© 2023 Blue Ridge Public Radio
Blue Ridge Mountains banner background
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Asheville Police Calls: Roadmap For Defunding?

Robert Thomas is the community liason for the Racial Justice Coalition

Of 911 calls and requests for assistance to Asheville Police, less than 1 percent involve a violent crime, an AVL Watchdog analysis of police dispatch data shows.

Much of the time, police are summoned to routine calls such as traffic accidents, domestic disputes and loud parties or non-violent crimes like shoplifting, trespassing and prostitution, according to the analysis of more than two years of 911 calls. (Read the numbers)

“The reality of policing is that the majority of their time is spent on things totally unrelated to crime,’’ said Matthew Robinson, a professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “We know that 75 to 80 percent of an officer’s time is spent providing social services and routine administrative tasks like filling out reports.”

The role of law enforcement and questions about whether some police functions are better delegated to trained, unarmed professionals is a debate taking place in cities across America. Activists are calling on elected officials to reduce the size and scope of police work to lessen officers’ encounters with the Black community that have historically led to racial profiling, disproportionately high arrest rates, and excessive and deadly use of force.

[AVL Watchdog: Arrest data suggest discrimination against Black people]

A petition to defund the Asheville Police Department and redistribute money to the Black community had 15,480 signatures as of Tuesday. Black AVL Demands, which is described as an “intergenerational collective of Black leaders in Asheville,” lists as its primary demand a 50 percent cut in the police budget with the money going toward such causes as Black business startups, eliminating racial opportunity gaps in city schools and funding an all-civilian police oversight committee.

AVL Watchdog asked all members of the City Council about the demands, one of the most significant and potentially consequential decisions that has faced the city. Council members Keith Young and Sheneika Smith did not respond to email requests for comment.

Mayor Esther Manheimer referred to a Facebook post in which she said the city was delaying its budget approval to reconsider spending decisions and thanked everyone who was pushing “toward constructive reform.”

“Community engagement” meetings will be held through mid-September, the mayor wrote in an email. “I don’t expect the reimagining of traditional policing to be accomplished overnight, but I want to see significant movement in that direction.”

Councilman Brian Haynes has publicly declared support for a 50 percent reduction in the police budget. “I continue to support this proposal,” he told AVL Watchdog.

Councilman Vijay Kapoor said in an email that he favors “reducing the time our officers need to spend on nonessential activities and calls so that they can spend more time developing relationships through community policing. If we can do that with a significantly smaller budget, then I’m all in favor of it, but I doubt that’s going to be the case.”

Kapoor said he opposes “picking an arbitrary number such as 50 percent. The focus needs to be on prioritizing how we want our police officers to spend their time and then figure out what that will cost. This does not mean we do not address the very real and pernicious racial gaps we see across the city. We need to do both.”

Councilwoman Julie Mayfield said a 50 percent cut “could be great as it would free up tremendous resources for other city investments.” But she said it would be “highly unlikely” by September and could take several years.

The city must first have alternatives “to deal with the cases that get peeled off and ...programs in place to accept and use the funding,” Mayfield wrote in an email. “That is critical to have before we make big moves with big dollars. We have to be thoughtful about what gets shifted and why as well as where it goes and who picks it up.”

Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, the only Council member to agree to an interview, said she would consider ideas on shifting some police functions away from law enforcement.

“If people have other suggestions on how some of these things should be handled, I’m definitely open to that,” she said. “But I also don’t know that it would be very responsible of me to just willy-nilly say, ‘OK, we’re just going to cut the police budget in half,’ without a plan to actually respond to the needs of the community…and we don’t have that right now.”

The city has received more than 5,000  emails about cutting the police budget. One group adamantly opposed is the local police union.

Rondell Lance, president of the Asheville Fraternal Order of Police, said the effort is based on false claims by people who don’t understand what police do.

“They’re making up stories, making up statistics to get their message out, which is, ‘Police are evil. We know how to handle this better than the police.’ The criminals are sitting back laughing,’Yeah, defund the police,’ ” he said. “They’re playing a big scam on the public, and the City Council is just eating it up.”

