The city of Asheville’s announcement in April that Buncombe County sheriff’s deputies would assist in patrolling downtown touted the 30-day initiative as a partnership and featured this statement by City Manager Debra Campbell: “This is a good example of a collaborative approach to a safe downtown.”
The plan “called for a coordinated effort to present a highly visible and unified law enforcement presence” that included pairing officers from the Asheville Police Department with deputies in two-person teams downtown, according to a recently released summary of the initiative from the Sheriff’s Office.
But the partnership never happened, according to the report, obtained by Asheville Watchdog through a public records request.
“While the initiative could be deemed successful in its goal to identify the ‘root cause’ for the existence of crime and other problems or issues in the Downtown Central Business District, the collaboration and partnership between the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and the Asheville Police Department unfortunately did not occur,” the report said.
“Both agencies had a downtown presence, however only the Buncombe County Sheriff’s office was present in the target area (the Downtown Central Business District). Both the Sheriff’s Office and Asheville Police Department were situated in the Downtown business district; however, they were in separate parts of the downtown area. There was no true partnership or collaboration between the two agencies.”
The two law enforcement agencies “must work together for the good of the community,” the report states.
Asheville Police Chief David Zack disputed the Sheriff’s Office contention that there was no collaboration, saying he finds the suggestion to be misleading.
“You can see from the extensive planning, there was extensive collaboration,” Zack said, referencing emails he supplied that showed multiple email exchanges between Asheville Police Captain Jackie Stepp and Sheriff’s Office Captain Elliot Summey working out details of the operation.
The sheriff’s office took the unusual step of using its countywide jurisdiction to patrol downtown for four weekends between April 14 and May 13 following complaints by businesses and residents about increased crime and homelessness, as Asheville Watchdog reported in April.
Lack of collaboration and communication between the two law enforcement agencies is a microcosm of the challenges bedeviling downtown Asheville, according to reporting from Asheville Watchdog’s 12-part Down Town series. The series found organizations trying to address homelessness, drug abuse and mental health issues in downtown often lacked a consistent, unified vision.
When asked for comment on the report, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer issued the following statement: “The city and county partner in numerous ways and across many departments to bring services to residents. We are committed to continuing to enhance collaboration with the county and other regional partners.”
Root causes identified
The report, based on deputies’ experiences, interviews wih people downtown and analysis of 911 calls, concluded there were three root causes of “crimes and undesirable activities” downtown and echoed many of the Down Town series’ findings:
- Asheville Police’s loss of more than 100 officers in the past two years has resulted in a “limited presence” downtown, creating an environment in which “certain individuals are more comfortable committing and ignoring crimes and are likely to continue doing so until there is an improved police presence and more enforcement.”
- The city faces a critical lack of adequate housing, mental health treatment and other services for people experiencing homelessness.
- A failure of everyone invested in downtown to collaborate has plagued the city. “Often many well-intentioned organizations seek to address the same problem,” the report concluded, adding some refuse to work with others as they compete for donations and grants.
Sheriff Quentin Miller declined to comment on the report through public information officer Aaron Sarver.
“The report … I think is pretty clear,” Sarver said, adding the Sheriff’s office didn’t want to add more until the city finished its own 60-day initiative on June 30.
But Zack took issue with this paragraph from the Sheriff’s Office report: “Furthermore, the plan after presented was revised and called for a partnership between the two agencies whereas an officer from each agency would pair up in 2’s for a total of 4 two-man teams. This partnership did not occur.”
Zack said the call for deputies and APD officers to “walk together” in downtown patrols was an 11th hour suggestion from Sheriff Miller. He said Miller called up “hours before” the operation was to start and suggested the pairing of deputies with officers.
“And I mean, that was just imprudent at that point,” Zack said, noting the extensive planning that had already taken place. He also said pairing would have resulted in too many personnel in one zone and not enough in the other.
Asheville Watchdog asked the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office about Zack’s comments and the emails but did not immediately receive a response.
Zack cited an April 12 email from Sheriff’s Office Captain Elliot Summey to Asheville Police Captain Jackie Stepp in which Summey writes: “I have put an end to that in regards to APD officers and BCSO deputies being paired together. My understanding when it was first announced that there would be a collaborating operation taking place that there was misunderstanding about how it would work because no one had seen the (operations) plan yet.”
“To suggest that the collaboration didn’t occur because we didn’t change it when (Miller) made a suggestion, I think it’s a really false misrepresentation of what was taking place,” Zack said.
He said APD will be issuing its own report on the city’s initiative to improve downtown and his department’s role in that effort. While disappointed with the report’s language, Zack said his department is still willing to work with the Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re always open to collaboration. We certainly are,” Zack said. “This operation proves that, and in the fact that we worked together to create a plan.”
Moving ahead, Zack said APD will continue to analyze data and allocate officers to areas with the most need. He wants the public to know that the “60-day initiative” is also a bit of a misnomer.
“So to think that at some point, like at the end of 60 days, the city is going to be pulling out of downtown, that’s not going to happen,” Zack said. “And I think sometimes that’s the problem, when we label something ‘the 60 Day initiative,’ when in fact, the intention is to provide a continuous effort amongst all city departments moving forward.”
Asked if friction exists between APD and the Sheriff’s Office, Zack said, “I don’t think there’s any major problems.
