Public Safety

Five Principles for Enhancing Public Safety.

1. Reduce racial disparity in policing.

What does this mean? Recent research shows Asheville has a racial disparity in police stops, with black drivers being more than twice as likely to be stopped by police as white drivers, and 100% more likely to be searched once stopped. These stops don't lead to better policing (black drivers are equally likely as white drivers to have drugs or outstanding warrants.) Behind them is a complex mix of socioeconomic factors and implicit biases, comparable to any similar-sized North Carolina city. Yet unchecked, even unconscious or systemic bias in policing can corrode trust between law enforcement and communities most impacted by poverty, drugs and crime. Recent nationwide focus on police shootings of unarmed suspects have brought national attention to the worst examples of the issue, but even day-to-day events can be colored by bias, making interactions in the community less safe for officer and community members.

The Buncombe County NAACP and local "hacking for good" group Code For Asheville have proposed a handful of policy changes adopted by many NC cities to reduce these disparities. First, reduce or eliminate "nuisance" stops (e.g., for a bad taillight or crooked license plate) and, second, inform drivers affirmatively of their right to accept or refuse a search without a warrant. Cities like Fayetteville and Durham have seen better racial equity in policing after adopting these, with more police resources devoted to other serious community problems, and less of the kind of interactions that can lead to escalation of force and lives ruined. These are free, easy, no-brainer solutions that have been a long time coming.

Third, these groups have called for the police department to perform an internal audit of individual officers' statistics using open data tools, looking for outlying officers with extremely high disparities between stops of black and white motorists. This would be an internal effort (stats are associated with badge numbers, not officers' names), adjusting the data for factors like, the location and demographics of the officers' turf, but it could only return a positive result in terms of a clearer picture of police acting fairly or unfairly, needing retraining or discipline, and so on. The police department should willingly take this on in the spirit of equity and good faith in the community.

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2. Build a network that responds to break-in waves faster.

What does this mean? Rashes of car break-ins and home burglaries are as reliable as the seasons in Asheville. For most Ashevilleans, they're the main way we experience crime and police. In almost every case, the waves are perpetrated by a small group, easily enough located, but a key factor in how quickly they're caught is community engagement and communication through tools such as Nextdoor and Facebook. In Rich's old neighborhood of East West Asheville, rapid mobilization after break-ins allowed police to shift resources to the area and put a stop to them. Over time, neighborhood efforts to lead property-identification campaigns and work with city planners and police to cut off avenues for burglars have meant a safer, tighter community, watching out for each other. But these are volunteer, community-led efforts and less-organized neighborhoods are still prey to crime (as, indeed, East West Asheville still occasionally is.) Empowering neighborhoods and proactively working to form neighborhood associations and watches should start with the resources of city government. The Office of the Neighborhood Coordinator should take a bigger role in leading pockets of the city to form groups on their own, and giving them the tools and resources to keep the efforts up for the long haul.

3. Empower the Civil Service Board and place reformers on it.

What does this mean? The Civil Service Board (CSB) is the worker protection for City of Asheville employees, including Fire and Police. It's a citizen check on promotion, firing, personnel grievances and other personnel decisions, comprised of two members appointed by council, two appointed by city employees, and a fifth appointed by the other four. Rather than being dissolved, as previous councils have proposed, the CSB should be reorganized and strengthened as a vital worker protection in a time of diminishing worker rights; but it shouldn't be a rubber stamp covering bad behavior either. With the opportunity to place as many as three members on the board, the city should commit to a fair-minded, worker-minded, and public-minded body, given leeway to demand accountability from city employees, but also on their behalf.

4. Treat traffic problems that cost lives as a public safety crisis.

What does this mean? The city is in the process of auditing three local roads with high bicycle and pedestrian crash rates: Biltmore Ave through downtown, Tunnel Road near Innsbruck and Patton Avenue to Leicester Highway. The specific recommendations from these audits need to be corrected quickly at the state DOT's expense (these are state-maintained roads.) Broader lessons need to be taken throughout the city with trained teams of neighbors working to identify traffic safety problems in their own areas of town. Asheville for all its #1 ratings, is the #1 Most Dangerous City in NC for bicycles and pedestrians. That needs to change.

5. Retention, diversity hiring and fleet maintenance are priorities. Military-type gear, not so much.

What does this mean? Low retention among police officers, due to low pay and morale, is a public safety concern, leading to understaffed and less-trained units. Pay needs to adjust for the local cost of living. At the same time, despite more new female recruits, the racial diversity of the force (only 3 black women and 2 Latinas) is still low. A force that reflects the face of the community isn't a panacea by any stretch, as recent police fatal confrontations in Charlotte between black officers and black suspects show, but every member of the community needs to see him or herself on the beat. The city has an opportunity to send a powerful message about its commitment to diversity that shouldn't be allowed to slip by.

Finally, reports presented to the Citizens Police Advisory Committee show the police vehicle fleet is aging and due for replacement. Competing against a lot of other budget priorities, replacement of worn-out equipment needs to take a more prominent spot. Yet the police should voluntarily refuse to accept or seek any of the repurposed military and military-style gear made famous by events in Ferguson and elsewhere, and should seek to eliminate the supply it has. This stuff, the SWAT tanks and grenade launchers, looks cool, but it has a minimal public safety purpose and sends exactly the wrong message about the kind of force the community wants. Get rid of it.