Dover officials want firearms off the streets

 

Two loaded handguns — a .38 Colt revolver and 9mm Glock — were found by Dover Police during a traffic stop on Dec. 5, 2015 in the area of South Bay Road and Lafferty Lane. There have been 96 gun seizures so far this year in Dover. (Submitted photo/Dover Police)

Two loaded handguns — a .38 Colt revolver and 9mm Glock — were found by Dover Police during a traffic stop on Dec. 5, 2015 in the area of South Bay Road and Lafferty Lane. There have been 96 gun seizures so far this year in Dover. (Submitted photo/Dover Police)

DOVER — There’s no telling how many illegal firearms are circulating throughout Delaware’s capital city.

“Unfortunately that is impossible to gauge,” Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat said earlier this week.

The number of confiscated weapons has skyrocketed this year, however, and that’s a fact.

Speaking before City Council on Tuesday, authorities reported 96 gun seizures in roughly the first 10 months of 2016.

With a proactive approach, the Dover Vice and Organized Crime and Street Crimes units have taken 54 guns off the street this year.

That’s compared to 26 in 2015 and 16 in 2014.

The remaining gun seizures from Jan. 1 to Nov. 4 this year were made by detectives, ATF agents, and patrol officers.

There were 36 people shot in Dover through November 2015, the same number as this year.

City police have emphasized street level operations, producing more firearm discoveries as a result.

“First and foremost, I think it shows how hard we are working to be proactive in our efforts to curb violent crime and get guns off the street,” Chief Bernat said.

“With that being said, there is a clear issue with firearms being in the hands of criminals in our city that we continue to address.”

Officers responded to 166 shots fired complaints through Nov. 30 this year, compared to 189 in 2015 and 119 in 2014.

Aggressively seeking out criminal activity comes with rising danger, according to police.

“Considering many of these guns are discovered during proactive enforcement efforts, yes, they do pose a significant threat to our officer’s safety,” Chief Bernat said.

While no statistics were available for how many recovered guns were previously stolen, police said it was not unusual.

Apparently, some criminal enterprises are connected to some degree between cities.

“It is common for guns to be used in Wilmington and then show up in Dover and vice versa,” Chief Bernat said.

City police regularly release crime reports, whether daily on specific incidents, or statistically each month.

“We make every effort to publicize our crime stats with the monthly reports, press releases, social media, and our annual reports,” Chief Bernat said.

“Whether or not the public is generally aware of how many firearms we take off the streets isn’t something we could speculate on beyond the fact that we make efforts to have that info readily available.”

Vehicle stops and drug investigations often yield gun seizures, though officers have found them through a variety of ways. Drug activity is often a common denominator to confiscations.

There were 78 handgun seizures so far this year, nine each involving shotguns and rifles.

“We have seen everything from old, rusted weapons to some of the better quality weapons you could purchase that are in new condition,” Chief Bernat said. “The majority of what we recover can be classified as handguns.”

Multiple officers respond

Shots fired reports receive significant attention and manpower.

“When a shots fired call is dispatched, it typically means that multiple officers are responding,” Chief Bernat said. “Officers will go directly to the scene to check for victims, witnesses, and gather further information to pass on to officers still on the way.

“Those later arriving officers will conduct searches for any potential suspects or suspect vehicles, establish a perimeter for searching, traffic control, etc.”

Officers arrive wearing a ballistic vest, which can’t protect a large part of their body and might not stop some firearm rounds. They carry a .40 caliber Glock 22 and most are equipped with AR-15 rifles.

“Our officers are trained to find cover and how to use cover and concealment for protection purposes,” Chief Bernat said.

The fully staffed Street Crimes unit includes a sergeant and six officers, and has recovered the most firearms of any unit. A detective assigned to the ATF Task force that adds extra manpower.

Besides criminal operations, Dover Police say they’re reaching out to the community for positive interactions and relationship building.

