Asheville – The Asheville Police Department’s (APD’s) Deputy Chief Jackie Stepp provided Asheville City Council with a sampling of statistics from the city’s recent initiative answering to national headline-making criminal activity. The initiative involved returning foot and bike patrols to the downtown area to deter crime, monitoring parking garages, removing litter and graffiti, and piloting a community responder team.
Year-to-date, citywide violent crime incidents fell from 562 to 460, but Stepp said last year’s record-setting rate was so high that it was a fair bet that things would only get better. The rate was actually 1% higher than the five-year average.
Tallied to 3,072, property crime incidents were down 4% year-over-year and 2.5% lower than the five-year average. Property crimes peaked in 2019, with 4,401 incidents. Stepp noted that a lot of the reduction was attributable to “changes in corporate policy.” In other words, large retailers are instructing staff to not interfere with shoplifting. To illustrate, she said shoplifting, compared to prepandemic rates, was down 60% at the Asheville Mall, 75% at Kohl’s, 50% at the Hendersonville Road Walmart, and 50% at River Ridge.
At 41, the year-to-date count of violent crime incidents downtown was down 21% year-over-year and 24% lower than the five-year average. Stepp said this was attributable to enhanced enforcement. With 264 incidents, the numbers for downtown property crime were 8% and 12%.
Stepp said there was no denying that downtown was a hotspot, accounting for almost 10% of citywide crime. During the initiative, the number of arrests and citations issued increased. Counts were provided for the current year alone.
Councilwoman Kim Roney asked if the arrest statistics “represented recent special operations.” She said people had been cited and arrested for nonviolent panhandling and trespassing. She found nothing about this sensitive or rehabilitative.
At that, APD Chief David Zack approached the podium and said, “If they’re breaking the law and consistently breaking the law, they will be arrested.” He added that 17 of the 29 “special operations” arrests involved felony warrants. He said his officers repeatedly show discretion, but there was a point at which discretion no longer works. Then, officers “will use all of the tools in the tool belt.”
Roney still saw this as “pitting people against each other based on class.” She faulted her peers for promising housing and shelter and delivering only a pittance. Furthermore, she said the process was flawed because the homeless and people without health insurance should be heard, as well as businesses. Once again, the voiceless were not present because the discussion was not designed to accept public comment.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley told how she and her affiliates used to demand a stronger police presence in public housing. Then, she attended a meeting recently where she, the mayor, and others reviewed data showing crime was worse downtown. For example, there had been 11 rapes in two months. She thought she was misreading the numbers, but the presenters confirmed what she was seeing. “It was safer in Hillcrest than downtown—at least in the daytime.” Mosley said she had no interest in interfering with law enforcement keeping people safe downtown.
Roney countered that council had just heard that most intimate partner violence occurs in people’s homes because the victims don’t know where else to go. After some crosstalk, Councilwoman Sage Turner said a shortage of safehouses did not absolve council from ensuring public safety in the meantime. Roney went back to the “special operation,” saying most offenders had gotten in trouble for panhandling.
Following reiteration of points already made, Mayor Esther Manheimer reminded the councilors that they did not have the authority to micromanage the police department. They may only set priorities and allocate funding. Council, she said, told the APD they wanted a safe community, and the police responded. She continues to hear positive feedback from downtown merchants about the initiative.
Roney repeated her concerns about hassling not being what the doctor ordered for the poor and afflicted. She found it frustrating that concerned citizens can’t help because there are no government services with which to connect people in need.
Manheimer said she echoed those sentiments. “America has failed to support its most vulnerable,” she said. It has left figuring out how to care for mass poverty and behavioral disorders in the hands of local governments. The downtrodden, she said, have been failed on every level, and nobody is equipped to handle it all. She has been looking for ideas in other cities and other countries and looking for partnerships.