The stage was set.
I thought I could reasonably expect some impressive fireworks, if not outright fisticuffs, at Friday’s “anti-crime summit” hosted by U.S. Rep. Chuck Edwards. I mean, we have a very conservative congressman who’s antagonized Asheville’s liberal leaders with some real stingers of late, and it’s been great sport for conservatives to blast Buncombe County as a bastion of nitwitted bleeding hearts that have let downtown Asheville devolve into a den of debauchery and crime.
Edwards fueled the fire by issuing a pre-event press release with some especially saucy language:
“Everywhere I go in this district, I am approached by constituents imploring our leaders to do something about the lawlessness, vagrancy and public safety issues that seem to be centered on Asheville. The surging crime, homelessness and drugs are a threat to our people and our way of life here in the mountains, and are spilling over from Asheville to the surrounding areas of WNC.”
That was pretty tangy, but then Edwards upped the spice.
“So I’m doing something about it,” Edwards said. “I’m gathering together leaders and stakeholders in our area, getting them to sit down and actually talk to one another instead of at one another to define, name and find a solution to these problems before Buncombe County and WNC turn into another crime-ridden Chicago or San Francisco.”
Yeah, baby! A comparison to San Francisco, the real American cesspool of sin!
I do love a good political brouhaha, so I was actually kind of pumped about the gathering, scheduled for two hours at A-B Tech shortly after high noon. I was expecting some real heat, but instead, it was just kind of a lukewarm lovefest.
Honestly, it made me question my life choice of becoming a professional political irritant.
Edwards had stirred some poop not only with the press release but also truly inflammatory comments at a June 1 town hall appearance in Canton in which he disparaged Buncombe County. Several Buncombe officials, including State Rep. Caleb Rudow, D-Buncombe, had held their own meeting, offering assistance to Canton in the wake of Pactiv Evergreen’s decision to close its paper mill costing local residents 1,100 good-paying jobs, according to a report from the Smoky Mountain News.
“While I respectfully appreciate that a House member from Buncombe County is willing to have some conversation to see how they can help us over here in Haywood County, I’d suggest the best thing that the folks in Buncombe County could do to help Haywood County is to fix Buncombe County,” Edwards said at his town hall. “Clean Buncombe County up, get the needles off the streets, get a DA in place and prosecute criminals to reduce crime and not allow the spill-over into our haven over here.”
Yowza! Them’s fightin’ words!
Things were promising early on
While Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams did not attend Friday’s summit, Assistant District Attorney David Denninger did. Early on, Edwards fired a pretty good zinger at Denninger, and I thought we were on our way to the pyrotechnics.
Edwards asked Denninger, who had said the DA’s office needed more resources, a question about prioritizing spending and what role that plays.
Denninger opted to tell a story about one of Buncombe County’s more notorious criminals, Kenneth Dale White, who goes by “Lil’ Tennessee” and has been arrested more than 278 times, as Asheville Watchdog reported in our 12-part Down Town series. Denninger said it costs about $130 a day to house a county jail inmate, noting that White, who has addiction and mental health problems, mostly was arrested repeatedly for trespassing.
The point Denninger made was that once local nonprofits stepped in and got White permanent housing, Lil’ Tennessee stopped getting arrested. Edwards opted for a wisecrack.
“So, I would suspect that you’re preparing to run for some sort of political office judging by how effectively you dodged that question,” he said, drawing some applause and whoops from the crowd. “I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy. Where does prioritizing the money that we’re already spending come into play to get us the resources that we need?”
I gotta admit, my professional agitation sensor started to tingle more than a little.
The stage was set for blastoff, and Edwards had lit Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer’s fuse. Before Denninger could respond, Manheimer snatched the microphone in front of her and delivered a fiery defense.
“This is not an invalid point, and it’s not dodging the question,” Manheimer said. “Money is money. You want to pay to incarcerate people for their short term, their lifetime. Money is money. We know what causes the problems we’re seeing on the streets, and it’s because we’re failing to address the very basic root causes: quality, safe housing, health care, quality health care, quality education. The state’s not investing in education anymore.”
I held my breath for a theatrical, Will Smith-style slap. I thought it was on, baby! Asheville liberals in a cage match against the right-wing congressman in a fight to the, well, not to the death, but maybe to the crowd’s exhaustion?
Alas, Edwards smoothly defused the moment. He said we’re not going to solve the problem at this meeting, that we don’t have unlimited resources, that taxpayers can be stretched only so much, that zzzzzz….
When I awoke, Edwards was telling Denninger he “meant no disrespect” but was only trying “to add a little levity to the situation here.” The auditorium was full, and several folks scoffed.
“Yeah, right,” one said. “Sure.”
But really, that was about it for fireworks.
Sheriff Miller was a total pro
Even Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller was fairly subdued. He had issued a press release just a couple of hours before the event, citing Edwards’ “Chicago” remarks.
“I expect that type of commentary from Fox News, however, his statement is not supported by the crime statistics from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and it’s irresponsible to have a conversation about public safety that is not rooted in data,” Miller said.
The sheriff’s release stated that as of Friday, Buncombe County has had two homicides (that’s the unincorporated area of Buncombe County), and that the county’s homicide rate is well below the state rate of 9.7 per 100,000 people. Miller cited homicide measures for Chicago, New Orleans, Baltimore and others, which are all dramatically higher than here.
“To suggest that crime in Asheville or Buncombe County is anywhere near what is plaguing our largest cities makes for great politics, (that) simply isn’t based in reality,” Miller said in the release.
So, I held out hope for maybe a body slam. But during the summit, Edwards thanked Buncombe County for providing deputies for security for the event, and Miller struck a conciliatory tone. He even thanked Edwards for holding the event, and all the panelists for their input.
Outside, a pair of doves cooed softly.
