Asheville Daily Planet
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APD puts hope in recruiting, chief says
Wednesday, 18 January 2023 22:18
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The Asheville Police Department, which remains in a prolonged staffing crisis with no end in sight, “has lost” 144 officers since January 2019, city Police Chief David Zack said during a Jan. 6 address to the Council of Independent Owners at UNC Asheville’s Sherrill Center.

Zack’s APD update — providing the current situation and future plans for the unit from a police perspective —  was the second of two presentations on “The State of the Asheville Police Department” at the meeting, with city Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore speaking just before him with an address from the city government’s perspective. (A story on Kilgore’s address begins on Page A1.)

More than 75 people attended the early-morning breakfast meeting — nearly a full house.

After Zack’s update, an address on “The State of the Local Economy” was presented by Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board and executive director of the Land of the Sky Regional Council. (A story on Ramsey’s address starts on Page A1.)

Zack began his talk on a light note by re-introducing himself as the city’s police chief who has served in that position for about three years.

Pausing, he quipped with a smile, “Given the turnover here, three years is pretty good...” (His comment triggered some laughter among the CIBO meeting attendees.) 

Zack then asserted firmly, “They haven’t chased me out of here yet — and they won’t (ever) chase me out of here!” He did not, however, specify who are the “they” to which he was referring.

After noting the collosal loss of police officers over the past four years, the police chief noted that “the APD is budgeted for 238 sworn positions. Currently, we have 161 sworn officers available on a daily basis... down 39 percent, leaving 77 vacancies.”

Zack noted that the city has hired a recruiting firm to help fills the APD’s vacancies — and that officials are optimistic that it will be helpful.

He then provided a year-by-year breakout of the APD’s exodus of 144 officers over the past four years as follows:

• 2019 — 22 officers departed

• 2020 — 58 officers departed  

• 2021 — 38 officers departed

• 2022 — 26 officers departed

As for early 2023, Zack said that it appears that “the losses for the APD have abated, but we’re still losing offiers at an alarming rate.”

At that point, the police chief said that, even “before the protests in 2020, the APD had a severe attrition problem...It didn’t start with George Floyd.” (The U.S. was convulsed by nationwide protests over the mid-July 2020 death of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody. Floyd, 46, died while under police custody in Minneapolis, Minn.)

Regarding turnover at the APD, Zack added, “It’s an ongoing problem the city has faced — and it has cost the city millions of dollars to replace that talent...

“When you start to think about those hours of training” lost from those leaving the APD, it is a huge blow to the city’s law enforcement efforts, he said. 

As an example, he lamented, “We recently lost a ‘bomb tech’ with 360 hours of training....

“We’re still losing people. Replacements are on the way, but, again, the problem is the constant rate of attrition.”

To help translate into simpler terms for the public as to what the attrition means, Zack said grimly that the APD is “down 39 percent in sworn staff, daily.”

On the brighter side, the police chief noted, “Twelve offiers just finished field training and were solo as of December 2022, with 11 recruits in field training, who will be available April-May 2023” to actually begin work as officers.

Zack also said the APD has “four recruits who will be starting basic law enforcement training on Jan. 9, 2023 — who should be available to work as officers on November 2023.

What’s more, he said his unit has “eight police candidates currently ‘in the process,’ who have passed panel interviews for the June 2023 basic field training....”

Shifting gears slightly, Zack then asserted, “Again, we brought Epic (Recruiting) on. Quite frankly, they’re not taking on any more clients,” as the recruitment of police officers in today’s culture is a tough task. (Council approved the hiring of Epic for $225,000 — under a two-year contract — to address staggering staffing lows and reach a more diverse pool of applicants.)

He added, “That trend in Asheville (of a staffing crisis at the police department) is happening across the country.... That (police turnover) is not just an Asheville problem — that’s a nationwide problem.”

What’s more, the police chief said, “There’s a misconception that Epic is out there in the community, ‘grabbing people by the collar and bringing them in’ to work. “Instead, what Epic does is digital advertising — making the APD look like a great place to work — and they’re doing a fantastic job. 

“So they (Epic) attract people to us (the APD)... and then it’s our job to get them to join. From what I can tell you... from doing job fairs and community meetings... there’s no way we possibly could have reached that many people,” as has Epic through its digital advertising.

During a brief question-and-answer session that followed Zack’s address, CIBO member Mac Swicegood asked, “Chief, what I hear is ... the real problem is social engineering nationwide. So that’s the damn problem!”

Some in the audience applauded lightly — or laughed — at Swicegood’s well-known forthrightness in expressing his viewpoint.

Then, with everyone in the room turning back to the police chief to see and hear his response, Zack smiled at Swicegood, paused briefly as he obviously was deep in thought, and said, “That is one of many problems” with which the APD is handling.

A unidentified woman then asked the police chief, “How do you replace the bomb expert?”

“What we’re seeing is recruits with five different job opportunities sitting in front of each of them,” Zack replied. “We just have to stay in the marketplace and be competitive nationally, as well as locally.” He added that the top competitors for Asheville’s police prospects include Charlotte, first; Atlanta, Ga., second; and Nashville, Tenn., third.

An unidentified man said he appreciated Vice Mayor Sandra Kilgore “sharing dollar figures,” including that the APD’s starting salary is $41,000, with “steps to increase it.” But he lamented that the “average (police) starting salary in North Carolina is $39,000 per year — so your starting salary is only a little higher....”

In response, a smiling Zack said, “Besides the (APD’s) starting salary, we put in a load of incentives, taking it up to $54,000 per year... So what we’ve done is add a lot of incentives to substantially increase that base.”

The APD chief added, “Unforunately, in the state of North Carolina, ‘poaching’ is illegal — when it comes to police officers. It’s a huge problem I’ve addressed” in reference to police officers being wooed away via enticing offers from other units. 

“It’s ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” he asserted, grimly.

Noting the negative nature of much of the discussion involving much-touted Asheville (that has won recognition on many “best of” lists, nationally) in connection with the APD, David Nutter, a retiree and former city planner, asked the police chief, “If Asheville has any qualities that distinguish it?”

With a broad smile, Zack quipped, “Nationally, we (Asheville) are in the top 2 percent (among U.S. cities) for losing (police) officers. That’s why we made the cover of The New York Times. So yeah, we’re .. at the top.” Again, the chief’s comment triggered some laughter and applause from the mostly pro-business CIBO attendees.

(The front-page NYT story to which Zack was referring was headlined, “Why Police Have Been Quitting in Droves in the Last Year” and was published on June 24, 2021. The story begins by stating, “Asheville, N.C., has been among the hardest hit by police departures in the wake of last year’s George Floyd protests. About a third of the force quit or retired....”) 

Persisting, Nutter asked the police chief, “Are we (Asheville) at the top in any qualities?”

“Yes,” a smiling Zack, again quipping and triggering some laughter from the meeting attendees, replied. “We (Asheville) are at the top in transplants,” referring to those who have moved to Asheville from elsewhere.

Taking a more serious tone, the police chief then added,  “I’m a ‘transplant.’ (Zack had been police chief in Cheektowaga, N.Y., for nine years, prior to being hired from three finalists to begin as Asheville’s police chief on Feb. 4, 2020.)

“For younger people, they want to be attracted to the area,” Zack said. “So on our (APD) website, we showcase the waterfalls” and other natural scenic aspects around the city.

“That’s what’s really drawing young people — including police recruits — to the area. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to be competitive (in every way feasible) for police officers…

“Work has been started — and I’m confident we will get it done, The best advertisement is ... current police officers saying, ‘It’s a great place to work!’” Zack said, in concluding the Q&A session.



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