The City of Asheville recently launched a 60-day program in order to combat recent spikes in violent crime, particularly in the downtown area.
This announcement comes as many residents in the city have raised concerns over the increase in crime, demanding that swift and decisive action be taken to halt the violence.
The Downtown Safety Initiative, which launched on May 1, is a multi-layered effort by various stakeholders throughout the city to bolster public safety.
The plan lays out several objectives the city hopes to accomplish during the 60-day period. In an emailed statement to Carolina Journal from Kim Miller, a communications spokesperson for the city, many entities are assisting with the effort. These include the Asheville Police Department (APD), the fire department, and the community at large.
“The initiative includes an increased public safety presence, both by APD as well as the fire department through their pilot Community Responder Program,” Miller said. “The responders proactively engage with individuals in the downtown area who may be in crisis or could otherwise benefit from assistance. The team is also coordinating with other service providers, including the County’s Community Paramedic Program, Homeward Bound’s outreach team, and law enforcement as needed.”
CJ spoke with Asheville Police Chief David Zack, who feels that the initiative has been well received thus far.
“The feedback we are receiving, particularly from the business community, has been very strong,” Zack said. “They appreciate seeing our officers back out there on bikes, on foot patrols, and being highly visible downtown, so that has been met with a very positive response. We’re also getting the other city departments to be proactive in assisting us whether with downtown parking issues, issues with graffiti, or lighting assessments to improve street lighting for crime prevention. Hopefully these efforts make for a safer downtown.”
Zack believes the Fire Department has also been proactive in their community safety response.
“The fire department kicked off their community responder program which has been a program in the works for quite a bit of time now,” Zack said. “What they are working on, particularly with our homeless community, is being more proactive in trying to bring services to that community and direct people in the proper manner. Often with the police, we are responding to maybe a 9-11 call or to a complaint and then we are trying to arrange services during the course of an incident. What the fire department is really doing is they’re being more proactive; they’re going out and seeing people on the street before we get a 9-11 call.”
Miller said they will learn a lot from the early implementation of the program.
“This 60-day period will allow the City to assess current actions with data,” Miller said. “At the end of the 60-day period, staff will analyze the data and a post-action survey to allow for data-driven next steps.”
Police staffing deficiencies
The city has also been dealing with staffing shortages in their police force, in part due to the “Defund the Police” movement of the last several years, which has required utilizing other city and county resources in order to meet the demand for effective policing.
“We are still in a serious situation regarding police staffing,” Zack said. “What we are seeing is that more departments across the city are chipping in to ease the burden on the police department, so that’s a very welcome result here. We’re getting additional help with certain things that used to be primarily a police response. Other city departments are being proactive in assisting us in various ways with downtown parking issues, issues with graffiti, and lighting assessments to improve street lighting for crime prevention. Hopefully makes for a safer downtown.”
Zack also emphasized the importance of police visibility, which has been decimated by the rising crime levels.
“In law enforcement, when you are talking about crime prevention, police visibility is very important, especially when discussing your central business district,” Zack said. “Due to our staffing crisis, that visibility has been diminished to a very large degree. So, the outcome is to see crime go up, especially property crime but also aggravated assaults which are driving a lot of the increases in violent crime. What we must do is deploy the resources we do have and we must be very strategic in how we do that. If we see a spike in certain areas, we are going to have to direct more resources, but then of course we must take more resources out of another area. You are constantly trying to hit a moving target. This is something aside from the 60-day initiative that we would’ve done anyway as we’re following the numbers.”
According to previous reporting citing crime statistics, Asheville saw aggravated assaults rise by 21.8% and armed robberies increase by 20% from 2021 to 2022.
Miller said the city fully supports its police department and has demonstrated such through funds via the city’s latest budget proposal, which includes incentives such as a 6% salary increase for existing employees, a wellness incentive pilot program, and additional pay for intermediate law enforcement certification.
“Another essential part of addressing public safety needs is taking action to support the dedicated members of Asheville’s police force in their service to the community,” Miller said. “As reflected in the latest proposed budget, City leaders recognize the need to attract and retain officers to bring our department up to full capacity as well as provide meaningful pay and benefits structures to all our officers.”
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