Dover PD seeking new officer funding through COPS grant

DOVER — Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson on Tuesday pitched the opportunity to hire five new officers through a federal grant program.

The Community Oriented Policing Services Grant (COPS) would be used to boost manpower within the agency’s Community Policing Unit, he said.

Thomas A. Johnson Jr.

Funds doled out by the U.S. Department of Justice would cover $625,000 in associated costs from fiscal years 2021-24, while the city would kick in $1,037,385.

The federal portion would pay 75% of the cost in the first year, 40% the second and 15% in year three.

Following the presentation, the Council Committee on the Whole forwarded the information without a recommendation and it will be discussed further at the city council meeting on Aug. 24.

There’s still plenty to consider, according to some council members.

If new positions are approved, Councilman Matt Lindell maintained, “council loses any real check on how these positions are utilized while we have to find a way to pay for these positions once the grant draws down over a three-year period, which is really a 20-year expenditure due to benefits and pension.”

Grant approval would increase the Dover Police Department’s authorized strength from 101 to 106 officers. Eight positions are currently unfilled and four candidates are currently in police academy training.

Councilman Fred Neil cited concerns on finding enough quality candidates for the open authorized strength positions, along with five more in the COPS grant.

Nevertheless, Mr. Neil said, “I have great confidence in Councilman (Tim) Slavin working with Chief Johnson to resolve the issues of the grant that I lean towards okaying.”

According to Mr. Lindell, “In 2015, when 10 new positions were added council was told it was to enhance community policing efforts and high vacancy numbers and five years later here we are with the same issues.”

Also, Mr. Lindell said, “The police department has recently added another administrative position which means they have shifted one patrol position from the streets to make that move.”

Mr. Lindell expressed concern about the effect of vacancies, “however, I am not sure how increasing the authorized number to 106 will address the current vacancies plus five more created should this grant be approved.”

In an annual presentation reviewing the police department’s overview in 2019, Chief Johnson 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.

Current active officers

Describing the number of active officers “absurdly low” Councilman David Anderson maintained that the results are “costing lives, peace of mind and business.”

Dover’s population and number of officers ratio does not compute well when compared to Salisbury and Annapolis in Maryland, according to Mr. Anderson.

“We have the same current manning as Salisbury but 20% greater population and Annapolis has about the same but 40 more officers than our current (level),” Mr. Anderson said.

“Salisbury has the luxury of 91 county sheriff’s deputies who can help in addition to state troopers, we do not have a county force.”

For proper coverage, Mr. Anderson believes 110 well-utilized officers are needed.

“This is our march to get to that ballpark,” he said. “I think just as important as numbers is how you use them. Chief Johnson started to lay out a vision that makes sense.

“We need community policing and community engagement and that takes enough people to do it. It would be shameful to play politics with the lives of people in our city, many of them in the fourth district.

“Children are dying and it is time to stop it.”

According to Mr. Neil, “What was missing in the discussion is that Dover almost doubles in size during the day with students and employees coming to work here and in government buildings in addition to our special events.”

In 2019, Dover suffered from a dearth of officers for its authorized strength. Mr. Anderson said the effects being down an average of 14 officers, more than double historic numbers he said, were evident.

“What happened?,” he asked rhetorically. “Crime spiked.

“We need a comprehensive approach to crime that includes fully funding our police, modernized cameras and lighting, the best training, and community development approaches that reach out for workforce development , substance abuse prevention, and youth services.

“We have to address crime through a partnership with the many organizations in our community doing good and providing services, but we need a unified strategy.”

A Center for Public Safety Management study five years ago showed “other municipalities with similar populations and issues like Dover had 1 officer per 718 citizens, but our numbers are much better 1 per 369 citizens,” Mr. Lindell said.

“It seems we always want to add more officers when issues arise, but do we ever look at what those municipalities are doing differently or reevaluating our practices to more efficiently use our current manpower?”

Effects on budget

With future fiscal projections past the grants as a guide, Mr. Lindell said he believed “we will quickly enter deficit territory which will require a tax increase, raiding the electric fund, or making cuts in areas such as public works.

“While public safety is a major priority, the path of adding more officers every few years is unsustainable given the other major issues we are dealing with in regard to our city’s infrastructure (electric, water, roads, sewer).

“In the FY 21 budget, per capita wise we are spending 478.86 dollars on police while the next closest in spending is public works at 206.69 dollars per capita.”

Mr. Neil and Mr. Lindell concurred that the city is better served if officers reside within Dover’s official boundaries. Mr. Lindell said less than 10% currently live within city limits.

“I think we need to work on offering incentives to encourage our officers to live within the city limits of Dover,” he said.

“I think any increase in this percentage can only help improve our community policing efforts.”

In a letter, Delaware’s congressional delegation of U.S. Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester endorsed the application saying, in part, would allow officers to “work in concert with local groups and citizens within our capital city towards the common goal of reducing gun violence.”