The controversial proposal to expand policing downtown has been marked by confusing claims, a lack of transparency, a broken process and inaccurate numbers. The public deserves better.
Above: Numbers for a range of crimes in the South Slope neighborhood, where APD Chief Tammy Hooper claims crime is escalating, assembled from the city’s publicly released crime data by open government advocates at AvlCrime.
Will additional Asheville Police Department officers downtown, as controversially proposed by Chief Tammy Hooper, solve the wider safety issues facing our community? Does a bigger police force necessarily mean a better one? Is Asheville under-policed? Has crime seen a major uptick? So far, the numbers Hooper has produced to back up her claims are confusing, lack essential context or are even flat-out inaccurate. Worryingly, she has also repeatedly ignored the usual public process that might have answered many of these questions.
In a budget cycle where many city residents are facing significant increases in their property tax bills, requests for additional funding should receive additional scrutiny from the public to ensure that they justified and accurately reflect the needs of all residents.
I am an advocate for open data as a tool that allows citizens to help analyze the work of our local government and propose community-driven solutions to ongoing challenges. While I support APD’s use of data to analyze their need for additional resources, I am concerned by the manner in which they have gathered information and provided it to the public.
I’ve developed civic technology solutions in collaboration with our local government and directly with members of the community. I’ve organized hackathons around multi-modal transportation and affordable housing which connected government employees and local technology experts to work on solutions to some of the critical issues facing Asheville. I assisted with efforts to develop an App to visualize the city’s budget and provided support for the Open Data Policy the city of Asheville adopted in October 2015. I’ve also developed apps of my own to help locals find parking, submit public records requests and contact their state legislators.
I’ve also worked directly with community members to assist their own efforts around public data. I assisted Amy Cantrell of homeless advocacy group BeLoved Asheville in gathering data related to people who list area homeless shelters on arrest and citation records — we released this information at a press conference during “National Homelessness Week,” which has spurred ongoing discussion and research of the issue by city staff.
I’ve collaborated with Dee Williams, head of the Economic Justice Workgroup and the NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Committee to utilize public information to analyze issues around minority business development, equity in policing and traffic stops, and economic analysis of census tracts and public housing. We connected with Ian Mance of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and worked to bring his work on Open Data Policing to Asheville, resulting in a series of meetings and a presentation before Asheville City Council on April 25th.
From this perspective, from a history of working extensively with activists, the city and locals of all stripes I have followed this budget cycle with great interest, and in particular focused on APD’s request for funding and the manner in which statistics have been used to justify the request. The dismaying fact is: information has been presented that is either inaccurate, or confusing to City Council and the general public.
The first issue is the dubious analysis of “per-capita” ratios of police officers and employees compared to the overall population. These figures were used by Hooper in her presentations to claim that Asheville is relatively under-policed compared to other N.C. cities. In the APD Multi-Year Work plan, titled “Safer Together,” as well as at the subsequent budget workshop, Hooper utilized a website called “AreaVibes.com”, and highlighted some statistics without verifying the numbers listed on that site.
AreaVibes, like many other sites, uses FBI Uniform Crime Reporting data to pull national crime statistics. APD states, from the site, that Asheville has 2.9 officers per 10,000 residents, and that the state and national averages are 4.8 and 3.3 respectively.
I performed some simple math on my own to verify those numbers, say dividing the 14,511
Police employees in NC by the 9.9 million population — which gives us a ratio around 1.5.
Obviously that doesn’t add up — perhaps AreaVibes averages the officer ratio for each department, which could cause the staffing levels in very small jurisdictions to skew the numbers. A better way of evaluating the situation is to compare Asheville to cities in N.C. of a similar size — this is often utilized when we’re looking for context on many issues in our city.
Looking for another source, I found a site, governing.com, which provides a simple web app that shows the same FBI UCR data used by AreaVibes.
I looked up a list of cities in NC similar in size to Asheville, and I found the following ratios of police employees per capita – these figures are “police employees per ten thousand people.”
[Note: Governing.com lists these figures per 1K residents, while Area Vibes lists the ratios per 10K residents – I shifted the decimal point for clarity. These population figures are pulled from a separate site, used simply to identify cities of a similar size – they are not contained in the officer / population ratio, which was pulled from here]
So, this gives us an overall range of 2.1 – 2.8 police employees per capita of cities in NC similar to size in Asheville.
We can also look to the larger cities in NC for comparison.
Based on these figures, it seems that the statewide average listed by AreaVibes is not an appropriate way to analyze the size of our police force. In fact, Asheville appears to have a similar or higher number of police employees per capita compared to other cities in N.C.
Additionally, the City of Asheville budget proposal for FY 2017-2018 puts APD at 299 total full-time equivalent positions – dividing that by Asheville’s estimated population of 90,000 gives us a ratio of 3.32, placing us far above similar cities in North Carolina.
These inaccurate figures are contained in the official budget request of APD and were shared in the presentation before City Council, resulting in a significant amount of confusion in the community. Despite the fact that we are far along in the budget cycle and the funding request has been added to the proposed budget, we still have not received any formal clarification from APD.
Beyond the per-capita figures, the statistics Hooper has highlighted on crime trends in and near downtown neighborhoods has not been done in an accurate and transparent manner. In APD’s budget presentation, Chief Hooper presented maps showing crime in the South Slope and River Arts District for 2016. Additionally, I have seen communications from downtown business groups that cite statistics, provided by APD, that show an increase in crime downtown.
