we should insist that City Council call officers in at every single meeting and recognize them for their personal contribution,” Edwards said.
And while he didn’t object to Zack’s assertion that police staffing issues and rising crime rates were not unique to Asheville, he maintained that the problems were out of proportion for a city of its size and culture, calling them “inexcusable.”
“We’re better than that. We’re different than that. We are mountain people. We have different values,” Edwards said. “It is simply inexcusable that Asheville is 10th in this nation in violent crime.”
The business council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the Asheville Police Department following the remarks by Zack and Edwards.