Not long ago, Waynesville’s historic Frog Level district was fraught with littered beer bottles and an unrelenting band of vagrants.
“Sleeping under back decks, defecating on front doorsteps, leaving wine bottles and beer cans,” said Lieutenant Brian Beck. “The creek banks looked worse than the landfill.”
The historically bustling railroad and industrial district is just a few blocks from Main Street and was recently revitalized. But it continued to be a gathering spot for the homeless, partly due to the proximity of the Open Door soup kitchen.
Now, Beck says complaints from Frog Level have gone down drastically.
“The business owners are very happy. People can walk down the street without being accosted,” said Beck.
Crucial in the cleanup was the Special Projects Unit at the Waynesville Police Department — a division of law enforcement that is rare in most small towns, especially those west of Asheville.
Police Chief Bill Hollingsed, who has supervised similar units at other agencies, resolved to start something comparable in Waynesville about two years ago.
The Special Projects Unit currently includes five officers fully devoted to community outreach and crime prevention in neighborhoods that are regularly problematic.
“When [neighbors] have to pick up the phone and call several times a day or week over the same house or the same problem over and over again, they get frustrated, we get frustrated,” said Hollingsed. “Instead of reactively responding to calls, we’re trying to be proactive.”
Because Frog Level had its fair share of repeat offenders, SPU officers stepped up their presence in the district and even ordered litterers clean up their own trash.
“They’ve been better than better,” Brian Pierce, owner of Panacea Coffee House in Frog Level, said of the special unit officers. “Patrol officers come down usually every morning and sit in the parking lot and watch things, make their presence known.”
It’s just one example of the many projects SPU busies itself with regularly.
Officers conduct driver’s license checkpoints in areas with rampant speeding. One works full-time patrolling schools to curb drug problems and fights.
The unit also conducts D.A.R.E. programs in the school. It offers presentations to store owners on how to best secure their businesses. Officers even fingerprint children at special community events for parents to keep on file in case they are ever kidnapped.
SPU officers routinely help rid neighborhoods of drug houses where illegal deals are frequently made and violence is likely to break out.
In extreme circumstances, SPU can use the civil nuisance law to force property owners to forfeit the house. Most commonly, however, drug-dealing tenants are kicked out by their landlords, according to Sergeant Sylvia McMahan with the Special Project Unit.
The SPU has helped seize cocaine and, in one case, $8,000 in drug money.
But solving most cases requires patience, McMahan points out. Officers keep detailed notes on everything they observe and keep in mind that they’re taking a long-term approach.
“It’s not a quick fix,” said McMahan. “It’s a long, drawn-out process.”
In Waynesville, the secret to the Special Projects Unit’s success has a lot to do with flexibility. Since officers aren’t usually tied down with routine patrol shifts, they can go into a community and take the time to work on bigger picture issues, from code enforcement to animal control to extra special attention with surveillance.
“We can be there basically around the clock until we get the problem solved,” said McMahan. “We have more time to spend in a certain area than what your regular patrol officer does.”
Despite SPU’s success, most Waynesville residents aren’t yet in the know about the unit.
“I don’t think they know what we do,” said McMahan. “We’re sort of behind the scenes.”
Rare in WNC
To Chief Hollingsed, preventing crime on the front end reduces the crime load that would otherwise land on the plate of regular patrol officers — making it a good use of resources. But it’s a luxury other small town police departments say they couldn’t afford.
With fewer than 10 officers working at the Bryson City Police Department, Chief Rick Tabor said it’d be impossible to have a whole unit devoted to preventing crime.
“I would love to have the resources to have anything like that, even if it was just one person,” said Tabor.
Det. John Buchanan with Sylva Police said at this time, all officers are required to keep a log of noteworthy events during their shifts. The assistant chief of police reviews those logs and asks patrol to be stepped up in areas with high incidents of crime.
“Our resources are so small here,” said Buchanan. “We just kind of have to do what we can.”