Other cities act

Some cities are already reacting to the calls for change. In Minneapolis, where the videotaped murder of Black civilian George Floyd by white officers set off worldwide protests and a rethinking of policing in America, the City Council has voted to dismantle the police department and create a new model for public safety through a year-long engagement with “every willing community member.”

Elected leaders in big cities have agreed to large cuts in the police budgets -- $150 million in Los Angeles, about 8 percent of the budget, and $1 billion, or 17 percent, in New York City. San Francisco’s mayor announced a plan to shift non-violent calls to social workers, homeless outreach specialists and other trained professionals. And the Seattle City Council appears to have the votes to cut its police budget in half.

In Asheville, the city spends $30 million a year on the Police Department -- one out of every five dollars in the general fund.

The City Council has generously funded the department, voting to expand its budget by 47 percent in the past 10 years. The population increased by about 11 percent in that time.

Police budgets “grow every single year,’’ said Angaza Laughinghouse, field manager with the ACLU of North Carolina.

“Every time you challenge them about how huge their budgets are… they say, ‘Who is going to keep you safe? What’s going to happen when somebody breaks into your house and there’s a robbery or rape?’ ” he said. “But then when you look at their numbers like you guys have just done, most of the time the police are responding to calls that aren’t related to violent crimes.”

Traffic, alarms most common calls

AVL Watchdog analyzed Asheville Police dispatch data that include calls initiated by officers and 911 calls from January 2018 through March 3, 2020. Police spokeswoman Christina Hallingse said the data are not a reflection of how officers spend their time since some calls such as a traffic stop may take one officer 15 minutes while a serious crime could require multiple officers and take hours. And, she said, sometimes the nature of a call changes, such as a domestic disturbance becoming an assault.

The Police Department provided a slightly larger number of violent crimes than was reflected in the dispatch data, 1,203 versus 808, but the total still represents less than one-half of 1 percent of the calls.

The 911 data provide a look at officers’ interactions with the public. Among the most common calls, according to the analysis: 

  • 23 percent were traffic-related with the majority being traffic stops and accidents. Also included were assisting motorists, improper parking, abandoned and towed vehicles, debris and blocked roadways, and directing traffic.
  • 16 percent were alarms or checking on a business, residence or person. Of the alarms, 98 percent were false or canceled, and 77 percent of the requests to check on a person or place were canceled, unfounded, or the person or address could not be located.
  •  8 percent of the calls involved a suspicious person or vehicle, which is defined as someone behaving or driving unusually or a vehicle in an unusual area, and “there is a reasonable impression that a criminal offense has been or is about to occur.” Of those, 16 percent resulted in an arrest or citation while 63 percent were unfounded, canceled or the person or vehicle could not be found.
  •  7 percent were classified as “crime prevention,” which is defined as an officer-initiated call that involves ways to reduce crime, such as community engagement and “directed patrols in high-crime areas.” Less than 2 percent resulted in an arrest or citation.
  •  5 percent were reports of a “civil disturbance,” which can be people arguing, behaving erratically or refusing to leave a business. Of those, 6 percent resulted in an arrest or citation and 66 percent were canceled, unfounded, resolved or “unable to locate.” (The police spokeswoman said that on calls coded as civil disturbance, crime prevention and suspicious vehicle or person, officers are encouraged to mediate or solve the problem “without enforcement action, unless absolutely necessary.”) 
  •  5 percent were reports of thefts, including shoplifting. Of those, 7 percent ended in an arrest or citation and 67 percent with a “report made.”
  •  4 percent involved animals and wildlife, including animal cruelty, dog barking and bites, and injured or sick animals.
  •  3 percent involved calls driven by poverty, mental health and addiction, such as panhandling, homeless camps, drug overdoses, attempted suicides and intoxication.
  •  2 percent were calls about loud noises, music or yelling.

