Policing the core: Inside Asheville city government’s efforts to ‘enhance’ downtown


Asheville police arrest a man at the corner of North Lexington Avenue and Walnut Street in this September 2013 file photo/ Ashvegas/ Jason Sandford

By David Forbes

Last year, summer was a concerning time in downtown Asheville, with increases in crime and complaints about nuisance behavior. There was contention over the cause and the response, with some nonprofits and homeless advocates asserting that the Asheville Police Department went too far in a more aggressive approach to complaints about the transient population. “Proactive arrests” for repeated nuisance crimes was how the APD put it.

This year, while the APD earlier touted a significant drop in overall crime, the same issues remain, though sometimes of more than the nuisance variety. In two days this month, a homeless man was assaulted on Biltmore Avenue and there was a stabbing on Walnut Street.

Downtown, which has gone from largely abandoned to a thriving (and increasingly expensive) commercial and residential hub in just over two decades, is the jewel in the crown — or the goose’s golden egg, if you prefer — of Asheville’s economic clout.

That means that city staff and elected officials, not to mention an array of nonprofits, residents and business groups, all have an interest in their particular visions of how they want it to go, and in presenting an image to the world they think will favor that. They spend a lot of time and attention on the area. Downtown has its own city-appointed commission and its own policing unit, for example. In 2009, the city spent $170,000 for consultants to help draw up an extensive master plan for the area’s development.

Earlier this year, to little fanfare, the Asheville Police Department unveiled a plan to “enhance” downtown, including everything from a policy on the homeless to a plan for a more coordinated surveillance network to a list of shoplifters (complete with mugshots) to a promise to look into the rules on street entertainers. The downtown plan even came out before the APD’s overall plan to reform the way the department operates hit the public eye.

City spokesperson Dawa Hitch writes that the plan “was designed to identify current trends in downtown and outline relevant policing strategies.”

The future core area like downtown is also, not surprisingly, contentious, and any plan to “enhance” it is going to raise questions about whose interests are served. Here’s a bit more on what preceded this plan, what it aims to do, and why it matters.

The context

The master plan was intended to lay the groundwork for the area’s future development. Some of its measures are already passed, like new height and development rules for the city core.

Others, however, proved more contentious. The plan called for a Business Improvement District, an independent non-profit set up through a special tax levy on downtown property.

In 2012, a collection of downtown power brokers and business owners pushed the idea for the BID forward, but it proved incredibly controversial, to put it mildly. The proposed organization would provide increased infrastructure and cleaning as well as providing for a program of “ambassadors” who would report issues to the police.

A broad coalition opposed it. Conservative property owners disliked the tax, as did some residents. Activists disliked giving that much power over tax revenue and downtown’s future to an unelected board with some seats reserved specifically for wealthy landowners. While Asheville City Council gave tentative approval to the BID’s formation, it balked at signing off on the tax required to fund it. Eventually, relations turned acrimonious, with the BID board accusing the city of being insufficiently cooperative, and voting to go into hibernation until more favorable political winds prevailed. Notably, the BID board members promised to work through other methods and organizations to accomplish its goals.

Also, during the discussions over the BID, a number of staff and elected officials promised to do some of what the BID had promised to, including improving infrastructure and providing for a cleaner, safer neighborhood. On the first front, when city officials did increase local property taxes last year, they devoted a chunk to improving downtown.

On the latter, efforts to “clean up” downtown have attracted particular support from both city and business leaders this year, with Council repeating their annual condemnation of the GoTopless rally and investing $300,000 from city savings to clean up graffiti at little or no cost to business owners. While the latter program covers the entire city, downtown has seen a large portion of the clean-up so far, according to the city’s online maps.

In 2011, the APD formed a policing unit specifically for downtown, with officers initially around during prime time for tourists and supposed to address issues specific to downtown, including the “nuisance issues” that business organizations complained about. This went hand-in-hand with a new emphasis on “community policing” across the APD, where cops were supposed to spend more time getting to know people in various neighborhoods so they could nip potential problems in the bud.

Currently, the downtown unit has 10 officers, two sergeants and two park wardens. The downtown unit is on the street in two shifts — from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sunday a smaller crew of two officers works more limited hours.

Notably, the city’s recent overall plan for overhauling the department cites this unit as possible example for a new model of policing around the city.

The plan

The police’s downtown “enhancement” plan starts off by noting its history in growing out of the “proactive” response to last year’s crime spike. By the time the plan was officially rolled out in early April, the APD had already taken steps from meeting with local bar owners to starting a volunteer program to revising the “educational materials” it hands out to the homeless and transient population.

