Dover council OKs 5 new community police officers

DOVER — Seeing a need to change how the Dover Police Department is engaging with its city residents, City Council members unanimously voted in a virtual meeting Monday night to participate in a federal grant program — Community Oriented Policing Services — that will add five new community police officers next year.

Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson presented the opportunity the grant program offered at a Council of the Whole meeting June 30, but it went without a recommendation from council until further discussions could take place between the chief and Councilmen Tim Slavin and Matt Lindell to answer some lingering questions.

Councilman Slavin said Chief Johnson adequately answered his questions, and he — and the eight other members of council — supported the addition of the five community officers, who will begin training in the spring.

“I had three primary concerns,” Councilman Slavin said. “One, it is a mid-year budget request in the middle of a budget cycle. Second, there was an issue related to the academy and being able to get our new recruits certified and on the street. The third was just really a rising concern in the community that more isn’t necessarily better — better is better. We are looking at new ways of policing our community.

“The approach that the chief explained to me was really to create kind of a new and much stronger emphasis on community policing, so that it’s not just more of the same … that we’re not trying to arrest our way out of problems like addiction or trying to arrest our way out of poverty.”

Councilman Slavin added: “I’ll be quite honest to tell you that I trust what (Chief Johnson) says and the way he said it to me. He has earned my confidence, and we hired him to come into the community to do a job, and to do that job, they asked for these resources, and I think he has taken it head-on.”

In late July, the chief presented the 2019 department recap and pointed to skyrocketing numbers of serious crimes, including firearms, robberies, assaults and drugs, among other concerns. A surge in shootings followed in the first six months of 2020, according to police reports.

Increased community policing and outreach could help quell the violence, the chief said.

The COPS Grant will provide funds doled out by the U.S. Department of Justice that will cover $625,000 in associated costs from fiscal years 2021-24, while the city will kick in $1,037,385. The federal portion will pay 75% of the cost in the first year, 40% in the second and 15% in year three.

Councilman Ralph Taylor is a veteran of the Dover Police Department and applauded the renewed focus on community policing.

He reflected on the city of Dover in the 1990s to mid-2000s, when it was “nationally recognized as one of the better places in America to retire and to raise kids.”

Councilman Taylor said community police officers made a noticeable difference in the relationship between the city’s citizens and law enforcement, particularly by participating in activities such as the Police Athletic League, hosting homeowners’ association meetings and having bicycle patrols that were “everywhere.”

“Community police officers attended every event, and they built relationships, and that was the biggest thing that I think we’re missing right now,” said Councilman Taylor. “When you’re going from complaint to complaint to complaint to complaint, you don’t have time to build the necessary relationships. There were a lot of positive things happening that I know we can get back to if we have manpower.

“The municipalities in Kent and Sussex counties understand the need, and Dover has taken its rightful place as leaders in policing in 2020, when everything must change — it’s mandatory with our citizens that we cannot continue policing the way it is. I support this initiative 100%.”

The grant approval increases the Dover Police Department’s authorized strength from 101 to 106 officers.

Prior to the grant’s approval, the Dover Police Department had an authorized strength of 101 officers with 89 currently on active duty. There are four recruits currently in the Dover Police Academy who have another 15 weeks of field training upon graduation, according to Sgt. Mark Hoffman, spokesman for the department.

He added that the city also has eight recruits scheduled to start the academy in the fall, which will fill the current vacancies.

The officers brought by the COPS grant will bolster the city’s community policing efforts.

“One of the concerns I had listened to from some of the constituents was they just wanted to know that it’s not business as usual,” Councilman Slavin said during Monday’s council meeting. “They just want to know that we’re not just adding more for the same kinds of practices, and I believe that we’re beginning to see that difference already with the way our police department interacts with people, and we will be seeing more of it.

“The chief did comment that he wants to keep a unit for community policing, so I would make a motion at this time that we approve the grant proposal for five additional requested positions and direct that the funding and positions be appropriated by council to a budget department unit within the police department which is dedicated to community policing.”

Councilman Lindell shared Councilman Slavin’s concern that the addition to the city’s budget is coming in the middle of a budget cycle but added that he backed Chief Johnson’s plan for greater community oriented policing and wanted to ensure the grant funds were used toward that effort.

“I’m more confident with Chief Johnson’s plan as far as initiating this community policing program and watching it expand,” Councilman Lindell said. “I do support the motion as far as allowing and taking a specific item in the budget for the police department, so these positions will be devoted to the community police.

“This (answers) some of my concerns about these positions losing some of the checks and balances over those positions. (The money is) going to go to where it’s promised to go and to where it’s going to have its intended effect.”

Councilman Lindell also made a motion that the COPS grant, as well as all future items after the budget is approved, must be brought back as a budget amendment — which also passed unanimously by council vote.

Councilman David Anderson said community policing should spur other changes.

“We’ve been hearing from a number of people in the 4th District,” he said. “We’re hearing from residents. We’re hearing from business owners, of the great need for this, and I’ve definitely seen it myself.

“This will be one part of a four-legged stool that will make our lives better. Community policing is one part of it, and there are other parts, as well, that we’ll need to discuss over the coming months, dealing with community development, economic development. … This is an essential part of it because in security lies the foundation of economic development and community development, and this gives us something to build upon.”