The Asheville Police Department’s original proposal to address downtown safety issues earlier this year was much broader than the City of Asheville’s initiative announced in April, according to a draft document obtained by Asheville Watchdog.
The 16-page document, drafted in March and titled “Downtown Action Plan,” was created to “address criminal activity that has steadily risen Downtown over the last three years and the numerous community complaints about public safety Downtown.” It included ideas that never made it into the 60-day Downtown Safety Initiative announced April 20 by City Manager Debra Campbell.
Ideas included a proposed realignment of police patrol districts and “partnerships” with more than 30 government leaders, departments, and non-governmental organizations across the city and county, including the District Attorney’s office, the Tourism Development Authority (TDA), the Council of Independent Business Owners, parking and sanitation departments, church groups, homeless shelters, substance abuse responders, and others.
The police department’s original proposal suggested that the TDA and the city manager’s office create an “ambassador program of proactive and friendly individuals that clean and serve as the eyes and ears and as information resources for Downtown.”
A spokeswoman for the Tourism Development Authority told Asheville Watchdog that the TDA was unaware of the police proposal.
“The document … was a draft of some of the many ideas APD believed could help improve downtown safety,” city spokeswoman Kim Miller said. “This information, along with input from multiple other city departments, was taken into consideration to formalize the actions we’re now carrying out and measuring as part of the 60-day Downtown Safety Initiative.”
The city’s initiative, which started May 1 and will end June 30, is a multi-department effort to increase safety, cleanliness, and crisis response in Asheville’s downtown, where business owners, employees, and residents in recent months have voiced concerns about crime and litter.
Police spokeswoman Samantha Booth noted that the police department’s proposed Downtown Action Plan was “not to be confused with the City of Asheville Downtown Safety Plan.”
‘Lack of Police Presence’
The police department’s draft Action Plan includes summaries of complaints made at six recent business-oriented meetings and a survey on these issues. Most of them had an accompanying note: “Lack of police presence.”
It also cites “notable concerns” from those working in city services.
Parking services, according to the police Action Plan, reported “employees being assaulted.”
WNC Landscape contractors — under contract with the city to clean sidewalks and remove debris — were “unable to complete cleanups due to threats,” the plan says.
Asheville Rides Transit reported “camping inside bus shelters,” according to the Action Plan.
WNC Landscaping co-owner Dewayne Banks told Asheville Watchdog he disagreed with this characterization. WNC Landscaping has daily encounters with people who have belongings on the sidewalk, but “we’ve had no threats,” he said.
It’s WNC Landscaping’s job to clean people’s “stuff” off the sidewalks, Banks said, but “If there’s someone there we can’t do anything with it. Until they leave, abandon the stuff that they got around them, then we can clean [the sidewalks] up. That’s what we have trouble with, is not being able to do our job.”
He said WNC Landscaping has been working downtown for four years. Banks said he can remember only three times “somebody’s got up in our face. We do our job, keep our heads to the ground and don’t have any trouble.”
Asked about the parking services employee assaults, Booth said, “To my knowledge, there have been no formal reports made to APD.”
The police department’s draft plan included city parking services employees conducting “more frequent security patrols in the parking garages, particularly in the stairwells.”
Police data on four downtown parking garages obtained by Asheville Watchdog show that in the five years since 2018, there have been more than 850 incidents at both Rankin Avenue parking garages, more than 300 at the Wall Street garage, and three at the Lexington Avenue garage. Many of the calls were for reported thefts, vandalism or “suspicious person.”
Police Patrols Added Based on Availability
Both the police department’s Action Plan and the city’s finalized Safety Initiative proposed increased Asheville police patrols. While that is now a reality, Booth said information on how many officers have been added to downtown patrol is “not releasable” because it’s part of an operations plan that reveals specific patrol locations, and potentially puts officers at risk.
“The operations plan talks about how many officers there are and what areas to cover,” Booth said. “As far as the officer number, that’s also in the operations plan. That’s availability, so that is, if the resource is available, then that means that commitment would be met. If there’s not an extra officer available, then we can’t commit to that certain number.”
While not every measure in the Action Plan has been executed, some not mentioned publicly as part of the Safety Initiative’s rollout are still in the works.
