Homicides, violence cast long shadow in Dover

DOVER — Delaware’s capital city has seen a record-setting run of murders.

Parts of Dover are under siege, the police chief says, and seven homicides in 2015 are an all-time high.

Away from the beleaguered downtown area, residents fear more dangerous crimes now are creeping into their everyday lives.

Attorney General Matt Denn

Attorney General Matt Denn

Attorney General Matt Denn hopes state legislators on the Joint Finance Committee soon can allocate $2 million in escrowed funds for resources to combat crimes in Dover and similarly stressed Wilmington.

Attorney General Denn notes Dover has a higher murder rate per capita than Philadelphia or Chicago this year, and a spike in violent crime activity is at a historic level.

As violent crimes of some sort continue, he urges lawmakers to act sooner — by the end of November — rather than later: January 2016 when the General Assembly reconvenes.

Dover Police Chief Paul M. Bernat said he’s had several conversations with the attorney general since his recent letter to the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee urging a special meeting to approve the release of funds to finance law enforcement’s efforts to curb gun violence.

Dover Police Chief Paul M. Bernat

Dover Police Chief Paul M. Bernat

“He’s been listening attentively and is trying to do the right thing,” Dover top cop said.

“I think sometimes we get submerged with talking about all the violence occurring in Wilmington, which I am not downplaying in any way, and don’t talk enough about the significant issues happening at the same time in Dover.

“It’s tough for me to sit in meetings where Wilmington is discussed as much as it is and keep quiet when I’m the police chief of Delaware’s capital city that is experiencing the same issues.”

JFC member Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, said the attorney general’s request for immediate funds, joined by Delaware State Chamber of Commerce President Richard Hefferon and Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council Executive Director Rashmi Rangan, could be raised at already scheduled meetings on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2.

Even if a recommendation is reached, however, “The JFC can’t appropriate money, only the General Assembly can do that. Nothing could happen until January when the General Assembly is back in session.”

Sen. Brian Bushweller

Sen. Brian Bushweller

The situation is dire and waiting until early next year means several dangerous weeks are possibly ahead, the attorney general and supporters believe.

“(Dover and Wilmington) are facing surges of violent gun crime that is killing and wounding residents (including in some cases children), creating chaotic living situations for those trapped in violent neighborhoods, and threatening the economic vitality of both the state’s capital and its largest city,” a Nov. 6 letter to JFC leadership read.

Attorney General Denn believes a small fraction of the $36 million in settlements negotiated by the Delaware Department of Justice with Bank of America and Citigroup could be released immediately.

How to allocate

If so, the Attorney General Denn aims to meet with law enforcement representing Dover, Wilmington and other connected agencies to determine how to allocated the $2 million.

Sen. Bushweller said Friday that until a pending inquiry by the Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council to the United States Department of Justice is resolved on how funds can be distributed, no action can be taken. Attorney General Denn said the council supports the near-term assistance, and believes legislators could make the funds available immediately.

Rep. Andria Bennett

Rep. Andria Bennett

State Rep. Andria Bennett, D-Dover South, wonders why General Assembly sessions can be held for judicial and cabinet secretary appointments, yet the current life-and-death saga associated with Dover and Wilmington may be delayed for two months or more.

“I don’t agree with waiting when it gets to the epidemic level of violence we’re at now,” she said.
“Why wait on it if matters of life and death are involved?

“How many lives can be lost in the next eight weeks or so before any action can be taken? I agree with Matt Denn that this has to be discussed now, not sometime in January.”

Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, represents constituents in the so-called siege area and said he “agrees with the attorney general on all fronts.

“The problems are not only in my community or my city, they’re literally in my own neighborhood.”

A downtown Dover homeowner since 2006 with his wife and three preschool age children, Rep. Lynn grew up in the Woodcrest neighborhood. He loves much about his home city, he said, including, “the beauty, the history, the people, my neighbors, the sense of community.”

The state representative fears for the safety of his wife and his children, though, and that tragedy could strike with “the stray bullet.”

“I personally feel comfortable, but it’s my children and wife I worry about,” said Rep. Lynn, whose home is now equipped with a security system.

Sticking it out
Rep. Sean Lynn

Rep. Sean Lynn

As a legislator and state attorney with the means to move to a perceived safer climate if need be, Rep. Lynn said he isn’t going anywhere.

“I love it in downtown Dover and I don’t think it will accomplish anything if I leave,” he said.

“It’s a surrender and I’m not going to do that. The best option is to remain and work for solutions that can bring a change to the environment here.”

Rep. W. Charles “Trey” Paradee, D-Cheswold, has constituents in west Dover and believes most violent crime is connected with the drug trade, with heroin proving to be a significant scourge to society.

“Until we really get a handle on the heroin situation, problems will continue,” the representative said, noting the Dover Police Department is working efficiently with the resources available.

If funds become available, “I would be curious to see how the money is spent and how everyone wants to get it done after the attorney general has had time to discuss it with Chief Bernat and City Council.”

The representative believes surveillance video cameras “have yielded serious results and may be one of the areas where additional dollars could yield positive results.”

Rep. Trey Paradee

Rep. Trey Paradee

Rep. Paradee and other legislators forecast that “everyone is anticipating this to be a brutal budget year. We had some really ugly days in the last few days of the June session.”

