After an afternoon walkabout in downtown Asheville last week, I’ll say this about the place: It still offers some of the best people watching east of San Francisco.
In just under three hours I saw an apparently homeless man wearing a huge purple wig and carrying a bag full of syringes get arrested off Coxe Avenue, another guy with no shoes and several colorful streamers attached to his hips skipping toward Pritchard Park, and another dude with wild hair and eyes giving me a pretty solid staredown on Haywood Street.
Meanwhile, a healthy collection of nicely dressed tourists milled about, carrying gift bags, sipping lattes and perusing those cute little one-page maps that 100 percent identify you as someone from out of town who might just be guilted into donating to a panhandler.
Downtown Asheville, you don’t ever really change, do you?
And that’s a problem.
As you likely recall, early this year we did a ginormous series on the downtown and public safety issues, as a lot of merchants, police, downtown workers, visitors, and people experiencing homelessness all told us the area had changed and they felt more unsafe than they had in years. The 12-part Down Town series, and the general sense of decline downtown, got the attention of city leaders and a lot of people who demanded action.
The city launched a 60-day initiative in May to get more police presence downtown, boost cleanups, and work with businesses to improve security. And elements of that have been extended, particularly with cleanup crews, security coverage in parks, and cops working a lot of overtime hours.
Just recently, the Asheville Police Department conducted two special operations downtown and in other parts of town, arresting 62 people. Last Tuesday, Police Chief David Zack and Deputy Chief Jackie Stepp made a presentation to the City Council about downtown and city crime in general.
‘We’re not there yet’
So, this is a good time for an update — and to talk with some of the folks we interviewed last winter about the state of downtown. In general, I found they’re cautiously optimistic and feel the situation has improved but the problems are far from solved.
Eva-Michelle Spicer, a Downtown Commission member and co-owner of Spicer Greene Jewelers downtown, said she’s seen overall improvement.
“I think things have gotten better just from having more police presence. However, I’m also seeing more transient people,” Spicer said. “So, we’re not there yet.”
No one I talked to bashed those experiencing homelessness. Their concerns, as we also originally reported, lie with illegal or erratic behaviors.
And that’s still an issue.
“Hugely, though there is a marked difference in the areas where there is police presence,” Spicer told me. “You can actually walk through Pritchard Park now because you’re likely to see a police car there.”
Nur Edwards, owner of Asheville Discount Pharmacy downtown, said she’s seen some improvements, but overall the atmosphere downtown is “largely unchanged.” Edwards is also on the Downtown Commission and the board of the Downtown Association.
“I do think some of the behaviors are a little bit more intense than what we’ve seen before,” Edwards said. “And I think that there’s a lot more drug use, even moreso than say like a year ago.”
Much of that erratic behavior appears to be from people who are under the influence of drugs, she said.
During the 60-day initiative in spring, Edwards said, she saw a lot more officers. She appreciated the effort, as the APD remains down about 40 percent in officer staffing.
“I think that they are really doing their best,” Edwards said. “And I think that we’re seeing quicker response times.”
Still, she feels downtown was much safer when it had a dedicated police unit, which included a bike patrol. I mentioned that the City Council just last week passed a measure that will bring new bike lanes to the streets around Pritchard Park, a decision that’s not real popular with businesses that lament the loss of a vehicle lane.
That would include Nur and her pharmacy.
“I mean, we’re getting some bike lanes, so maybe our downtown unit will get their bikes back,” Edwards said with a wry laugh.
Don’t get Beth Stickle started on the bike lanes. She owns the Bloomin’ Art gift shop on Haywood Street, a couple of blocks away from where the bike lanes will go in.
Let’s just say Stickle would like the council to focus on public safety first.
“It’s like, ‘Let’s put these brand new screen doors in this submarine. Why? Because we can. And they’re brand new, and look how shiny they are!’” Stickle said. “And I’m like, ‘It’s gonna sink!’”
Fair point, but I’m not here to open the bike lanes can of worms. (Whoops! Already did!)
Getting back to safety, Stickle, who’s been downtown for four decades, told us earlier this year that people were behaving much more aggressively — and they’d gotten mean. All four tires on her delivery van got slashed in a public garage, and she was regularly getting cussed out by homeless people.
“I do feel like it’s better,” Stickle said of the overall situation. “I will tell you one thing that’s better is response time, and not just response time around the police getting here.”
She said response from community paramedics has been strong, and dispatchers have been more responsive about issues downtown.
But Stickle is not overly pleased with City Council members, other than Maggie Ullman, she said. Ullman has been attending Asheville Coalition for Public Safety meetings, and Stickle appreciates that.
“I don’t see any (council members) walking around downtown, checking it out, coming down and giving any of our policemen kudos for being on the street, or these EMTs that are always by,” Stickle said.
Keeping the park ‘a friendlier place’
At Pritchard Park, Park Ranger Keith Whittington says he thinks inappropriate behaviors have “dwindled down” because of the enhanced enforcement and other efforts, although he notes the guy I saw getting arrested was getting busted for spitting on a park employee.
City support has “made the park a friendlier place,” Whittington said, adding, “And I’m hearing that from not only the local residents that live downtown but other people who are visiting.