AVL Watchdog sent the analysis to all City Council members for comment. Mayfield wrote in an email, “This is good information…It could provide a good roadmap for pulling some response duties away from the police and putting them in other departments.” 

She said having social workers or counselors deal with homelessness and addiction “makes sense,” and civilians could potentially deal with vehicle accidents, but that would require a change in North Carolina law. “Perhaps something to seek to change at the state level,” she said.

The other Council members did not respond to the analysis, except for Wisler, the vice mayor.

“I don’t see 50 percent of the effort that the police are doing to be nonessential,” she said. “I’m not sure I see a ton of things that other people can do, but maybe.”

She noted state law requires traffic citations and accidents be handled by law enforcement officers. Other tasks like directing traffic could possibly be done by civilians, as could calls about mental health, addiction and the homeless. “But it’s not a ton of calls,” she said. “You’re not getting to 50 percent by any stretch.”

She said that even though many alarm calls turn out to be false, it’s unknown whether a burglary is occurring until an officer arrives on scene. Wisler said she rode with police a couple of weeks ago.

“There was one mother and daughter who had barricaded themselves into a bedroom because they heard noises in the house,” she said. “They had Airbnb guests in the house and then forgot about them or maybe someone else in the family had let them in…It was completely a false alarm, but they were clearly very afraid.

“I don’t know if civilians should go and respond to that, or do we just tell them, ‘Sorry?’ ”

Rethinking role of officers

Robert Thomas, community liaison of Asheville’s Racial Justice Coalition, said many of the non-violent calls could be handled by social workers, health care workers or other civilians.

“Drug addictions and mental health issues should not be handled by the police,” he said. “Loud noises, panhandling, suspicious persons, crime prevention…it is those things that need to be reviewed and moved accordingly.”

He said when an officer initiates a suspicious person call, “a lot of the time, that’s how Black people get killed by the police.”

And the dispatch calls are only one place to look for opportunities to scale back police involvement, Thomas said. Officers are not continuously on call.

“This data doesn’t show the injustices of over-policing marginalized communities,” Thomas said. “A lot of the officers spend a lot of hours in marginalized areas where a lot of unnecessary incidents occur because you’ve got officers sitting around so even if a minor crime or a minor infraction happens, they will be involved and sometimes they turn out a lot worse than the initial crime.”

Lance of the police union said that when arrests escalate, “it’s not because of officers.”

When “an officer tells you, ‘You’re under arrest, put your hands behind your back and go.’ There’s no issue,” he said. “The last thing an officer wants to do is fight, get hurt or get somebody hurt because there’s so much paperwork on that, so much scrutiny.”

And he said all arrests are reviewed not just by supervisors but the District Attorney and judges. 

Officers are already trained in dealing with homelessness and mental illness and have been working with social workers for years. Simply turning those calls over to social workers is oversimplified, he said.

“These aren’t just people walking up, ‘Hey I got a drug problem, what can I do?’ They’re already screaming and hollering,” he said. “A social worker could handle a heroin addict breaking the windows out of a house? They can handle it a lot better than police? Well have at it. We’ll go to McDonald’s and get us a shake. It’s just ridiculous.”

Lance said cutting the police force would hurt poor and marginalized communities the most by providing less protection from drug dealers and violent crime. But activists say police would be freer to focus on more serious crimes, and the reinvestment in the Black community would in time lower crime rates. 

Thomas is part of a group of Black activists and residents who are meeting and studying the police budget for possible cuts, not all of them involving a reduction in the police force. “You don’t need further militarization, further weaponry, things of that nature,” Thomas said.

The city is also doing an analysis, Wisler said, “of time spent on these various activities to show the public this is how we spend our time and then get input as to what services they do not want the police to handle.” The City Council will be holding meetings over the next two months.

Before the protests and demands by Black activists, City Manager Debra Campbell proposed a budget that called for a slight increase of 1 percent for the Police Department. Campbell did not respond to a request for comment on how much she will recommend for the police now.

