Asheville, North Carolina — Multiple local law enforcement sources who spoke to Fox News Digital laid partial blame for the deteriorating condition of a North Carolina tourist town on the city’s liberal political leadership and on left-wing activists who undermine police.
“I think what you’re seeing in Asheville right now is a culmination of the last several years of pulling police back and not letting them do their jobs like they’re able to do,” former Buncombe County Sheriff Van Duncan told Fox News Digital in a phone interview.
Asheville, a city of approximately 90,000 people nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Buncombe County, North Carolina, has seen a 31% surge in violent crime during the past five years, according to statistics released in the spring. Asheville’s growth in violent crime is nearly double that of the national average and ranks among the highest in North Carolina, where violent crime has increased 13% statewide in the past half-decade.
Asheville has so far seen 11 homicides in 2022, setting it on pace to surpass the homicide rate of 2021 and 2020. Rates of homelessness have increased 21% since 2021, according to data released in May. There is also evidence of increased Mexican drug cartel activity in the area, according to multiple law enforcement sources who spoke to Fox News Digital.
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Both the Asheville Police Department (APD) and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department have been hemorrhaging officers in recent years, with many retiring early or simply quitting. APD made international headlines in June 2021 when they announced they would no longer respond in-person to 911 calls about theft, fraud or trespassing after losing a third of their force.
Duncan, who was a longtime registered Democrat, retired as sheriff and became politically unaffiliated in 2018, citing “an anti-law enforcement sentiment in the Democratic Party right now,” according to the Asheville Citizen-Times. He told Fox News Digital that police who do wrong must be held accountable, but also said officers both locally and around the country have become hesitant to do their jobs “because they can be right, but it can be the wrong set of facts, and they can still wind up in trouble.”
Duncan further noted that when he was serving as county sheriff, “left-wing activists” from outside the community would sweep in to disrupt community meetings. “They would really try to get into it with the police, and a lot of times, they would try to shout down things,” he said. “And the first people who quit coming to those meetings were the people within the community. They really didn’t get to speak, and they really didn’t get anything done.”
“Personally, I think that is the agenda of the Left: for law enforcement not to be able to do anything that’s effective and makes the community safer,” he added.
An officer currently with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department who spoke to Fox News Digital on condition of anonymity attributed the exodus of officers to policy changes that hamstring them. The officer also cited an overall lack of leadership and the “liberal agenda” of some county commissioners and members of city council. Neither the Asheville City Council nor the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners responded to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.
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The officer laid particular blame on Buncombe County District Attorney Todd Williams, a Democrat whose office did not respond to a request for comment from Fox News Digital. The officer claimed Williams’ office often doesn’t charge criminals at all or reduces felony charges to misdemeanors.
“Crime will continue to rise when there is no accountability for subjects of a crime,” the officer said. “Officers overlook so many things because they know that it will go nowhere in court.” The officer predicted the situation in the Asheville area is headed “downhill quickly” without a change in leadership.
‘Evil is real’
APD Chief David Zack told Fox News Digital that the reasons behind the steady flood of resignations in his department are complicated and multi-faceted. Zack said the APD has lost more than 100 sworn officers since May 2020, which he noted is roughly equivalent to 600 years of experience walking out the door.
He pinpointed family pressures, a lack of community support and low pay in the expensive city as major factors pushing police to throw in the towel, but explained that APD has been working with the city to make salaries more competitive. He also said that “officers are very, very frustrated” with low bail.
Placing Asheville’s situation within the context of trends present in police departments across the U.S., he said the loss of officers accelerated following the protests that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020. The protests that roiled Asheville that summer were especially tense, with APD officers decked out in riot gear engaging in an hours-long standoff with protesters on a bridge leading into the city.
“There certainly have been questions about support [for police] from elected officials, from the president of the United States right on down, so it’s not just local leaders,” he said. “It’s just been like a perfect storm of events and circumstances that are driving officers out of the profession who have a significant amount of time and experience invested.”
