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Stay on the pulse of the decisions being made at meetings for Asheville City Council and Buncombe County Commission, with reports from BPR’s Laura Hackett.

Last night at Commission: Law enforcement presence to expand downtown at business owners' request

Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller addresses the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at the January 16 meeting.
Stephanie Rogers/BPR
Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller addresses the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners at the January 16 meeting.

Law enforcement presence will expand in downtown Asheville through a joint partnership between the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and Asheville Police Department (APD).

At last night’s meeting, county commissioners voted unanimously 6-0 – with Brownie Newman absent – to budget $56,000 of overtime pay for Buncombe deputies to resume patrolling downtown on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Officers working overtime will be paid $75 an hour and will patrol on car and foot. Last June, the Sheriff’s Office conducted a 30-day pilot of downtown patrolling, WLOS reported.

The current plan, called the Sheriff's Office Downtown Initiative, also includes an increase in video surveillance in the downtown district.

According to a proposal document obtained by Mountain Xpress, local business owners will be asked to install video cameras “in and around their businesses.”

The cameras will link to a “Real Time Intelligence Center” at the Sheriff’s Office, where live remote monitoring will occur. The monitor “can engage the Artificial Intelligence capabilities of the center to enter the information into the system to identify persons matching the description” and deputies will respond.

Commissioners approved a $15,600 allocation to fund the monitoring system.

“That’s our ability to turn on the cameras downtown that assist us in enforcing whatever needs to be done downtown,” Miller told commissioners.

Cost breakdown of the Downtown Initiative request made by the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office and approved by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.
Buncombe County
Cost breakdown of the Downtown Initiative request made by the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office and approved by the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners.

The Sheriff’s office first presented the plan at a December 5 briefing meeting.

Donnie Parks, a retired Haywood County police chief and a paid consultant for the Sheriff’s office, said the measure would “address problems occurring involving homeless people.”

“Many of them come down and they commit crimes, many come down and they are a nuisance. They go into restaurants and create disturbances, so we feel like our presence will be a great deterrence,” he said.

At the commissioners meeting, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller said he wanted to increase police presence for “safety reasons.” Miller said he had a series of conversations with APD Interim Police Chief Michael Lamb.

Miller attributed the concerns around safety to a series of meetings between the Sheriff’s Office and downtown businesses and their employees. He said he “made a commitment” to help the business owners and employees.

In his written request to the Board, Miller said the action was prompted by a petition started by a downtown business owner, according to a briefing document provided at the meeting.

“The environment created by some of the homeless individuals frequenting the business district is unacceptable,” according to the document. The document did not elaborate on the ways the department determines if someone committing a crime is unhoused.

Restaurant owner William Dissen, along with 35+ other business owners, submitted a letter to city and county officials requesting they fund “an increased public safety presence.” The letter also asserted that business owners are “being pushed to a point of despair.”

No members of the public spoke during the public comment period.

“I want to make clear that this doesn’t diminish what we do in other parts of the county,” Miller said. “This is our way of supporting the city, it’s not us trying to take over… Our whole goal and focus is the safety of people who are visiting downtown, the business, as well as the workers downtown.”

According to a statement released by Miller after the meeting, foot patrols from Buncombe sheriffs will begin January 26 and the program will run through the end of June. “Within 90 days from the start of this downtown initiative, I will ensure that a release of data and an assessment are provided to the media and the public,” Miller wrote.

The second phase of the initiative involves the Sheriff’s Office using its co-responder program to address people in crisis downtown. The Sheriff’s Office has not communicated when this second phase of action would begin.

When asked by commissioner Martin Moore at the meeting, Sheriff Miller said that his team was focusing on preventing crime downtown first and would incorporate co-responders once they have the downtown initiative “stood up.” He added that staffing for the co-responder program is currently limited.

In a phone call, BPR asked commission chair Brownie Newman about the possibility of increased low-level arrests for homeless people downtown and how the homeless community may be impacted by increased police presence downtown.

Newman replied that the expanded presence downtown would be “focused on providing support to people in our community experiencing homelessness and connecting them to services.”

“If there are serious violations of law that occur, that doesn’t mean that arrests won’t ever happen, but that is certainly not the focus of what the Sheriff’s downtown public safety initiative is all about.”

Other tidbits

  • Commissioners revisited the topic of an increase in the Buncombe County Board of Elections director’s salary. Current director Corinne Duncan will finally get her 6% raise, bumping her pay to an annual wage of $115,000 after more than six months of advocacy from the Buncombe County Board of Elections. 
  • Public health director Ellis Matheson shared details about a $684,000 grant that Buncombe County has received for local workforce development in the public health sector. The funds will go towards recruiting new staff, creating more public health educational opportunities, and turning Buncombe into “a more academic health department.”
  • January is Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month in Buncombe County, the commission declared.  
  • The board voted to accept the county’s audit. Commissioner Al Whitesides expressed a sigh of relief at the completion of the audit. “We’re free at last from what we have been going through in the past and hope we don’t have to go through that again,” Whitesides, who has served for eight years on the audit committee, said.

Every first and third Tuesday, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meets at 200 College Street, Room 326 in downtown Asheville beginning at 5 p.m.
See the full recording and agenda of the Jan. 16 meeting.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.
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