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Laying down the law: Officers, DA explain challenges within the system

District Attorney Ashley Welch and Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed lead a public forum on the criminal justice system. Jessi Stone photo District Attorney Ashley Welch and Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed lead a public forum on the criminal justice system. Jessi Stone photo

If you don’t have much experience within the criminal justice system, trying to navigate the system can be frustrating.

A lack of understanding can lead to residents finger pointing and feeling like the law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges within the system don’t have any sympathy for their situation. 

Ashley Welch, 30th Judicial District Attorney, organized a criminal justice forum in Waynesville last week to assure the community that her staff and local law enforcement agencies are doing the best they can despite the challenges they face. 

“I’m here because I care about what I do and I care about the people who work for me,” she said to the packed room at Waynesville Police Department. “The justice system is far from perfect and we get frustrated with it every day, but there are all these laws and sentencing requirements that we have to work within. I’m not telling you you’ll be happy by the end of this meeting, but I hope you’ll have a better understanding of it and what we’re trying to do.”

Police Chief Bill Hollingsed said the police department gets many questions and accusations hurled at it through social media. However, he said social media is not a good platform for him to respond to those questions and concerns, which is why having public forums is a good idea to discuss what’s happening in the community. 

“This is not the same community I grew up in 20 years ago,” he said, referring to the drug problems facing Waynesville. 

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While 10 years ago, the drug of choice on the streets was methamphetamine, today the police department is dealing with the opioid crisis and an increase in heroin use as well because it’s a cheaper alternative to prescription opioids. Hollingsed said the increase in drug use also fuels other crimes like theft, breaking and entering, child neglect and domestic violence. 

“We’ve had 10,000 more calls this year than we had seven years ago with the same number of officers as we had in 1967,” Hollingsed joked. “But seriously we only have four officers on a shift with that many calls. Anytime you increase the work load by that much you tend to need more people to handle it.”

Complaints about speeding on residential streets is one of the biggest quality of life concerns people have, Hollingsed added, but it’s impossible to patrol every street in town to catch speeders or any other suspicious neighborhood activity. He suggested neighborhoods concerned about drug activity call the police department to discuss setting up a neighborhood watch group. 

“We’re happy to set that up for people,” he said. 

Business owners also complained about homeless people who loiter around in Frog Level during the day waiting for a meal at The Open Door food ministry. Yvonne Wadham, owner of Frog Pond Estate and Downsizing, said people get drunk and use drugs, urinate in the alleyways and get into fights with one another. She calls the police but said the culprits vanish before the law arrives. 

“The businesses suffer from it — tourists are scared to come around there with needles and drugs everywhere,” she said.

Even if these people are caught in the act and arrested for low misdemeanor charges, Welch explained the difficulties of prosecuting those types of offenses. 

“If they’re picked up on drunk and disorderly — an incredibly low misdemeanor — they’re not getting jail time for that,” she said. “But if you have someone who’s homeless and they can’t get a $500 bond to get out — they sit in jail 15 days on a drunk and disorderly and when they come up before a judge they plead guilty, get time served and they’re right back at it.”

With limited staff and resources, Welch said her office had to make tough decisions when it comes to what cases to prosecute. The 30th Judicial District currently has 14 prosecutors to cover every court in seven counties. When a district court docket in Haywood County can include up to 400 cases for one day, it’s no surprise that things like speeding tickets and misdemeanor drug charges get reduced or plead down. Welch said certain cases of people passing a school bus or failure to maintain a lane are taken more seriously. Prosecutors also take a violator’s past record into consideration. 

Waynesville Police Officer Tyler Trantham addressed the crowd saying the department was making headway with neighborhood drug problems even if it seems like progress is slow. What he’s found is complaints from one neighborhood typically stem from one person or one home. If he can remove that person from the situation, he can quiet the neighborhood. 

“In the last three years I’ve dealt with numerous incidents where no one was arrested but I worked with a landlord to remove the problem — that’s one way to keep it out of court system. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said. “We have to understand due process — a defense attorney has a job to do just like I do — that’s the beautiful thing about this country. We may all need it someday.”

Instead of demonizing the homeless people causing problems in Frog Level, Trantham said the community needed to start thinking of them as human beings with mental health and drug addiction problems instead of just thinking of them as criminals that need to be locked up at the detention center.

Along the same lines, Welch asked people to be patient when waiting on the DA’s office to prosecute cases involving drug dealing and trafficking as it requires much more proof than a typical drug possession charge. Unless the DA can prove the person is dealing, the charge is often reduced to felony possession. 

“People think we aren’t doing anything but some investigations take time,” she said, adding that it took two years and a wire tap to be able to bring down 52 drug dealers in Macon County. 

Despite the setbacks, there are a few promising solutions to help cut down on the drug epidemic as well as the over crowding in the jail. Haywood Pathways Center recently received a grant to hire caseworkers to work in the detention center in hopes of reducing recidivism. Waynesville Police is also working on implementing the LEAD program, meant to divert people with drug addiction from jail to a rehab program.

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