Asheville – It was the second day of Asheville City Council’s 2023 retreat. Nicholas Beamon of One Team Leadership in Charlotte had been invited back as a facilitator, and he led the after-lunch session. It consisted of having members of the council break into groups to wordsmith goal statements for a list of priorities. Upon concluding the segment on public safety, in an unprecedented move, Asheville Police Department (APD) Chief David Zack was invited to the table for questioning.
Responding to a question about what it would take to get staffing levels back to adequate levels, Zack said APD was losing 15-20 officers a year to natural attrition “prior to the current crisis.” The department hires through the Basic Law Enforcement Training (BLET) program at AB-Tech, which has a capacity for 15 students and runs two cohorts a year. Unfortunately, the classes never have full enrollment, and only rarely do all enrollees graduate. Zack recalled December 2020, when all graduates quit the department before they even finished their field training.
Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore asked what it would take to graduate more than 30 officers a year, and Zack said APD needs to run an in-house academy. Doing so is becoming a nationwide best practice. It saves departments time and money spent on hiring officers as well as on retaining part-time trainers.
Zack said the department was competing nationwide for officers and it was difficult to find qualified individuals interested in the profession. According to Just Economics, the local living wage is $20/hour, and APD trainees start at $21–$22/hour. Asked what he needed to get over the hiring bump, Zack said, “We need to be the highest-paid agency in the state. We’re talking Charlotte-type numbers.” Officers, he said, should live in the community where they work and not be forced by financial pressures to live in another county, as they do here. Senior police officers in Charlotte, it was estimated, earn around $70,000.
Zack appreciated that city leadership had been making strides to get officers better pay, but for every move the city makes, it is outpaced by the competition. As for perks, he said, “We are constantly sharing notes on what is being offered.” For example, Washington, DC, has implemented a $20,000 hiring bonus.
Councilwoman Sage Turner asked about other incentives, including hiring laterally. Zack said his department was doing “all of the above.” However, hiring laterals is difficult because they have tenure and expect higher pay. Graduates from AB-Tech’s program tend to be among the best trained in the state, so when they leave, the city loses the money it invested in their training. “We see our people getting poached quite often,” said Zack, adding he would like North Carolina to follow New York in passing legislation that requires poaching agencies to compensate the training municipalities.
Mayor Esther Manheimer asked if that might be done by holding the poaching agencies liable for paying BLET tuition, which Asheville currently pays, and Zack only replied that preventing lateral exit was “a tricky maneuver, because how hard do you want to fight for someone who doesn’t want to be here?” Zack added that APD had only hired two laterals over the last five to ten years.
Turner said two things she had heard that officers don’t like about the job: they don’t like to clean trash and biohazards, and they don’t want to arrest people on charges they know will be dismissed. On the former, Zack agreed there were a lot of ordinances the city could review and update. On the latter, he said, “Quite frankly, some of our not-for-profits need to be better partners than they’ve been.” The remark was made in reference to outfits that, in the name of helping the poor, end up providing sanctuary not for poor people but for harmful and illegal activities.
Zack said full staffing was important because “a lot of public safety is perception.” A police presence serves as a deterrent for bad actors and gives peace of mind to law-abiding citizens. It’s why the downtown unit was created. “I never saw it as a debate,” he said. “I know this.”
Asked this time by Turner what perks would help, Zack replied that the second thing his department needed was support from city leadership. “The city has a reputation for being unfriendly to law enforcement, and a reputation is a very difficult thing to change.” He described the work environment officers seek as a professional operation, where they believe they’re the best trained, best equipped, and best paid, and where they can see opportunity for a fruitful career. Zack said providing that was his responsibility; he takes it seriously, and the APD is moving in that direction, against the financial and reputational currents.
Zack said most high-ranking cops went into the profession because they admired somebody, often a family member, who was a cop and who encouraged them to pursue that line of work. He asked what officers would say today if a child were to ask if he should join APD when he grows up. Zack said if officers aren’t promoting the profession, “then all the recruiting firms and all the salaries in the world won’t make a difference.” He said that officers who feel they are treated well are the best advertisement.
Turner began a round of expressions of appreciation. Zack enthusiastically said those who have stayed with APD are the best. They put in long hours and overtime, and detectives sleep in their offices after putting in 16-20 hours after shootings. Beamon had the last word. “As a visitor to a wonderful city,” he asked Zack to relay his appreciation to APD’s brave men and women.