“The police department has held many community events and have better connected with the community,” Chief Bernat said.

“The police department is building trust in the community and witnesses are cooperating with the police more than in the past.”

Working regularly with a City Council Chief Bernat described as “supportive” 10 police officers were added in 2015, upping the force to 99 sworn officers. Two more trainees are expected to graduate from the police academy in February 2017, and will up the department to a full force 101 members.

‘Sad and alarming’

According to councilman Roy Sudler Jr., it “was very sad and alarming” to hear police link heroin addiction to the rise in burglaries and robberies within the city.

“Heroin users and dealers in the City of Dover, in my opinion, have caused me to be gravely concerned about the Public Safety and well being of our City of Dover and State of Delaware,” he said.

Setting up Mini Mobile Police stations in areas such as Capital Green, New, Queen, Fulton,, and Lincoln streets could assist fighting ongoing gun and gang violence, Mr. Sudler maintained.

“I truly believe that it will take a unique approach and intervention among legislators, faith-based communities and community leaders to eradicate these social problems that plaque our communities,” he said.

Mr. Sudler pointed to an upcoming citywide forum event with Lt. Gov. elect-Bethany Hall-Long that will discuss the “correlation between heroin addiction and mental illness as the primary impact for a state of public health and safety emergency in Dover.”

The forum “highlight indicators that will help individuals who’s love ones are struggling with heroin addiction to obtain resources that are vital and life changing tools for defeating the heroin epidemic in the great City of Dover,” The forum will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Dec 14 at Dover Council Chambers.

Former Dover police chief Jim Hosfelt, now a councilman, said he noticed a rise in violent crimes and gun seizures last fall. The Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee chairman requested violent crime statistics from Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen and Chief Paul Bernat.

The results presented by Dover PD Capt. Dave Spicer “was informative and coming from that world it is what I expected.

Mr. Hosfelt believes two homicides (one charged as a manslaughter) and 36 to 37 shootings might look deceivingly acceptable from the outside.

“At first glance you might think this is not too bad for a city with an estimated population of 37,000, but if you dig deeper you realize each one of those shootings very easily could have been a murder, rather than ‘just a shooting’, he said.

“That’s concerning to say the least.”

Add another prison?

The gun recoveries this year could be largely attributed to Dover PD’s Street Crimes Unit, Mr. Hosfelt said.

“Based on current trends that is what I would expect,” he said. “The bigger concern I have is for the men and women of the Dover Police Department and our task force officers who knowingly and what appears to be routinely stop these criminals when they are in possession of loaded firearms, especially in today’s climate.”

Mr. Hosfelt does not believe more gun laws can lessen the violence.

“Those of us who have led a productive life and made appropriate choices should not have to be concerned with our Second Amendment rights,” he said.

“It is very simple, we begin by enforcing the laws we have and holding those who break them accountable for their actions. If that means building another prison, and adding more corrections officers, prosecutors and judges to handle these cases than let’s do it.”

When traveling through the city, Mr. Hosfelt said he has “little concern for my safety,” due to a “great police department.”

“That being said, statistically a person may stand a greater chance of being a victim of violent crime in certain pockets of the city and as a result these areas require more attention by the police department,” Mr. Hosfelt said.

“When this happens the rest of the city suffers from a lack of police patrols in our neighborhoods.”

Community members can impact the crime rate by supporting law enforcement, and reporting what they know to police.

Expanding the downtown surveillance camera system and considering the deployment of full-time employees to monitor then round the clock should at lease be discussed, Mr. Hosfelt said.

Describing himself as “surprised” by number of reported firearm confiscations, Councilman Fred Neil thought first of the police officers so often working in harm’s way.

Looking deeper into the number’s meaning, Mr. Neil questioned why so many firearms are circulating throughout the city.

“I believe the driving force of this huge arsenal is the trafficking of illegal drugs,” he determined.

