Civic

Asheville votes to defund its law enforcement

Photograph by Erick Sajac

Asheville – On the evening of September 25, the City of Asheville issued a statement from Mayor Esther Manheimer reaffirming the city’s firm support for free speech and the right to protest peacefully for any reason, but more particularly for historically disadvantaged communities. She condemned violence in the name of racial justice and added, acts “intended to intimidate and terrify individuals, … such as placing a coffin at the door of the Asheville police station and placing tombstones in the yards of council members and the city manager, are simply unacceptable.” She closed with, “We are not a city of fear and intimidation. We are a city of love and compassion.”

She also mentioned the attack on local reporter Chad Nesbitt of Skyline News who was severely injured and hospitalized during a downtown protest on September 23.

The latest protest coincided with City Manager Debra Campbell’s official presentation to council on the initiatives for reimagining the police staff had been able to integrate into the 2020-2021 budget. The city had used what legal tools were available to postpone the budget’s adoption three months, listen to community grievances, and initialize policing reforms in the current fiscal year. Campbell couldn’t stress enough that there was more work to do and added, “Other budgetary adjustments will likely be made this fiscal year from the Asheville Police Department’s budget if other programs and initiatives are identified and are ready to be piloted or fully implemented.”

Campbell was firm. “When we started this process to respond to a “defund the police by 50%” request by Black AVL Demands, we wanted to make sure the community knew that defunding the police by 50% was not a recommendation that the city manager could support.” For a moment, it seemed the city would not cave to the demands of the few who have been dominating the council’s public comment periods and suggesting that acts of random violence fortified their position that an enforcement arm for the law was both unnecessary and purely “racist.”

Campbell shared with the council a cartoon she said summarized what the invest/divest movement was trying to do. It showed a policeman carrying a load of boulders, and then those boulders being farmed out to other workers. 

Regardless, Campbell managed to “defund” the police by $770,000. But before the official public presentation, protesters had gotten wind from documents posted online that Campbell had done so by transferring police functions to other departments. This is, actually, equivalent to what protesters had requested, except Campbell stopped at her legal limits. Protesters had been saying addicts and persons with behavioral issues need social services, but in North Carolina, social services are the purview of the counties, not municipalities. Protesters have often spoken disparagingly of capitalism while supporting ideas of Marxism, the underlying assumption being that governments will fairly redistribute resources without guile. Consistently, they have been demanding that money taken from the police department support the construction and management of affordable housing, seed capital for minority entrepreneurs, and the payment of living wages.

The move to defund the police was met with the ire of one state senator. NC Senator Chuck Edwards of Hendersonville released the following statement. “When the legislature reconvenes next year, the first bill I will introduce will defund cities that defund the police. We must maintain law and order. While municipalities have control over their local budgets, the state legislature also has control over its budget, and I intend to help create an environment where public safety is a top priority,” said Edwards in a press release. “Police officers protect my family and yours. Defunding police and hammering their morale until dozens resign will result in more crime, not less. The far-left Asheville City Council’s decisions are reckless and endanger public safety.”

Campbell’s proposed budget amendment, based on community input, moved four Animal Control positions into code enforcement in Development Services, eliminated an assistant chief position to fund community engagement, assigned the patrolling of Pritchard Park to two park wardens under Parks and Recreation, and reassigned six dispatchers to Information Technology. It also realized savings by not filling vacancies created from the departure of 31 officers in June.

Asheville Police Chief David Zack then updated the public on changes to policing strategies, not all of which could be disclosed for tactical reasons. He said the Drug Suppression Unit had already been disbanded, its officers now working in Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Zack explained that violent and property crimes have been increasing over the last five years, and prosecuting low-level dealers and users of controlled substances hasn’t done anything to weaken the drug trade over the life of the War on Drugs; it just bars people from legal economic opportunity by pinning a record on them. Officers do little for public safety if they’re parked in cars waiting for a chance to eye-witness a drug transaction to start working up the chain of plea informants. The decision to effectively cease conducting traffic stops was made several administrations ago, because “doing that all day long, … doesn’t produce any positive outcomes,” either.

Zack was optimistic about deploying Verbal Defense and Influence training. The program gives officers tools for communicating under pressure. Zack said he had had great success with that program while serving in New York, as indicated by reduced violence but also improved officer morale and fewer citizen complaints. He added that officers proactively told him they wanted better training since all they learn in basic law-enforcement training for restraining people resisting arrest are traditional methods of pain compliance, which he considered “completely unacceptable.”

City Attorney Brad Branham said the legal staff was working on developing legislation that would allow local jurisdictions throughout the state to create citizen review boards for police. The boards have long been opposed by law-enforcement advocates who maintain the right to trial by a jury of one’s peers would be abridged by letting civilians judge what should have been done in split-second, life-and-death situations.