The South Slope and the River Arts District are two areas of town that have changed dramatically in the past 10 years. I think most long-term residents would agree that these places have become more active and in general, safer overall, especially at night. We’ve seen breweries, restaurants, stores and housing arrive in areas that used to be dominated by shuttered buildings and devoid of commercial activity.
APD has shared statistics showing one or two year trends that indicate the “rise” in crime in those neighborhoods. But I wanted to dig deeper and analyze trends over a wider timeframe.
The City’s Simplicity App provides crime data for a select number of categories (Aggravated Assault, Burglary, Larceny, Larceny of Motor Vehicle, Robbery, Vandalism, Homicide), many of these are the same crimes Hooper claims a larger downtown unit will address.
On Simplicity, you can view information going back to 2004, but it’s not displayed in a way that makes it easy to visualize long-term trends.
So, I built an app — AVL Crime. This site takes the data on Simplicity, breaks it down for every neighborhood in the City, and provides tables and graphs of this information over time. I offer this site as an additional resource when talking about crime in our city.
Although I built the site to help our neighborhoods understand long-term trends, the information proves relevant in the context of APD’s funding request.
When I look at the South Slope, for example, we see a minor increase in crime from 2015 to 2016. What that leaves out, however, is an over 33 percent drop in overall crime from 2013 to 2016. If we look at a wider timeframe, you’ll see many neighborhoods in Asheville have become safer overall — particularly those around downtown.
The argument that our growth in population and tourism has caused a significant increase in crime is simply not supported by the data that the city of Asheville makes publicly available.
At the same time, statistics containing this level of context were not shared with downtown business owners and others who have discussed the funding increase with APD. Some have sent letters of support for the increase to their membership, while others have contacted City Council directly.
While I acknowledge there will be an understandable level of effort towards “selling” a budget request by any department, the efforts around this particular request seem to have focused specifically on downtown and tourism-related businesses. Meanwhile, opportunities for engagement with the general public have been practically non-existent, despite significant interest in the funding request.
I have attended several meetings of the Public Safety Committee and the Citizens’ Police Advisory Committee, city committees designed to focus on police-related issues. APD did not make a presentation of their request for funding at these forums for months, despite many members of the public showing up to make their voices heard.
Residents in many Asheville neighborhoods, including my own (East West Asheville), have raised concerns about ongoing instances of burglaries and property crime in our neighborhoods. The APD funding request does not directly address the concerns, and these residents have not been provided an opportunity to make their voices heard. Does a new downtown unit make our neighborhoods safer, or does it simply devote additional resources towards our increasingly tourism-focused central business district?
Engaged, active citizens can provide valuable input to our local government, and ensure that decisions are made with the support and consideration of a wide range of perspectives from throughout the community. When our city staff and departments refuse to participate in the boards and committees we have created, it damages public trust in the overall process and pushes people away from further participation. Furthermore, it shows a clear disregard for the time of locals who make an effort to attend public meetings.
I’ve reached out to Council regarding general improvements that could be made to our committee process. We lack a consistent timeline for the publication of agendas and minutes, and this can lead to confusion on the part of both citizens and staff about the contents of meetings and presentations. This results in an entirely avoidable increase in tensions on both sides.
While I am supportive of the chief presenting the budget request to more committees, we need to hear the voices of all Asheville residents far earlier in the process if we want to develop a police strategy that is representative of our entire community. Hooper delaying presentations like this is highly unusual — many budget discussions like this happen in the first two months of the year — and shows a troubling aversion to public engagement with critics about a key issue, as well as Council failing to adequately demand and get accountability from a major public official.
When I have spoken to former APD officers about the increase, they cite the low pay of our department as the reason why they are unable to recruit and retain quality candidates. The APD request for funding definitely makes our police force larger, but does it make it more effective?
It’s worth keeping in mind that APD currently has at least 20 unfilled positions, and a Citizen-Times article and APD’s own report to council highlight the struggles the department has encountered in recruiting minority candidates. While there are continued efforts to add more officers to the force, turnover remains an issue, and it’s unclear whether filling 15 additional positions in the next year is reasonable.
In light of the issues with the data and information that APD has provided, I worry that too many people in our city have not been able to evaluate crime trends in a transparent, accurate manner. At the same time, the general public has not been provided the opportunity to discuss their priorities for policing in our community.
I feel that this request for funding does not address the real challenges facing the department and our community, and the flawed method in which the proposal has been presented actually pushes us farther from a 21st century police force — one that works with the community, values data and transparency, and comes up with creative solutions to public safety issues.
I would ask all residents of Asheville to encourage Council to request that APD repeat their funding request next year, and to adopt a fully transparent, accurate process for presenting data to the public.
This would include sharing raw data and the methodology of any statistics they provide, rather than simply showing graphs and maps. That would also include adequate public input — including answering criticism — not just to evaluate and final proposal, but to gather the priorities of ALL Asheville residents early in the process. If the city wants to restore badly-damaged public trust, Council and staff need to change course now.
Patrick Conant owns the web development company PRC Applications and is a programmer and open government advocate who has worked on projects involving local activists, governments and residents for most of a decade