“Therefore, controlling illegal drugs not only removes the necessity of police taking guns from the streets but also drops the amount of crime in the city or everywhere else in the United States.”

Drug addiction factor

Taking a serious tone, Mr. Neil described drug addiction as a “form of slavery and I don’t understand why a person would risk it, even under peer pressure.”

Pointing to his time in Baltimore when he said a former mayor was “vilified when he suggested legalizing habit forming illegal drugs.

“I don’t believe we can legalize illicit drugs because that becomes a form of approval that is abhorrent to the health of the individual. We need a answer. That answer is going to be complicated and will use multiple approaches.”

Describing himself as feeling safe in Dover, Mr. Neil also said “I can not deny, like in big cities and small towns, there are rough areas that I would feel less safe.

“Our police department knows where these areas are and has stepped up patrols, crime prevent activities, crime solving and apprehensions.

“If we were clairvoyant, I bet we could stop an event before it happen, but we are not.”

Also, Mr. Neil maintained, “As a member of the City Council that really cares, we will continue to provide support to our police officers and in any other areas our Charter permits.”

Looking for answers

Councilman Brian Lewis, a former Washington, D.C. police officer, described the ongoing violence as “unfortunate” and “at this stage I don’t have the answers of how to fully control it.”

As men and women on the Dover Police force risk their lives daily, Mr. Lewis believes they are “doing the best they can with the resources they have.”

As the violent crime rate rises, Mr. Lewis said police frustration increases as well.

“It takes up a lot time and resources,” he said. “In my opinion and through my experience one of the major factors that can help control some crime is extensive community policing like more foot beats, mountain bike patrols and citizens patrols or auxiliary police in the affected area.

“Plus, it helps to build a good rapport with the citizen’s in the area making them more receptive to police and therefore possibly providing pertinent information on a crime.”

With a 25-year law enforcement career Councilman and former Dover Police Chief James Hutchison believes that respect for police has dropped among some in recent years.

“It is very concerning that our officers must be confronted with that attitude each day,” he said.

Too many gun violations are being dismissed in Delaware’s court system after defendants plead guilty to other crimes, Mr. Hutchison believes. He hopes that the Delaware Department of Justice and law enforcement can partner together to strengthen enforcement on illegal firearm possession, and charge those crimes when applicable.

According to Dover Police, 46 of the located gun cases were pending this week. There were 22 guilty dispositions, 13 not prosecuted, 9 with no charges, 3 resolved with probation before judgment, 2 unknown suspects and 1 not guilty finding.

Taking on drug and gang activity, and the firearms that come with it, will require a joint effort between law enforcement agencies, Mr. Hutchison said.

Currently, Mr. Hutchison doesn’t “feel Dover is a dangerous city. Unfortunately you can look at a map and identify some problem areas that need extra police attention … and this can be found in many places throughout the country.”

The mayor’s view

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen, who oversees the police department, acknowledged a rise in drugs, guns and shootings within the city and locales nationwide. The proactive law enforcement approach in a quest for increased safety will continue in Dover, along with attempts to foster more community partnerships and unity, he said.

“By formation of several special units within the department, and partnering with other police agencies, both local, state, and federal law enforcement we continue to put a huge dent in guns and drugs available on the street removing a catalyst for additional shootings and other related violent crime,” according to Mr. Christiansen.

“Increased use of cameras and crime statistics also is assisting in a proactive crime fighting strategy.”

With a big picture view, city leaders aim to safen the city through neighborhood stabilization by joining in with NCALL and Habitat for Humanity to construct owner occupied homes, Mr. Christiansen said.

“Additionally the Dover Police Department is proactive in community out reach to our citizens through Community Policing, Police Athletic League and the GREAT program designed to address youth gang involvement,” he said.

“These programs build trust and confidence between those we serve and those served. Finally, we have a medicine drop box at Dover PD, and have partnered with Connections through the Angel Program to help those with drug addictions as opposed to being put in criminal system.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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