Dover councilmen implore police chief to bring bigger presence to South New, West Reed streets

DOVER — Gunfire, deaths, drugs, loitering, trash.

It’s all plagued downtown Dover, with the epicenter of the criminal activity in the area of South New and West Reed streets for the past several years.

Dover City Councilmen Ralph Taylor Jr. and Roy Sudler Jr. are imploring Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson to find a solution, particularly via a Mobile Command Center for the Dover Police Department, which could be staffed by both officers and health and social workers and parked in the area of South New Street by the end of February.

Ralph Taylor Jr.

Councilman Taylor, who spent 20 years on the Dover police force, urged Chief Johnson to take a “heroic action” at the virtual Dover City Council meeting Monday night.

“Is it possible that we could do something along the lines of maybe put the command post down there for an hour or so a day?” Councilman Taylor asked. “Flood the area with law enforcement. Try to be consistent with it over a period of time. Is that a strategy that’s viable? Does it appear as if that’s something that we can do?

“Because it appears as if we’re hitting and missing, and it just keeps going back to being just the same thing, which is telling me the current strategy may not be the best one for us to abide by. Flooding the area with law enforcement is going to have an impact. I’m just not sure we’re doing that on a consistent enough basis.”

Chief Johnson, who invited Councilman Taylor to the police department’s next Command Staff meeting “to kick ideas around,” said he is willing to try a different approach to solving the problems in the troubled area.

“Right now, we’re taking the overarching strategy of asking each unit to do their role — patrolling their functions, street crimes in their functions — and any disproportionate amount that they would be doing in other parts of the city,” the chief said.

“Everything is really focused on New and Reed (streets) right now, and if it’s the pleasure of council and if it’s a concern, we could definitely try and muster uniform presences and try that strategy,” he added. “I wouldn’t have a problem with it. We’re happy to try any strategy that will work. I’m not opposed to innovation or different ideas.”

Chief Johnson did caution council members that providing a higher level of attention to one particular area could cause distress somewhere else.

“The idea of picking a particular time, though, and identifying that as the time (to be in the area) … just like you can move a quality-of-life problem or a disorderly problem from neighborhood to neighborhood, you can also move it around the clock,” he said.

“So as far as a sustainable presence of law enforcement over the whole waking hours of the day, that could be a little bit difficult to generate the resources to do that and sustain it.”

The item on Monday’s City Council agenda was just for officials to provide an update on code enforcement and crime mitigation on South New and West Reed streets. No official action was taken, and the issue was recommended by Council President William “Bill” Hare to go to the Council Committee of the Whole for further discussion and to try to frame potential solutions.

However, it turned into a much deeper discussion, as Councilman Sudler pointed out that out of the 32 people who were shot in Dover last year, almost a third of them, 10, were struck by gunfire in the four-block area surrounding South New and West Reed streets, which made it the epicenter of the city’s gun troubles.

Roy Sudler Jr.

Dover itself recorded a record-high homicide rate last year, as nine people were killed, including eight by gunfire.

“I concur with Councilman Taylor that we do a command station there,” said Councilman Sudler. “I think we just need to put something there and have a presence there, not that they have to be there 24/7, but just the fact that it’s there, and someone is there at the time where there would be a lot of activity.

“We have been confronted with these issues ever since I’ve been on the council and as Human Relations Commission chair. Basically, over 15 or 16 years, we’ve been hearing this. The constituents in that area of the city of Dover, they are embracing it. We have to do something now.”

Trying to turn things around
Chief Johnson said the Dover Police Department has bumped up its traffic enforcement in the troubled downtown Dover area as part of a two-pronged solution.

“As a matter of illustration, when you focus on traffic in a particular environment, in addition to watching pedestrian traffic, the vehicle traffic gives you an idea of the comings and goings and feeds our overall informational system on response strategies,” he said. “That’s kind of a work in progress and will always be a work in progress, so you might notice a little bit more vehicle enforcement in that area.”

The chief added that in December, there were 10 specific property checks conducted on those streets, self-initiated by patrol or community police officers, where, if they saw something out of the ordinary, they would take a second look and generate an investigative report.

Councilman Taylor insisted that more needs to be done, saying that he often drives through the area at night, and it scares him because the lighting is obscured by overgrown trees.

“I guess I’m looking at it with a much more broader brushstroke, meaning it’s not just guns that are an issue, and it’s not just drugs being sold,” said Councilman Taylor. “We have COVID issues. We have addiction issues.

“We have all different kinds of issues, and I believe if we collaborate with the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, and make sure that we have people from these entities on board and inside the command post at the same time, so when the officers go out to make contacts, we can have social workers going out to make contacts. They’re field-protected because they would be with law enforcement.”

He said having boots and support on the ground on South New and West Reed streets would make a huge difference in finding solutions to criminal issues, as well as drug and psychological problems.

Meanwhile, Dover City Planner Dave Hugg said there are possibly other alternatives for positive change that are on their way for the area.

“I do think it’s important to note that NCALL (a nonprofit that specializes in affordable housing development) has successfully purchased (Lots) No. 35 and No. 39 N. New St. They’ve also purchased No. 49 South Kirkwood, and that’s gone to demolition, and they just recently purchased the Elks Club and the properties at 217, 225 and 235 North Kirkwood — and there are applications for (demolitions) pending on some of those properties,” he said.

“Also, in the area, Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity purchased 127 and 133 S. Queen St., and they have very recently settled on 13 S. New St. So that’s nine properties that are moving through the process to be purchased, demolished and ultimately replaced with new houses.”

Time for action
Councilmen Taylor and Sudler have noted several positive events taking place over the past month, such as several groups — including their own — who have gone to South New and West Reed streets to pick up barrels of litter along the roadways and in vacant lots, particularly behind the old Acme building adjacent to South New Street.

However, even after the cleanups, trash is already beginning to pile up again.

Councilman Tim Slavin said the city has played a part in the problem.

“I think we created our own problems in that we had three tenement houses that were really down and out, and we went in and purchased them toward the purpose of putting in single-family housing, and that hasn’t happened in a couple of years,” he said. “In the interim, I think we should have fenced off the lot (behind the old Acme) and improved the lighting in those areas.

“It may be (helpful now) if we can fence those areas off, so they’re not places where people can loiter.”

He added, “I would also like to ask if we could kind of marshal the forces of Public Works and the electric utility to do a walk-through of those blocks. We talked about that, as far as looking ahead and for repaving sidewalks and streets, if possible, striping of the streets and then LED lighting in that area. I think if we make these kind of improvements, people will view that as a much different place to live in.”

However, the issue that still casts a dark shadow is a 400% increase in homicides throughout the city over 2019, when two people were fatally shot. Dover’s 2020 homicide rate of nine was almost nine times the national average for cities with similar populations of 25,000 to 49,999.

That is why bringing the police to the root of the problem is the No. 1 concern for Councilmen Taylor and Sudler.

“It’s not a safe environment, and if it’s an unsafe environment, then I believe we need to use extraordinary means to make it safe,” Councilman Taylor said. “To ride by every day and see the exact same things going on over and over and over again, and then, we’re expecting something different to happen. That’s just not a strategy I think we should continue.”
Councilman Sudler agreed.

“Like Councilman Taylor said, the time is now, and we can’t afford to continue to see what can be done and talk about it — we have to start to be (more proactive) about it,” he said. “I know that it starts with a discussion, but I think we’ve had enough discussion on this topic to where we can have some action.”