Miller again stressed that he relies on data but also asks community members when he’s out and about, “What are you willing to do?
“It’s easy for us to point fingers,” Miller said. “But we have to do this collectively, as a community.”
I will note that Miller, who’s African American, added the only diversity to the panel. It consisted of Miller, 12 white men and two white women — Manheimer and Helen Hyatt, with the Asheville Coalition for Public Safety.
It wasn’t exactly a rainbow of diversity, but I also noticed that Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell, who is African American, appeared to remove herself from the panel. Shortly before it kicked off, Campbell removed her name placard from the dais and sat in the audience.
I asked her about it afterward, and she said she hadn’t been asked ahead of time to be on the panel. Her name was not listed in the press release among those on the panel.
“I didn’t see any other city or county managers up there, so I chose not to be on it,” Campbell said.
A sharp exchange on needles
Other than the brief flareup with Manheimer, the event remained pretty tame, although Hyatt expressed a strong belief that local needle exchange programs aren’t working.
“They’re just not run correctly,” Hyatt said. “They’re not exchange programs — you get as many as you want, and then you leave them all over the city for somebody else to pick up.”
That drew a hearty round of applause, and when Edwards turned to Rudow for a followup on needles, I thought something hot might be forthcoming.
But Rudow took the high road, too, opting to tell a story about doing a ridealong with the Sheriff’s Office and hearing a lot about opioid overdoses. They went on a call that night for an overdose, and the person died.
Families want solutions, Rudow said. And yes, we need more resources for drug abuse prevention and treatment programs. He did come back to needles, though.
“I’m sure there are ways that we can run things better, like we can run everything better,” Rudow said. “But I think we should start with the background that these kinds of programs save lives. They’re proven to help people, and we can improve them, like we can improve everything else.”
Summit hits on common themes
Common threads, which we’ve heard before, did emerge:
- Everybody needs more resources: Whether it’s for more police, deputies, assistant district attorneys, state and federal agents, mental health treatment facilities or drug addiction treatment programs, everybody needs more money.
- Recidivism is a real problem. The same repeat offenders create huge problems for law enforcement and prosecutors, and better mental health and substance abuse treatment programs can help with these less serious crimes. But violent offenders need to be locked up.
- We’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem. We have to provide more help for the addicted, the mentally ill, the unhoused.
- Police presence matters. Crime goes down when more cops are visible on the streets.
- Our area, like most of the country, is flooded with drugs. Atlanta is a hub for cartel distribution, and the cartels are active throughout North Carolina in bringing in hard drugs like heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine.
- It’s harder than ever to recruit and retain police. North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Director Bob Schurmeier pointed out that the state is simply not producing enough new cops. “In a state of 10.7 million people, 1,723 new law enforcement officers completed Basic Law Enforcement training (in 2021),” Schurmeier said. “One year later, it went from 1,723 to 1,406, a drop of over 300. So the pipeline feeding all our agencies represented here is drying up. Meanwhile, in those same two years, the number of law enforcement officers in 2021 that left the profession: 2,182. So you can see that the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. People are not wanting to become law enforcement officers.
That’s been a huge problem for the Asheville Police Department, which remains about 40% below full staffing, according to Chief David Zack.
When Edwards asked Zack how the department is doing as far as community support, the chief said Asheville has come a long way since the demonstrations of June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Asheville had its share, including a notorious moment in which APD officers punctured water bottles at a citizen support tent downtown during a protest.
“I think we can all acknowledge 2020 was a particularly difficult year, nationwide, obviously with COVID,” Zack said. “But then nationwide civil unrest hit home. You know, something happens thousands of miles away in Minneapolis and suddenly people in Asheville think it’s justifiable to start throwing rocks and bottles at their local police department’s heads.”
That drew audible scoffing from the audience, which, by the way, wasn’t given the chance to ask questions during the session. Zack pressed on.
“So if you would have asked me this question in 2020, I would have said it’s (morale) very low,” Zack said “But I think the city, I think the police department, our community or city leaders have realized that we all made mistakes in 2020 — we all could have done things differently. And all of the relationships have been improving drastically, and the support has been there and continues to be there.”
He said downtown police presence has improved, along with inappropriate behavior, and the city will continue to pay attention to the city’s core.
But we have a long way to go, for sure. A shooting Saturday night in downtown Asheville at the Juneteenth Festival prompted the city to cancel the second day of the event. Two juveniles were wounded, and Asheville police charged a 16-year-old with two counts of felonious assault with deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury.
One last chance for a Manheimer eruption?
I still held out hope for another bottle rocket or two from Manheimer. But when Edwards finally came around to her official turn more than 90 minutes into the event, she was all conciliation and sunshine.
She thanked Edwards for convening the meeting.
“I had my doubts,” Manheimer said. “We talked about that, and I scolded you for your press release, because I thought it was terribly partisan. But I’m really heartened to hear this informed discussion today.”
I swear, it’s getting harder and harder to find a good old fashioned donnybrook in these parts anymore. It actually got even more kumbaya-ish.
“What’s happened during this discussion happens pretty much every time I get together with people with differences of opinions — we find a lot of common ground,” Manheimer said.
Rudow was my last hope. So imagine my disappointment when he took a big ol’ bite out of the Manheimer’s kumbaya cake.
“I would like to echo the mayor’s comments that this has been a refreshing break out of partisan politics,” he said. “And I think it’s been a fruitful discussion.”
Somewhere, a lion lay down with a lamb.
Edwards thanked everybody for coming out, and vowed to continue the effort with future breakout meetings to address the various needs brought up.
“But I don’t want us to lose focus on what’s important here,” he said. “I applaud the fact that we seem to be taking steps to get better but our work is not done.”
Dear god. I just got a news alert that hell has frozen over.
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