Police Chief David Zack, who started in February, had proposed a 3-month reform plan that included focusing less on minor crimes, abolishing a drug suppression unit and installing a homeless outreach team.

Thomas called the homeless team an example of over-policing. He said he passed by a group of 10 to 15 officers frisking a Black homeless man near downtown earlier this year and stopped. The man was trespassing on church property.

“You could tell he’s got mental issues; He’s talking to himself,” Thomas said. “They got him jacked up against the wall.”

Thomas said he offered to give the man a ride to get him off the property. One officer responded, “Do you have a problem?” Thomas said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I do because there are like 15 of y’all and one of him, and all y’all are white. I don’t trust you.”

One officer said they would first have to write the man a citation to appear in court because they found a marijuana pipe on him, a misdemeanor that could stay on his record and cost him fines.

“The whole time I was there, [the guy] was nice, saying, ‘Yes sir,’ ” Thomas said. “Is this necessary?”

Budget cut won’t increase crime, criminologist says

Activists say the time has long passed for more promises of reform.

“What I want to do is create new structures and a new system,” Thomas said. “Trying to build on a house with a foundation that’s already so much destroyed, the house needs to come down.”

Laughinghouse of the ACLU said police officers tell him they’re not racist, that they’re “one of the good guys.”

“But if it was just a few of these guys doing these things, targeting Black folks, you would see masses of good cops coming up to stop them,” he said. “You have cops that say, ‘We just need to have community conversations. We’ll be more transparent so you guys can see what we’re doing.’ ”

But some policing already is transparent, he said, and discrimination still happens.

North Carolina has mandated collection of traffic stop data for 20 years, but Black motorists continue to be stopped at disproportionate rates. Asheville has had the highest rate of African-American drivers searched of the 12 largest cities in the state for the past three years straight.

“We’re at a point with cops, if you can’t do your job without being racist, you shouldn’t be in charge,” Laughinghouse said. “You need to be reallocated to people who can do that job without a badge, without a monopoly on violence.”

Kenneth Mentor, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, wrote his dissertation 20 years ago on the defunding of the Legal Services Corp., a legal aid nonprofit created by Congress. The response in the communities he studied was to turn the work over to other agencies.

“Social work agencies took over much of the non-lawyering workload, and were probably better at it, allowing LSC-funded agencies to focus on actual law work,” he said.

Similar “defunding” has occurred with other social institutions while criminal justice has grown, he said. The country has moved away from helping those in need to criminalizing their behavior with expanded police forces and more prisons.

“The criminal justice system filled a void after mental hospitals were closed,” Mentor said. “Funding for the criminal justice system increased to pay for school resource officers as budgets for school counselors were cut.”

It’s time, he said, to start reversing those trends.

“While problems addressed by various social service agencies aren’t going away, we have tended to rely on policing and corrections rather than potentially more effective solutions, in part because the justice system always has the money,” Mentor said. “Move the money and we will find other solutions, each of which has the potential to be more effective.”

Robinson, the Appalachian State professor, agreed. “I think it’s a pretty fair conclusion to suggest that police budgets could be cut by some portion that would not lead to any increase in crime.”

And that, he said, would reduce unnecessary and inappropriate encounters with people of color.

“Logically, the less officers on the street, then the less interactions they’re going to have with civilians,” Robinson said. “You would expect there to be less problems, less excessive use of force, less racial profiling with a smaller police department.”

AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin, an investigative reporter, and John Maines, a data journalist, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their investigation of off-duty police speeding in Florida. Contact us at avlwatchdog@gmail.com.

Matt Bush joined Blue Ridge Public Radio as news director in August 2016. Excited at the opportunity the build up the news service for both stations as well as help launch BPR News, Matt made the jump to Western North Carolina from Washington D.C. For the 8 years prior to coming to Asheville, he worked at the NPR member station in the nation's capital as a reporter and anchor. Matt primarily covered the state of Maryland, including 6 years of covering the statehouse in Annapolis. Prior to that, he worked at WMAL in Washington and Metro Networks in Pittsburgh, the city he was born and raised in.