ASHEVILLE – Facing a task “not within” his capacity as a police officer, Justin Wilson sent a somber message to the neighborhood groups with which he had worked for years.
His job with the Asheville Police Department had taken a toll on his personal life, and he decided to quit law enforcement, Wilson told the residents in an Aug. 21 email. The 10-year APD veteran said he was “blessed to exit this job with only emotional scars.”
The message was a rare glimpse into the mind of an officer, with police usually reluctant and even forbidden to speak openly about such details. It was also a singular illustration of what local and national police officials and experts say is a new trend: Police quitting in droves.
Since June 1 at APD 31 officers, including Wilson, have quit, according to figures provided to the Citizen Times on Sept. 10.
“It’s not unusual to see 15-20 in a year,” Chief David Zack said. “But when you see the number that we had just in the last two months, that is unprecedented.”
Police on bicycles stand at the Asheville Police Department as one waves as curfew nears in downtown Asheville following a vigil on June 4, 2020 in response to the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Protesters abided by the emergency city curfew of 8 p.m. and left without police intervention. (Photo: ANGELI WRIGHT/ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)
City Manager Debra Campbell, who is Zack’s superior, did not respond to a Sept. 10 message seeking comment.
The resignations, amounting to loss of more than one sworn officer for every ten in the force of 238 or 13%, do not take into account retirements. Zack attributed the flight to lack of support and “very vocal” opposition to law enforcement, something that exploded in Asheville and nationally after Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd died when an officer of that city applied pressure to the neck of a handcuffed Floyd for more than 8 minutes on May 25.
But proponents of the local movement to defund police say that explanation doesn’t take into account the roots of the outrage.
“Its perplexing how a narrative of victimization has been stripped from the true victims, their families and the community that has suffered centuries from deadly state violence,” said Ria Young, a Black resident of the historically African American Shiloh neighborhood, a place Zack said Wilson worked as a community resource officer.
Floyd, protests changed things
Floyd’s death served as a tipping point on multiple fronts, sending protesters into the streets of many cities, in some cases followed by property damage, looting and even deaths. In Asheville there was no loss of life, though 12 police officers and at least one protester were injured, according to APD and reporting by the Citizen Times. Multiple protesters told the Citizen Times they were hit with non-lethal projectiles such as tear gas canisters and rubber pellets.
Demonstrators demanded reforms and railed against crowd control tactics by APD and assisting agencies.
Hundreds gathered at Vance Monument in downtown Asheville June 1, 2020 to protest police brutality before continuing on to Asheville Police Department. (Photo: Angela Wilhelm/[email protected])
Local leaders responded with promises to “divest and invest” from police and into social services and started an investigation into the handling of protests.
Officers, meanwhile, began to leave. Prior to the protests three had resigned in the last half year, according the figures given by police. But in the three months following June 1, resignations came in a wave, Zack said, “with more expected.”
Zack and other police proponents have said such a loss will leave gaps in crime fighting during a years-long uptick in violence that includes 72 stabbings and shootings since Aug. 18.
Uneven, but national trend
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, Western North Carolina’s second-biggest law enforcement agency after Asheville, which is headed by the county’s first Black sheriff, Quentin Miller, was not involved in the protests, and the agency escaped many issues faced by APD. In addition, the Buncombe Board of Commissioners raised the sheriff’s budget for the fiscal year that started July 1, despite criticism by some defund activists..
Of the 189 positions dedicated to enforcement, only 4 sheriff’s deputies — or 2% — have left since June 1, said sheriff’s spokesman Aaron Sarver.
But other cities are similar to Asheville with police under pressure and quitting, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor with John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
While she knew of no national studies on recent attrition, Haberfeld said her communications with students and officers around the country showed many police were leaving or planning to leave.
“It’s very simple. The profession has never been widely appreciated. My students were able to handle that. But there is a difference between lack of appreciation and lack of respect and being under fire.”