While we were talking, a woman experiencing homelessness, Christie Fisher, approached. She said she and her husband Jeffery Glenn, have been homeless for three years but drug-free for the past two. She volunteered that she’s pregnant.
On this sunny Thursday afternoon, the park was filled with a mix of locals, tourists, and people who sat down for a rest with their belongings in tow.. I asked Fisher how she feels about her safety downtown.
“Not good,” Fisher said without hesitation. Fentanyl and heroin users often try to rob people, she said. She mentioned a friend who got robbed at knifepoint in the park about a year ago.
A lively discussion at City Council
While some downtown may think the city is still ignoring these issues, City Council had a lively discussion about public safety at its Tuesday meeting.
I’ll note the APD presentation got a little heated in an exchange between Chief Zack and Councilmember Kim Roney. But first, the highlights of the slides Zack and Deputy Chief Jackie Stepp presented regarding downtown through Sept. 30 of this year:
- Downtown violent crime is 21 percent lower than 2022, and it’s down 24 percent compared with the five-year average. APD attributes this to increased enforcement downtown. In all, there have been 41 violent crime incidents.
- Downtown property crime is 8 percent lower compared with last year, and it’s down 12 percent compared with the five-year average.
- Downtown is a crime “hotspot,” as almost 10 percent of all city crime happens there.
- Since the downtown initiative in May and June, there have been four fewer crimes reported each week compared with the last five years.
- During the downtown initiative, arrests increased to 47 per month. Citations increased to 84 per month.
- So far this year, APD has made 387 arrests and issued 460 citations in downtown, averaging 37 arrests and 49 citations per month.
- Overall downtown overtime coverage has increased each month — by 10 percent in July, 20 percent in August, and 13 percent in September. Officer burnout is a major concern.
The mildly heated exchange — let’s call it “intense” — came when Roney criticized the recent APD “special operations” in downtown, the Tunnel Road area, and West Asheville that resulted in the arrest of 62 repeat offenders. She said a lot of the charges were for nonviolent offenses such as panhandling and trespassing.
“In addition to being a really expensive use of resources, this traps individuals in our community in a more precarious situation, as their poverty status just deepened,” Roney said.
She noted that our area does not have enough medical or mental health facilities to treat people like this, and that it puts city staff “in a terrible situation where they have to enforce laws” but lack treatment options they can offer.
“I’m a little curious about what it’s like when you approach someone in the community who is having a health crisis or a behavioral health crisis,” Roney said. “Where do you send them? Because we don’t have the shelter capacity.”
Zack replied in a low, monotone.
“If they’re breaking the law, and they’re consistently breaking the law, they’ll be arrested.”
The chief then pointed out that of the 29 arrests made in the special operation, 17 had felony warrants.
“So these are not minor offenses,” Zack said. “Our officers have shown, repeatedly, discretion in every instance. But at some point, when discretion no longer works, we will use all the tools in the tool belt, which includes making arrests, and that is what we will do.”
I get what Roney is saying — we also have a crisis here in treatment and affordable housing — but I also think you can’t solve poverty. Meanwhile, we must have basic expectations of acceptable behavior in a civil society.
City Manager Debra Campbell pointed this out, first noting that public safety is a community issue.
“The last point I will make is that in no way are we trying to criminalize poverty or homelessness,” Campbell said, stressing that it’s the behaviors that are the problem, and acknowledging that we don’t have enough resources to treat everyone. “But it is impossible for sworn officers to look away from behavior that is criminal. They’re charged with enforcing the law, and they use tremendous discretion.”
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Amen, Debra Campbell.
The APD’s news release about the arrests said the operations “were conducted to address ongoing complaints from residents and an outcry from community organizations.”
Roney also took issue with that release, saying, “Some people were acknowledged as residents, while others were not acknowledged for their quality-of-life suffering.” She also said we need “special operations to get everyone housed.”
True, but in the meantime, let’s stop people from defecating in public or shooting up in public restrooms.
More operations to come
In a followup interview Thursday, I asked Zack about the operations.
“The plan is to have more of those,” Zack said. “It still remains hard for us to maintain a sustained presence — that hasn’t changed.”
Zack said APD has been operating for almost two years now with a staff down about 40 percent. “We’ve learned a lot in those two years, and we’re getting better and better and better at managing the limited resources that we have,” he said.
“We’re able to be where we want to be when we need to be there,” Zack said.
Zack allowed that “each operation isn’t necessarily gonna produce a dramatic impact overnight.”
“But what we’re hoping is that as we get more proactive with a lot of this stuff, that we’ll see that the behavior comes more in accordance with what people want to see,” Zack said.
By the way, after hearing the presentation and everyone’s comments, Councilmember Ullman stopped to give the city a pat on the back for its downtown efforts, saying it turned what was “a 60-day initiative into really an ongoing program.”
She noted the city is providing housing strategies for the unhoused, including a newly open permanent shelter, as well as other efforts ranging from the community responder program and cleanups to better lighting and more cops on the street.
“So I’m really proud of the work,” Ullman said. “I think that in government terms, it’s been very responsive. You know, I think that we’ve come a long way.”
I’m just going to leave that comment right there for you good readers to pass judgment on.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.