Zack also noted that fewer people even want to become police officers anymore, leading to what he described as “a hamster wheel of losing people and trying to replace them at the same time.”
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“I certainly think that with the losses that we have, our ability to be proactive and also our ability to be visible are partly causing some of the increases,” the chief said of rising violent crime. “Because we’ve lost so many officers, and we’re operating at almost 42% down every single day, officer presence and officer visibility are not what they were.”
Zack also said fentanyl in the region has gotten “out of control,” and that the amount they have been taking off the street is “alarming.” He recounted that county police recently made the biggest fentanyl bust in Buncombe County history until APD made a bigger bust weeks later.
When Justin Wilson, who served a decade as an APD community resource officer, resigned in August 2020 to begin a new career, he sent a letter to the community he served, apologizing to them and explaining that the job had “taken a toll on my personal life.” His letter was published on the front page of the local newspaper.
Writing how he had come to believe that police were tasked beyond their capacity with “stopping societal issues and disorder,” Wilson concluded that law enforcement solutions are merely “a Band-Aid” on such profound problems and that “strong communities are the real remedy.”
“After 10 years at APD, I can say confidently that APD officers are good people with good hearts,” he wrote. “Evil is real. Evil exists in Asheville, officers are surrounded by it, and they do their best with what they have. Please remember that.”
‘Hub of Antifa’
Chad Nesbitt, the former chair of the Buncombe County GOP who now works as a local investigative journalist, attributed some of the city’s problems to Antifa’s presence in Asheville, which he described as “the hub of Antifa” in the region.
“It’s devastating what they’ve done here in town and the Asheville area,” Nesbitt said of Antifa, whose activity he has followed closely ever since he was nearly killed during protests downtown following the verdict in the Breonna Taylor case in 2020. Activists also dropped off a coffin filled with dirt and animal manure in front of APD headquarters at the time.
Nesbitt said local Antifa have used Floyd’s death “as an excuse to bring anarchy to this city,” and pinpointed Firestorm Bookstore Co-op in West Asheville as the nexus of their activity. The bookstore did not respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment.
Nesbitt said Antifa activists from other major cities throughout North Carolina congregate in Asheville, and that the members of the organization who believe in political violence “will try to instigate some of the dumbest people to do something very stupid.”
Asheville drew national attention this summer when Mountain Area Pregnancy Services, a local faith-based crisis pregnancy center, was among several similar pro-life establishments nationwide that were vandalized in June by the radical, Antifa-affiliated pro-abortion group “Jane’s Revenge.”
On July 4, a day after receiving a threatening email signed “ANTIFA,” the APD arrested two suspects for allegedly attempting to bomb the former site of the Vance Monument, an obelisk dedicated to North Carolina’s Civil War-time governor. The monument stood in the center of downtown Asheville for 123 years before the city dismantled it in 2021.
Nesbitt maintained that local Antifa has worked its way into universities throughout western North Carolina, and that figures sympathetic to Antifa have risen to positions of power on the city council, which did not respond to Fox News Digital’s request for comment on his allegation.
Joey Reece, who is now retired after serving 12 years as a state trooper and another 22 years as an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the area, reflected sadly to Fox News Digital how Asheville has declined since he grew up there.
“You’re going to have to literally go back to some old 1990s-style law enforcement, and people have to be put in jail who commit crimes,” he said. “Or Asheville will soon become a non-entity. Asheville will not be a vacation destination. It won’t be a retirement destination. We’re already in the top 10% of violent cities in America.”
Asheville was rated among the top 10 U.S. travel destinations according to Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards in 2016, and the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority recently spent $1.3 million in local tax dollars to advertise at the 2022 U.S. Open.
“There’s no stopping it unless you change what you’re doing,” Reece added. “And to do that, you have to have community resolve. And I think the community that is there now doesn’t have that resolve. I think they’re more of an enabling community, and I don’t see it getting any better.”