Also contributing are rapid changes in training and protocols that Haberfeld said chiefs are under pressure to implement, as well as loss of leaders. She pointed to the resignation of Dallas Chief Reneé Hall, calling her a “fantastic and very progressive chief.”
“It is very detrimental, because policing is a profession that needs structure,” Haberfeld said.
Wilson: not within our capacity
Rondell Lance, president of the Asheville Fraternal Order of Police said some APD officers have changed careers and others have changed departments within the city.
“They have moved on and are not looking back,” Lance said. “Some have left law enforcement completely and others have changed departments.”
Zack, who became chief in February, said that split was “about 50-50” in terms of those who had changed departments versus quitting policing altogether.
“It does take an emotional toll on you. They are just looking for other opportunities maybe in an area where their sacrifice and commitment would be more appreciated.”
Strains include worries about family members, that he said includes children hearing negative things from friends, classmates and even teachers about police.
Wilson, in his email to neighborhood groups, said he was moving to Colorado to start a new career. He didn’t specify in which field. He could not be reached for comment. The Citizen Times made a Sept. 9 request for the public portions of his personnel file but had not yet received it.
“Being a cop has been very difficult for me. It has taken a toll on my personal life. I cannot begin to explain the complexities of it to someone who has not been involved in it. I wish I could,” he said.
“I tried my best to be transparent and honest with you all,” I’ve come to the conclusion that APD is tasked with stopping societal issues and disorder, but it is not within our capacity. We can only put a band aid on these issues. Strong communities are the real remedy.”
Helen Hyatt of the South French Broad neighborhood, said she was sad but not surprised about the exit of Wilson, who worked with residents on curbing drug dealing, open prostitution and other issues.
“The police are asked to take care of so many things that are not police work — they are social issues, and there are so few social resources, available to them,” she said.
Hyatt, who thinks her neighborhood’s main street still isn’t safe for a young woman to walk alone, said policing and criminal justice needed reforms, but the answer isn’t defunding.
But defunding supporter Young said such a change doesn’t mean completely doing away with law enforcement.
“I feel like the singular view is when they hear calls to defund, they think we want to dismantle. More accurately, those funds can be rerouted into programs and services that directly and positively affect the safety and well-being of the community.”
Rob Thomas, the community liaison for the Racial Justice Coalition said he didn’t doubt that Wilson had good intentions with his work at APD. But the problem was the institution which was “built to serve a specific group of people while simultaneously oppressing other groups of people,” Thomas said.
“So, I don’t think that the question around, ‘Does anyone support the police?’ is the right question to ask. I think the better question is: How long should a person endure a relationship that is abusive and counterproductive to their growth before they expect or even demand change?”
Below is the Aug. 21 email sent by now former Asheville Police Department Officer Justin Wilson to neighborhood groups with which he worked including South French Broad.
I wanted to write to a few of you who I have had connections with over the past few years to let you know that I am resigning from APD. I’m headed out to Colorado to start a new career. Being a cop has been very difficult for me. It has taken a toll on my personal life. I cannot begin to explain the complexities of it to someone who has not been involved in it. I wish I could. I’m blessed to exit this job with only emotional scars.
I truly wish I could have offered you more safety and protection. My time as a CRO has been a constant balance of defending APD, and acknowledging the short falls of APD. I tried my best to be transparent and honest with you all. I’ve come to the conclusion that APD is tasked with stopping societal issues, and disorder, but it is not within our capacity. We can only put a bandaid on these issues. Strong communities are the real remedy.
I want to sincerely thank you for your patiences, understanding, and support of APD. Officers require your support to function properly (during both the good and bad times).
After ten years at APD, I can say confidently that APD officers are good people with good hearts. Evil is real. Evil exists in Asheville, officers are surrounded by it, and they do their best with what they have. Please remember that.
Officer Justin Wilson
Community Resource Officer
Asheville Police Department
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.
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