The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office pilot program to increase the law enforcement presence in downtown Asheville will involve only a few deputies, working only on Friday and Saturday nights for only four weekends, at a cost of thousands of dollars in overtime, according to a document obtained by Asheville Watchdog.
The project also will tap into a network of public and private video surveillance cameras, and is designed to collect surveillance data that will be used to evaluate effective downtown policing policies, the document stated.
The document provides the first details of the new effort to curb crime in the downtown area, first announced by city officials April 14 and begun the same night.
Framed as a pilot program, the working agreement to have Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies augment the Asheville Police Department’s minimal downtown patrols will last through the Mother’s Day weekend, May 12 and 13, the document showed. A total of six deputies — a commander and five officers — are slotted to work only four weekends, eight days total, Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Deputies will be paid an overtime rate, $75 an hour, for a total program cost of $14,400, barring any unanticipated events requiring additional hours of operation, according to the document.
Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Brownie Newman told Asheville Watchdog that sheriff’s patrols and resources would not be decreased in other areas of the county to accommodate the downtown program.
“Real Time Intelligence Center”
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office downtown patrols will also use a network of cameras to “monitor downtown business district for safety and security purposes, as well as criminal activity occurring in the downtown district.”
The network of hundreds of public and private video cameras feeds into a system called the Fusus Real Time Intelligence Center, which “extracts and unifies live video, data and sensor feeds from virtually any source, enhancing the situational awareness and investigative capabilities of law enforcement and public safety agencies,” the Fusus website states.
Using the system, the Buncombe Sheriff’s Office has the capability of integrating video and sensor data from school security cameras, drone footage, license-plate readers and traffic cams, cellphone videos, parking lot cameras, commercial video security systems, and gunshot, smoke, fire, glass, and other sensors, all collected and displayed at the Buncombe sheriff’s “Real Time Intelligence Center.”
The Fusus system can, among other capabilities, “advise assigned personnel of any suspicious or criminal activity observed during monitoring.”
When the pilot program ends next month, the document indicates, collected data will be used to answer several questions, including:
- What crimes are being committed?
- Who are the offenders?
- When and where are the crimes occurring?
- Who are the victims?
- What conditions are present and invites criminal activity — i.e. poor lighting, need for more enforcement, victim errors, i.e.; failing to lock cars or report crimes when witnessed, merchant errors (like) not reporting criminal activities or lack of cooperation with law enforcement, etc.?
- What action can law enforcement and other stakeholders take to eliminate or greatly reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses?
“Downtown Asheville Problem Solving Initiative”
The seven-page document, “Downtown Asheville Problem Solving Initiative,” outlines in detail the deputies’ responsibilities in aiding downtown police patrol efforts.
“For some time now there has … been growing concern regarding matters of public safety in the city’s downtown shopping district,” the document states, noting “local media outlets” had recently interviewed and broadcast merchants’ concerns about crime.
Asheville Watchdog began running a series of stories on the issue in March, beginning with in-depth accounting of those merchants’ concerns. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer cited that reporting last week when discussing efforts to ramp up safety measures.
Although they have long had an agreement to assist each other when needed, the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office typically operate independently and have separate leadership and governing structures. However, the document notes that a “collaborative effort” between the two agencies is an approach “most likely to restore and maintain a safe and wholesome environment for all who visit and shop our downtown.”
The Sheriff’s Office “realizes that while the downtown district is in the City of Asheville; it is still a county matter in that the city is located in the county of Buncombe and therefore we must act and perform our duties in a manner that provides equal service and protection for all citizens and guests in our county,” the document stated.
Sheriff’s Office spokesman Aaron Sarver confirmed that the document obtained by Asheville Watchdog was the most recent draft of the plan. He declined to comment further, except to note that “there is not a fixed answer on staffing/shifts/etc. as we are in the assessment phase of this new initiative … Once we’re able to assess the impact in more detail we’ll be happy to talk.”
Asked about a rumored city “action plan” for addressing public safety issues downtown, Asheville police spokesperson Samantha Booth said Chief David Zack was out of the office until Wednesday.
Buncombe Officials Take the Lead on Downtown Issues
Newman said the idea for the pilot program began to form in 2022 during a discussion between Buncombe County commissioners and members of the Asheville Food and Beverage United organization, “a worker-led coalition dedicated to advocacy, support and empowerment through education of all Asheville service workers,” according to its Facebook page.
Although the conversation centered on a lack of affordable parking downtown, it also touched on workers’ safety concerns about walking to and from their vehicles and homes late at night, Newman said.
Newman said “we started thinking more about, like, is there something more the county could do to make sure people who work downtown and who visit downtown feel safe and in fact are safe, especially later in the evening?”
Acknowledging that “traditionally” the Asheville police patrol inside city limits and Buncombe County patrols outside those limits, Newman noted the significant decrease in Asheville police staffing, which is 40 percent under authorized levels.
Newman said he reached out to Sheriff Quentin Miller in March, “to look at this question of ‘Is there more that the county could do in partnership with the sheriff’s office to enhance public safety efforts in the downtown community?’”
Miller agreed, he said, and on March 8 Miller shared an initial plan for the county’s involvement in downtown patrols and suggested a meeting with city leadership to talk about these ideas.
Newman said he worked with Manheimer to arrange a meeting of city and county managers and law enforcement officials to talk about the partnership. That meeting happened at the end of March, Newman said.
“It’s been a good conversation between the city and the sheriff’s office,” Newman said. “I really appreciate the sheriff’s willingness to provide some additional support in this area and the positive feedback in terms of the city’s support for this as well.”
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.