ASHEVILLE, N.C. — As protests surged across the country last year over the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, Officer Lindsay C. Rose in Asheville, N.C., found her world capsized.
Various friends and relatives had stopped speaking to her because she was a cop. During a protest in June around Police Headquarters, a demonstrator lobbed an explosive charge that set her pants on fire and scorched her legs.
She said she was spit on. She was belittled. Members of the city’s gay community, an inclusive clan that had welcomed her in when she first settled in Asheville, stood near her at one event and chanted, “All gay cops are traitors,” she said.
By September, still deeply demoralized despite taking several months off to recuperate, Rose decided that she was done. She quit the Police Department and posted a sometimes bitter, sometimes nostalgic essay online that attracted thousands of readers throughout the city and beyond.
“I’m walking away to exhale and inhale, I’m leaving because I don’t have any more left in me right now,” she wrote. “I’m drowning in this politically charged atmosphere of hate and destruction.”
Rose was hardly alone. Thousands of police officers nationwide have headed for the exits in the past year.
A survey of almost 200 police departments indicated that retirements were up 45 percent and resignations rose by 18 percent in the year from April 2020 to April 2021 when compared with the previous 12 months, according to the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington policy institute.
New York City saw 2,600 officers retire in 2020 compared with 1,509 the year before. Resignations in Seattle increased to 123 from 34 and retirements to 96 from 43. Minneapolis, which had 912 uniformed officers in May 2019, is now down to 699. At the same time, many cities are contending with a rise in shootings and homicides.
Asheville was among the hardest hit proportionally, losing upward of 80 officers, more than one-third of its 238-strong force.
The reason has partly to do with Asheville itself — a big blue dot amid a sea of red voters in western North Carolina. Residents often refer to the city, a tourist mecca of 90,000 people tucked into the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, as the South’s version of Austin, Texas, or Portland, Ore.
Protests are commonplace, although none in recent memory had roiled the city quite like those prompted by the death of Floyd. Asheville has removed its three Confederate monuments, including the obelisk that dominated the central square for more than 100 years. In June, the City Council agreed to earmark an initial $2.1 million to pay reparations to the Black community of more than 10,000 residents.
The police already had come under criticism in recent years, churning through half a dozen chiefs in the past decade amid widespread complaints about overly harsh policing. Often cited is a case in 2019, when an officer pleaded guilty to assaulting a Black man after an argument over jaywalking — at night with few cars on the road.
The past year’s racial justice protests brought these long-simmering tensions swiftly back to the surface.
“There was a cloud over the building,” said Chief David Zack, 58, adding that younger officers were particularly traumatized by the events. “We knew we were going to be in trouble. I don’t think we ever anticipated getting to this level.”
The fact that the protests were directed at them pushed many officers to quit, he said.
“They said that we have become the bad guys, and we did not get into this to become the bad guys.”
A sense that the city itself did not back its police was a key reason for the departures, according to officers themselves as well as police and city officials. Officers felt that they should have been praised rather than pilloried after struggling to contain chaotic protests.
Low pay deepened the frustration. With a starting salary around $37,000, few officers can afford houses in Asheville, where housing prices have sharply increased in recent years.
Finally, officers said they were asked to handle too much. They were constantly thrown at tangled societal problems like mental health breakdowns or drug overdoses, they said, for which they were ill-equipped — then blamed when things went wrong.
Officers who left said they endured a barrage of “good riddance” taunts on social media. Some said they were accused of leaving because the higher level of public scrutiny meant they could no longer beat up people of color with impunity.
One sergeant who quit after a decade on the force, who did not want his name published because of the aggressive verbal attacks online, said last summer had chipped away at his professional pride and personal health. He could not sleep and drank too much.
In September, somebody dropped a coffin laden with dirt and manure at the front door of Police Headquarters.
“The message was taking a different turn,” Zack said. “The message was not about police reform, but, ‘We endorse violence against police’.”
Of the more than 80 officers who left, about half found different professions and the other half different departments, Zack said. New careers included industrial refrigeration, construction, real estate, and pharmaceutical sales — anything far removed from policing.