The search for safety: Downtown discussion seeks solutions

David Clendaniel, left, and Rev. Dr. John Moore listen to residents concerns during a Dover Community Safety meeting at Solid Rock Community Center in Dover. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — They might not be the type of flowery words that city officials and business owners want to hear, but Victoria Fuentes-Cox said they are the kind that need to be spoken if real change is going to take place in downtown Dover.

“I don’t feel safe,” Ms. Fuentes-Cox said. “I don’t feel comfortable. I avoid it. I go around the city of Dover now.

“Whenever there’s a crime nobody supposedly ever sees anything. That’s not going to help the situation.”

It was that kind of candid conversation that Restoring Central Dover, an initiative of NCALL to revitalize the downtown area of the state capital, was looking for when it held a Community Safety Meeting last Wednesday at the Solid Rock Community Center at 109 N. West St.

The get-together, which attracted about 20 city residents, was designed to gain feedback and get possible solutions to making the downtown area safer.

“The meeting was a great start to breaking down communication barriers, stereotypes and preconceived notions,” said Chanda Jackson, community engagement specialist for NCALL. “It was a way to inform others of the various positive things going on in the community. In order to combat the challenges in our communities, we must work together.

“I think the best part of hosting these discussions is the gathering, getting passionate people in the room with diverse experiences and backgrounds shows that there are still people who care and who want to make a difference.”

Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen, Rep. Sean Lynn and Dover City Councilman David Anderson were among the attendees at the Community Safety Meeting, listening and providing some recommendations to their constituents.

“Unfortunately, the (downtown) merchants had a conflict and couldn’t attend, but we would like to include them in the discussions as well,” Ms. Jackson said. “It’s important to have everyone at the table when having these types of discussions because every voice matters.”

Bringing their concerns to light

During the meeting, community members expressed concern about a variety of alleged issues, including: homeless people sleeping in bushes and near the Delaware Public Archives building downtown; customers routinely lingering outside of a bar on Loockerman Street after closing time; areas of streets downtown with segments of no lighting; the general lack of safety and school buses speeding down Kirkwood Street.

One of the biggest complaints was that children in the city have no place to go for recreation since the Boys and Girls Club moved from Simon Circle to the Kent County Recreational Center at 1685 New Burton Road, plus there is no public transportation available for residents to get their children to it.

They said it all adds up to unsupervised kids hanging out on the streets and getting involved with the wrong element and going down the wrong path.

Patrolman First Class Anthony Smith, coordinator for the Dover Police Athletic League, said his organization is working hard to fill that recreational void downtown.

However, he is only one man with a handful of volunteers, so it is going to take some time to establish and grow.

“One of the reasons I’m so deeply incorporated with the Police Athletic League, is (number) one, I have children,” Patrolman Smith said. “And two, at one point in time I had pulled a fully-loaded revolver off a child who was roughly about 15-years-old at three o’clock in the morning. That was an eye-opener.

“I said, ‘How can I change this? He’s 15 and I have a 16-year-old son.’ So right then and there it was like, ‘How can I make a difference? How can I touch his life to change his future?’”

He is working on that in his new role as the leader of the Dover PAL.

The need for a solid plan

Rev. Mason McGill said all the issues that were discussed combine to bring a stigma to the downtown Dover area. He attended last week’s meeting in search of solutions.

“I think if we had a good plan that would give people something to attach to because everybody wants to start work towards it,” Rev. McGill said, about making Dover safer. “I think there’s a lot of good ideas, a lot of arguments, but we need a plan and a focus on where we’re going. Once we get a focus then anything is possible with that focus.

“I think there’s been a good improvement downtown over the last few years, but we need to make that final push to get to where we want to be.”

David Clendaniel, chairman of the Safety Work Group for Restoring Central Dover, said that many improvements have already been made in the name of safety downtown, such as Dover Police Department Cadets patrolling the streets, improved lighting and more video cameras, but more needed to be done.

“What’s come down dramatically is the violent crime, it’s really dropped in this territory, which is a good thing,” Mr. Clendaniel said. “Actually, due to people calling in incidents, some crime has gone up – and that’s what we need. We need to be involved and call.”

He added that the recent “Lights On, Dover Strong” program that lit up front porches from dusk until dawn and provided backyard motion-sensor lights for 360 homes in the downtown district was an overwhelming success.

“There was a catch to that,” Mr. Clendaniel said, of the program in which free lights were provided to residents. “We put (faith) in you in order to get those porch lights. You signed an agreement that said, ‘I’ll keep my lights on and I’ll call the police when I see something going wrong.’

“That is what we want. We want engagement with the police officers.”

Open communication needed for safety to improve

Mayor Christiansen said that open communication between residents, the police department and city officials is what is needed in order to affect change.

“There’s nothing more discouraging to see than communities that are still inundated with guns, drugs and now we’re seeing human trafficking,” he said. “We need you to partner with us, I’m reaching out to you to come up with some solutions.”

The mayor suggested that putting some “boots on the ground” is necessary to improve city residents’ relationship with the police force.
He said he sent a recommendation to City Manager Donna Mitchell to add 12 police officers to the 2020 city budget, which would increase the force’s size to 113 officers.

“We got into this ‘windshield patrol’ thing because of the size of the city and the manpower that goes around,” Mayor Christiansen said. “We are working toward putting (police officers) back in the community, whether it’s going to churches, hanging out with folks on the corner and getting to know people that live in neighborhoods and individual communities that they serve.

“If I am a patrol officer and I know the people in the community and they know me then we can partner together for that community.”

Mayor Christiansen said that he and Dover Police Chief Marvin Mailey, along with city code enforcement officials, meet with members of the community during an open meeting at City Hall on the third Monday of every month.

“Is the community partnering with us?,” Mayor Christiansen said. “I know folks who have complaints about what goes on in their community and they call the police department and they’re mad at me and they’re mad at the police department because the calls that come in are triaged out.

“If I’ve got someone who is being beaten and murdered over in Capital Green and you call and complain about somebody that’s sleeping in the bushes, and I don’t mean any disrespect, which call takes priority?”

Discussion provides a starting point

The Rev. Dr. John Moore moderated the Community Safety Meeting and said that while it’s a start, it’s more important for the community to get a plan together and act on it.

“It’s one thing to talk and to say what you’re going to do, but it’s more important to see the needle move so that some progress is being made,” he said.

Ms. Cox agreed with Rev. Dr. Moore.

“It’s always a start,” said Ms. Cox. “I do think the city of Dover is doing a great job in trying to establish a relationship. I think with social media and everything that’s going on in the world it makes it very difficult.

“I think us not taking a stand as citizens and coming together and not allowing the bad publicity to come in and take over our streets and so forth is hindering the police and being able to do their jobs.”

While there was no concrete plan laid out at last Wednesday’s meeting, one common theme came across loudly — the residents of the downtown district are looking for ways to take their community back.

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