Asheville City Police has 'fragile' morale, police chief says – Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE – The Asheville Police Department has “fragile” morale and feels “underappreciated and vilified,” which is leading to low retention and recruitment numbers, according to Asheville City Police Chief David Zack.
On Jan. 6, Zack gave a presentation alongside Asheville Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore to the Council of Independent Business Owners, also called CIBO, about the city’s efforts to raise recruitment and keep its officers.
Currently, police are down around 40% of budgeted staff positions, Zack said. The department has a two-year, $225,000 contract with Epic Recruiting, an Arizona-based advertising firm that has worked with police recruitment around the country.
“We have to be competitive locally but we have to be competitive nationally because that is where folks are coming from. They’re not just coming from the Asheville area. We’ve got to recruit outside our region because there are so few applicants,” Zack said.
Since 2005, the Asheville Police Department has hired 507 police officers, and since then the city has lost 367, Zack said. The department is only budgeted for 238 officers. Currently, the department has only 146 officers, which means around 39% of the force is empty. This year, Zack said five officers are already expected to retire.
In August of 2021, after a presentation from Zack about recruiting issues, CIBO passed a “resolution of support for the Asheville Police Department,” which called for elected officials to offer more vocal and financial support to the department.  
At the Jan. 6 meeting, Kilgore noted recent city efforts to improve recruitment like the criticized “re-imagining public safety” initiative, working with Buncombe County’s Community Safety Initiative and the raising of base wages.
“What we’re doing is trying to work together with the people in the community and develop that relationship with APD,” she said of the Community Safety Initiative. “It sort of goes into … community policing, and that’s pretty much what you are moving toward, where people can become comfortable, and until people can become comfortable working with the police, not having fear or anything like that, we are still going to have issues.”
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Talking to the Citizen Times after the presentation, Zack said low morale at the city police is being driven by “a lot of negativity, especially in the media.” Kilgore said the community needs to be more welcoming to incoming police officers, as the department will be unable to grow without it.
While a common misconception is that staffing issues at the Asheville city police began in 2020, Zack said during the presentation that Asheville was struggling with retention for years before, though the police brutality protests of 2020 certainly made things more difficult. In 2020, Zack said 58 officers left the city, compared to 22 in 2019 and 38 in 2021.
At a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in 2020, police were seen on video destroying a medical station and slashing open water bottles. Zack, then a police chief on the job for only a few months, apologized for that incident in a statement after an initial statement was criticized. 
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Zack said during the presentation that he highlighted recruitment as an area he would focus on when interviewing to his current position. After the presentation, Zack told the Citizen Times he does not know how he has done in that area because of “completely unprecedented events:” the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests of 2020.
“It’s really just an unprecedented, perfect storm of things that have taken place that are beyond any agency’s control,” he said. “I guess we’ll look back 10 years from now and say, ‘OK, could we have done something differently?’ or, ‘Did we handle that right?’ But I mean, just mass exodus is, you know, you can’t pin that on any one thing.”
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The profession as a whole is currently going through a staffing issue, Zack said during his presentation. Because police departments are now recruiting nationwide, they have to compete with every other police department in the country, all of which are struggling with similar retention issues after the racial justice and policing protests of 2020.
Still, something unique has clearly been happening the last few years in Asheville. In 2021, the New York Times ran an article looking into nationwide police quitting during 2020, and they reported it from Asheville, which the article says was “among the hardest hit by police departures in the wake of last year’s George Floyd protests.”
Not all officers leaving Asheville are leaving the career altogether though, Zack said, but that many are being “poached” by other cities paying more money or with more community goodwill. Asheville, on the other hand, rarely recruits officers already trained and experienced. Typically, officers come to Asheville first because they know they will get training and good gear, he said.
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“Unfortunately, in the state of North Carolina, poaching is legal when it comes to police officers. By the way, in New York state it’s not,” Zack said. “It’s a problem that we have. It’s a problem that we face. It’s something that I’ve addressed with some of our state legislators.”
A reason other cities in the state want Asheville officers so badly is because of the high quality of training they receive while here, Zack told the Citizen Times. Often, it is cheaper to pay officers a higher salary than they are currently making than it is to train an existing officer for a specialty job, like a bomb technician.
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As of December 2022, Zack said during his presentation, 12 officers just finished field training and are now allowed to patrol on their own, 11 recruits have entered field training and will be available to start in April or May, four recruits are starting Basic Law Enforcement Training on Jan. 9 and eight candidates have passed interviews for the June basic training.
A problem, though, with only gaining young officers without much experience and only losing experienced officers is that accidents are more likely to happen in the field, Zack said.
“Young officers make mistakes, and they don’t have the level of training, they don’t have the level experience, and now we’re putting them into very difficult situations where, you know, you maybe would prefer an officer with a little bit more training and a little bit more experience handling some of these incidents,” Zack told the Citizen Times.
Trainees now make $41,511 per year, while sworn in officers make $44,738 per year, both with full benefits. According to Zack’s presentation, an average officer makes around $54,000 per year, as the department gives pay increases to those who undergo special trainings, which the city provides. According to the city’s website, Zack makes $172,874.83 per year.
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Even with current recruitment levels and the Epic Recruitment contract, Zack told the Citizen Times he does not expect the department to move beyond its current staffing levels in the foreseeable future. Being down around 40% staff is having a big impact on normal police activities, he said, as officers have little time to do anything but go from one call to the next.
“It’s a lot of the proactive work, you know, our ability to be in the neighborhood, but also our ability to build relationships in the community,” Zack said of what the police are unable to do with current staffing levels. “I mean, if you’re going to call the call, you don’t have time to spend and try to build relationships with the people you need to build relationships with. So you know, we’re kind of on that hamster wheel, you know, and we’re going to be there for a little while.”
Christian Smith is the general assignment reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times. Questions or comments? Contact him at [email protected] or 828-274-2222

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