For example, the Action Plan indicates that once the Broadway Public Safety Station at 316 Broadway St. opens this summer, a police “District Realignment is proposed to increase response times and increase presence Downtown.”
The Broadway Public Safety Station will house firefighters, the Emergency Operations Center, and a police substation. It is less than a mile north of downtown’s Prichard Park, about three minutes by car. The police department closed its previous substation downtown, on Haywood Street, in December 2020 as its resources shrank.
The police district realignment is not set in stone, according to Patrol Capt. Jackie Stepp, who said it was included in the action plan as a suggestion.
33 proposed partners for downtown safety boost
Most of the police department’s proposed Action Plan draft focuses on “partnerships” with various government leaders, departments and non-governmental organizations across the city and county.
“Law Enforcement can rarely solve public safety problems alone,” the draft plan stated. “We can improve our effectiveness and legitimacy by partnering with others to solve problems. Therefore, we will rely on partnerships within the community to address the safety concerns and other issues in downtown Asheville.”
These partnerships included not only positions and names of parties the police department proposed to work with, but also the roles each would play in the plan.
The police proposed, for example, that the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority “work closely with elected officials and governmental bodies to develop informational strategies and explore non-traditional funding measures.”
It also proposed that the TDA and the city manager’s office create an “ambassador program.”
Such a team, the Action Plan suggested “will be linked to a communications network with the APD to help encourage and maintain a safe Downtown.”
The suggested duties for the proposed “ambassadors” included hospitality services, providing directions and safety escorts, “coordination” with city departments, and referrals to social services.
“If an Ambassador program is unable to be created in this timeframe, reallocate current resources to create a similar boots-on-the-ground program,” according to the Action Plan.
Asked about the “Ambassador” program, TDA spokeswoman Ashley Greenstein said: “We’re not familiar with that draft plan.”
The police plan also suggests that several business organizations, including the Council of Independent Business Owners (CIBO) and the Asheville Downtown Association, encourage their members to sign a trespass letter with the police to deal with complaints of people camping on sidewalks or in doorways.
Police Capt. Mike Lamb emphasized the importance of trespass letters, which allow police to remove and possibly arrest trespassers, at CIBO’s March 3 meeting.
Booth said about 140 businesses recently put no trespassing letters on file, including 77 in March and 63 in April, though only one has been filed since the city’s Downtown Safety Initiative began May 1.
The police department’s Action Plan also called for Parks and Recreation to increase park maintenance, including additional cleaning, and to focus the park warden’s duties solely on Pritchard Park while assigning a new park warden in Pack Square downtown “to report all criminal activity.”
It also proposed neighborhood associations and Harrah’s Cherokee Center report criminal activity and called on homeless outreach organizations to create intervention teams, go on ride-alongs with Asheville police, help reduce the “impact of trespassing/damage to property,” and organize and participate in community walks.
The newly released point-in-time count, an annual census of the city’s homeless population conducted in January, found 573 people who said they were homeless in Asheville, a 10 percent decrease from the 2022 count.
The draft police Action Plan also called on each city and county department involved to track and report what they do.
“Each involved Department will submit a daily activity report,” the last paragraph of the document states. “A comprehensive analysis of the daily reports will be compiled at the end of the 60-day period, including the financial and operational impact of initiatives.”
‘The community’s responsibility’
While the city’s current Downtown Safety Initiative did not include all of the police department’s proposals, the city council has stepped up discussion about downtown safety as it works to pass a 2024 fiscal year budget.
During a budget presentation May 9 at city council, Mayor Esther Manheimer said, “I know there’s been a lot of discussion and question and concern around public safety, public safety pay, and efforts to enhance public safety and cleanliness.”
“I’m glad that we’re finally finally able to be at a place where we’re seeing a lot of activity in our community,” Manheimer said, “and thank you, [City Manager] Debra Campbell, for steering the ship on that — and we’re seeing monies in this budget to address a lot of those concerns. And it’s been a real challenge to get back on track, if I had a way to categorize it.”
Campbell acknowledged Manheimer’s statement by adding, “Sometimes it takes us a little time to get organized.”
Campbell said the city didn’t want to “over promise and under deliver,” adding that she believed “community safety is the community’s responsibility.”
“Yes, the city of Asheville has a role, a significant role,” Campbell said. “But we’ve got to do this together, and sometimes that takes a little bit more planning.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.