One of the items indicates that new rules for buskers could be on the way, as the APD is “working with legal to review the [street entertainer] ordinance.” Asked about what possible changes the city could be looking at, Hitch just replied in an email that “busking is one of the trends noted in the assessment of downtown and is one of the many areas where staff is analyzing public safety’s role.”

Notbaly, Asheville bans panhandling in downtown, something that recently received the full-fledged endorsement of the Asheville Citizen-Times, though similar restrictions in other places have attracted challenges from groups like the ACLU. The city’s rules on buskers have generally been far more loose, and a number of cities have seen First Amendment lawsuits when they tried to enforce stricter rules on buskers, especially in public spaces.

Interestingly, the plan includes everything from copies of documents to mugshots sprinkled throughout its length, instead of the more typical method of consolidating them into a separate appendix.

On the homelessness front, the plan notes that officers are attending lunches with the homeless and meetings of advocacy groups “to help build relationships with these populations outside of enforcement.” Included in the plan is the APD’s homeless policy, which notes that “homelessness, on its own, does not constitute reasonable suspicion” of a crime and includes the notice that police use when they’re informing a homeless person that they have to leave their campsite.

Then there’s the volunteers. While the BID, along with its “ambassador” program, may have failed to come to fruition, the city’s new volunteer program seems to replicate many of its aspects. Volunteers will, three days a week, help tourists with directions and information and “contact district officers to forward a concern or take a report if needed.” The plan also notes that volunteers will be recruited through partnerships with existing downtown organizations, many of whom backed the BID proposal.

Asked about the similarities and differences between the BID proposal and the volunteer program, Hitch just replied that “the use of volunteers as it relates to the plan refers to volunteers staffing the Downtown Substation.  APD looks at this as a unique opportunity to build relationships in the community.”

Notably, at Council’s retreat earlier this year, a more extensive surveillance network downtown was broached — though specifics weren’t discussed — and received the endorsement of Council member Cecil Bothwell. However, other Council members expressed some skepticism, and the APD ended up going forward with the SafeCam program. Instead of APD-run cameras throughout downtown, SafeCam is a voluntary database telling the police where the cameras on private business are. They goal, according to to the plan, is “to encourage business and property owners within the city of Asheville to utilize their surveillance cameras and make areas safer for shoppers and the community.”

SafeCam also includes applying for more funds to help private business owners install their own cameras.

The plan ends, somewhat unusually, with a guide and extensive, 12-page list of local convicted shoplifters, mugshots included. “Should any of these individuals come into your store, they would warrant extra vigilance on your part.”

This is currently the APD’s guide for policing downtown. It remains to be seen how, if at all, the recent violent incidents downtown will affect policing strategy or if the department will simply continue to stick to its enhancement plan and focus on the far more common “nuisance behaviors.”

Hitch, after writing that the APD is constantly evaluating its policing strategy, also asserts that the current approach is working fairly well.

“The assault was a random act in which we apprehended the suspects fairly quickly. The stabbing was not a random act and was the result of a dispute.  An arrest was made in this case as well.  Our Downtown continues to be a very safe place for our residents, businesses and visitors.  For the amount of people that frequent our vibrant Downtown, we have very few incidents.”

That said plan, and its predecessors, are far from the last chapters in the effort to “enhance” Asheville’s core, or the fight to somehow square the tourist-friendly image peddled around the country with the fact that we are, at last, a city.

David Forbes is a local journalist and editor of the Asheville Blade, a reader-supported site for sharp news and views.


BrightsideNC September 3, 2014 - 1:26 pm

Last month a downtown employee was held at gunpoint by several assailants one block from Patton ave on Church Street

Lexingtonian September 2, 2014 - 6:26 pm

Enhancements I would like to see downtown are cleaning up the piles of puke and broken bottles that I have to navigate early Saturday mornings.

FDR September 2, 2014 - 5:00 pm

Do we actually know the population of HOMELESS (Literally living in a shelter and trying to get back on their feet) and TRANSIENTS (Homeless by choice and hanging in Asheville until the welcome mat is pulled out from under them).

I would presume the transients take up a lot of beds that the actual homeless could use until they get employment and housing.

When I’m downtown I find the ratio 85% transient/*10% homeless/**5% sport panhandlers. Just an opinion.

*I imagine the real Homeless are volunteering and helping out at the shelters so you really never see them.

**Sport Panhandlers: someone that does it for kicks because you would be surprised how easy it is to get money from strangers on the weekends.

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