“It’s always difficult when you’re trying to do a multi-agency operation like this, and you learn how you can improve on it,” Zack said. “Is there friction? No. Again, I’m disappointed in the wording here (in the report), and you know APD has some opinions too.”
Overall, Zack said the two agencies worked well together, although he acknowledged communication issues between the two agencies. The agencies had agreed to work on a specific radio channel, but the Sheriff’s Office deputies had a technical problem that wouldn’t allow that, Zack said.
Solutions needed soon
The report also lays out urgent steps to take, calling for city and county leaders to convene all public and private agencies involved in homelessness to collaborate on solutions. The report also calls for both governments to inventory vacant buildings that could be used for housing and treatment assistance.
It noted the huge loss of police officers since 2020, citing Zack’s public statements on how that has contributed to a rise in crime. The report studied calls for service from November 2022 through April 27, 2023, and found 326 trespassing complaints in the downtown business district but only 15 arrests.
It also said there were “a total of 5,999 calls for service” specifically related to homelessness.
Lack of adequate housing for people experiencing homelessness was due to “inadequate plans to meet the needs of the homeless at present,” according to the report.
It cited the case of one man without a home sleeping in a storefront. A deputy interviewed the man and called a mobile paramedic for help. The paramedic found the man didn’t need medical help.
“[T]his person revealed that on this particular night he had sought shelter, but no one could house him,” the report said. “He advised all shelters were full that night. This individual had been drinking; however, he was not intoxicated, he did not have any health issues, and other than sleeping under a sign with wording prohibition such was on file with the Asheville Police department, he had not committed any crimes.”
The deputy and the paramedic couldn’t help the man, the report said, concluding what he needed was a home, not responders.
“I think Sheriff Miller gets it for sure,” said David Nash, executive director of the Asheville Housing Authority and chairman of the Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee. “It’s not primarily an issue of disability or substance use or mental health, because there are many, many people who are housed and have those conditions. It is fundamentally a lack of affordable housing. And that’s … a little bit more true in Asheville than some other parts of North Carolina. We need to develop more housing in general, but we definitely need to develop more affordable housing and the sheriff is exactly right that that would make a big difference.”
Miller and his staff have been meeting with Michael Woods, executive director of the Western North Carolina Rescue Mission, about a “joint venture” to provide treatment, short-term housing, employment opportunities and “life skills” to the unhoused.
The Sheriff’s office also plans to visit the city of Wilmington “to observe their collaborative effort with the Wilmington Police Department to address issues of crime in the community,” according to the report.
‘For the good of the community’
The report emphasized lack of collaboration as a “primary” root cause, noting governments, nonprofits, clinics and medical providers needed to “come together” to address issues downtown, listing 18 organizations that have a stake in the issue.
Those calls for collaboration emphasized a need for Buncombe law enforcement and Asheville police to work together, especially in the face of a depleted force.
“There must also be a willingness for the two primary law enforcement agencies to work together for the good of the community when the situation requires it,” the report said. “Partnering and working in collaboration with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office is a viable way forward and should occur.”
The Sheriff’s initiative was launched after Buncombe County Board of Commissioners including Chairman Brownie Newman heard safety concerns from downtown services workers. Newman contacted Miller and both met with city and county leaders in late March before the 30-day initiative started, according to The Watchdog’s reporting.
Newman said he had not read the full report yet but was briefed on it Monday.
“I feel like there’s a lot more communication and coordination now than we’ve had in the past,” Newman said. “I thought it was a good idea, but I don’t have anything critical to say about the APD not specifically turning everything around to do that.”
He said there may not have been “enough runway” to get involved with the initiative on short notice and noted the county and the city law enforcement leadership are now “having good communication” with each other and elected officials.
The report said the Sheriff spoke with Woods to determine what federal funds are available to address homelessness.
Costs to address these issues will be “extremely high,” the report said, noting deputies participating in the 30-day patrol were paid between $75-$90 per hour. It stopped short of recommending an extension of this downtown deputy program, instead saying, “The County of Buncombe and the City of Asheville must decide whether or not they are willing to commit the funds necessary to sustain an effort such as the one just completed by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.”
In the report summary, it also reiterated points Zack, city leaders and others have pushed since 2020: there should be more police patrolling downtown, Asheville police needs to hire more people and the city needs to increase their salaries.
“Local government leaders must realize this and make the right decisions that will support law enforcement and foster improved employment longevity in the agencies and as a result, creating a situation that will allow law enforcement to better serve the downtown business district, the homeless, and the community as a whole,” the report concludes.
The Sheriff’s office intervention in downtown ended halfway through the beginning of Asheville’s 60-day initiative, meant to clean up and increase safety downtown while collecting data on crime, litter, interaction with people in crisis and community meetings, among numerous other metrics.
Donnie Parks, who manages special projects for Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and wrote the report, told Asheville Watchdog there are plans to meet with police officials at the end of the 60-day initiative.
“We hope to maybe talk to them after that,” said Parks, the former Hendersonville police chief. “The Sheriff will meet with them, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll sit down and talk about where do we go from here and what can we do to collaborate? The sheriff is big on collaboration.”
Parks called the report the “sheriff’s brainchild.”
Staff photographer Starr Sarriego contributed to this report.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Andrew R. Jones is an investigative reporter. Email email@example.com. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com.