Dover police, NAACP plan events to boost community relations

Dover Police Department cadets play basketball with neighborhood kids at the Kirkwood Street courts on Sept. 26. (Submitted photo/Dover Police Department)

Dover Police Department cadets play basketball with neighborhood kids at the Kirkwood Street courts on Sept. 26. (Submitted photo/Dover Police Department)

DOVER — Is it any wonder there’s tension between the city’s downtown community and police?

Law-enforcement officers “chase the radio” regarding criminal complaints. They conduct proactive patrols designed to identify persons wanted for various issues.

But that leaves them short on time to connect with residents in general, most of them law-abiding and non-threatening to the civil order.

Residents might only see police officers in an adversarial position while enforcing the law. So there’s never opportunity to connect and understand the motives of the person wearing a badge.

An Aug. 28 police-involved shooting that left a wounded man facing felony charges amplified mistrust and hostility

MEET THE POLICE The Dover Police Department in partnership with the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP is hosting a community event on Thursday night at 7. Dover PD will close down the first block of South New Street at Loockerman and Reed Streets and participate in a series of basketball games with area youth. Police said the event is expected to last 1-2 hours and is aimed at aimed at building both trust and a strong relationship with downtown community members. Organizers said all families to attend and cheer during the basketball games. In a news release, police encouraged community members “to come out and have fun while getting to know your local Dover police officers.”

MEET THE POLICE
The Dover Police Department in partnership with the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP is hosting a community event on Thursday night at 7. Dover PD will close down the first block of South New Street at Loockerman and Reed Streets and participate in a series of basketball games with area youth. Police said the event is expected to last 1-2 hours and is aimed at aimed at building both trust and a strong relationship with downtown community members. Organizers said all families to attend and cheer during the basketball games. In a news release, police encouraged community members “to come out and have fun while getting to know your local Dover police officers.”

issues.

But it also brought opportunity for attempting to break the cycle that repeats itself daily.

To that end, Dover Police Department and the Central Delaware Branch of the NAACP are planning a series of community outreach initiatives in the downtown area. They will start with a Thursday get-together designed to bridge the current divide.

The general area of the shooting in the first block of South New Street at Loockerman and Reed streets will be closed at 7 p.m. (weather permitting) as officers play a series of basketball games with neighborhood kids.

Besides hoops, officers will pass out coloring books, crayons, 7-11 coupons and other giveaways while supplies last.
The goal is for law enforcement to meet with residents on a more personal level in a setting free of investigation, chase and arrest.

In the recent shooting’s aftermath, NAACP Central Delaware President La Mar Gunn met with Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat, Deputy Chief Marvin Mailey and Capt. Dave Spicer to form a plan to foster better community relationships.

Where kids go

Referencing his own youth in South-Central Los Angeles, Mr. Gunn said, “For me, I know that a basketball court was where kids who look like me would congregate. Many good things can happen there.

“My goal is to go where the kids in the area are and not expect them to come to the police department … which isn’t that likely right now. The thought is to go where the people are, whether it’s physically or mentally.”

Police concurred with that notion, noting that an impromptu pickup game on Kirkwood Street involving cadets and kids in late September illustrated the potential of an organized event.

“The idea was in the works a couple days prior to that occurring, but definitely helped show that it would work and was something the community would engage in,” Dover police spokesman Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.

Other similar interactions have occurred, but never in part prompting an organized community gathering.

“We have had several impromptu activities such as officers playing basketball with children, getting out of their car and tossing footballs, and so on,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

“We even had an officer observe some kids downtown playing baseball with a tree branch. He went to the little league park he manages and grabbed some old equipment and took it out to the kids and several officers played baseball for a little while. These things occur pretty often, even though they may not be publicized.”

A fragmented feeling about police exists in the community, City Councilman David Anderson said. He noted that one group supports law enforcement, another feels there’s a disparity on the way citizens are treated, and a third feels completely disconnected from the process.

“If you never have or see any positive interactions with police, then your attitude toward them is naturally going to have a certain negativity to it,” Mr. Anderson said.

“The only way to change that is through one-on-one meetings and building relationships. Everyone is a real person and police need to interact with residents in a more positive setting.

“There’s about 95 percent of people who are basically law-abiding, and a bridge needs to be created between them and the police.”

Mr. Anderson said he believes that police have “been trying to figure out something like this (community outreach) for a year. (The shooting) created an urgency and offered an opportunity to forge better relations.”

Seeking feedback

Mr. Gunn said organizers at Thursday’s event would survey attendees to “ask them what they want” for future activities.

There’s a divide now existing between some area residents and police, Mr. Gunn said, and “somebody has to say enough is enough, let’s start trying to experiment with some things.

“If they work, great, if not, we’ll try something else.”

Ultimately, Mr. Gunn said, “I’m hoping that this can be an example for the state and the country.

“The police work for us, and we shouldn’t be at odds with the person who is paid to protect and serve the community.

“Police deserve the same respect as any other professional who just wants to do his or her job and go home.

“We all want the same things —whether black, white, Hispanic or otherwise the one thing we know is we want our kids to have an opportunity at life. Police don’t want to be in the (combative) situations any more than members of the public do.

“I’m excited and encouraged about plans moving forward and police were 100 percent in once we got together and talked.”

City officials said possible events could include movie nights at the police department, video game competitions, and other family-oriented events geared towards community outreach throughout the city.

Police officers have responded with positive feedback regarding Thursday’s event, Cpl. Hoffman said.

Councilman Anderson hopes a successful event will spark plans to bring back the youth-oriented Police Athletic League, which is scheduled for discussion at next Monday’s city council meeting.

Mr. Anderson acknowledged the process could take a year or more, based on limited police manpower, upcoming retirement and the acclimation and training of new officers.

“Chief Bernat has a passion to revive it, but it’s a matter of logistics at this point,” Mr. Anderson said.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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