Said Sen. Bushweller, while not downplaying the importance of safety within city limits and acknowledging tough choices must be made, “We are now in austere times and have to be careful with the source of any money.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen is hopeful but, “I’m holding my breath on whether the money will ever make it to the cities of Dover or Wilmington. There’s questions on whether the state has the authority to use those funds from those settlements for those purposes.”

Safety, development intertwined

Public safety and the potential for economic development are intertwined, and Mayor Christiansen said a continuing crime surge will draw notice beyond the immediate area.

Mayor Robin Christiansen

Mayor Robin Christiansen

“There are people in Wall Street who clip articles of what’s going on in Dover, Wilmington, Milford, Seaford and Harrington to see if they are safe to consider doing business in,” he said. “Bond ratings are affected as well. People are paying attention to what’s occurring here …”

Dover Police reported last week that 87 guns have been taken off the street from Jan. 1 to Nov. 10 this year, compared to 53 in the same period last year, a rise of 64 percent.

Also in 2015, the Dover Police Department has investigated 16 shootings and 174 shots-fired complaints, up more than 60 percent from 2014’s 10 shootings and 105 shots fired.

“The downtown area is under siege,” said Chief Bernat, who believes most if not all homicides in 2015 were drug related in some way.

With more funding, Dover Police would add 14 surveillance cameras in the downtown area, adding to a system that’s assisted investigation into multiple crimes and had a major impact in solving three murder cases, authorities said.

Also, the money could pay for nine cadets for 39 months to walk in the downtown area, monitoring nuisance issues, loitering, drinking and panhandling, in addition to being stewards of the community to visitors, assisting in public events and more, Chief Bernat said.

Last week, Dover Police gained a $10,000 grant with the key help of Attorney General Denn to add 175 hours of foot patrols to city streets, according to Chief Bernat.

“We believe that active foot patrols have a calming affect on the violence,” he said.

Also, Attorney General Denn said he will propose adding a new Kent County felony prosecutor at a budget hearing Friday at Legislative Hall, describing the request as a “top priority.”

More staff needed

Understaffing at the Kent courthouse is problematic, Chief Bernat said, and officers often find themselves arresting the same individuals multiple times based on the current system at work. Police said there are 13 pending murder cases in Kent County, and the attorney general’s office is down two felony deputy attorney general positions, and just three Superior Court judges to hear matters.

“We do not want to be in the business of catch and release of felony defendants,” Chief Bernat said.

Dover police stand watch over the victim’s body as they wait for the medical examiner to arrive at the scene of an April 30 fatal shooting at Pine Grove Apartments on Webbs Lane in Dover. (Delaware State News file)

Dover police stand watch over the victim’s body as they wait for the medical examiner to arrive at the scene of an April 30 fatal shooting at Pine Grove Apartments on Webbs Lane in Dover. (Delaware State News file)

“I’m concerned that just by the nature (of the current staffing) they’re going to be resolved as please instead of going to trial and getting a conviction appropriate to the charges.”

Sen. Bushweller believes there’s growing concern Dover’s crime rate is rising to the point of approximating Delaware’s largest city Wilmington, which television network ABC plans to use as the setting for the pilot TV crime drama “Murder Town.”

“I think there’s a pretty broad concern in Dover about the level of violence here, and that it is certainly well-founded,” Sen. Bushweller said.

“I do not think we have a situation as bad as Wilmington at this point, but it might become as bad as Wilmington if we don’t get our arms around the issues,” said Sen. Bushweller, who believes the significant decay of some family units makes addressing ongoing crime issues a complex discussion not quickly solved.

Partnering with legislators and Dover Police, at least three neighborhood-watch programs have formed in Sen. Lynn’s district and that of Dover councilmen David Anderson and Roy Sudler Jr.

There are 25 active members in an area covering Kirkwood, West, New and Queen streets.

“They’re tired of the gunshots, tired of the drug activity,” Rep. Lynn said. “They want to take back their neighborhood.”

The group is inherently non-confrontational, he said, and focuses on monitoring the streets while reporting any and all suspicious activity to the police.

A citizen’s view

The Woodcrest group is roughly 50 members strong, and orchestrated by 13-year resident Kari Tollinger.

Ms. Tollinger believes her community near the old Dover High School around Walker Street is troubled by more nefarious activity as anti-social behavior is creeping closer.

In the past two weeks, she said, a pair of brazen vehicle break-ins were perpetrated in areas thought to be safe not so long ago. Both acts were caught on surveillance video cameras now installed at residences.

Also, several cars were keyed in the same stretch.

“It’s starting to spread this way,” she said.

“It’s like pouring water on a piece of paper — it’s going to spread out.”

And the causes according to Ms. Tollinger are, “the drugs, it’s definitely the drugs. If they can’t get what they need downtown then they’ll head out and do what they need elsewhere to get their next fix.”

An influx of visitors from “Philadelphia, Wilmington and as far New Jersey have made it worse,” Ms. Tollinger said. “The drug situation is so bad right now.”

The surveillance cameras are part of an eroding sense of safety and how to defuse actions of potential criminals in their midst, Ms. Tollinger said.

“They are making us think like them and I don’t like that,” she said. “I avoid certain streets like Kings Highway, Queen and New. I avoid the 7-Eleven on Saulsbury Road.

“I’m home all day and my doors are locked all day.”

Since Dover High’s campus was shuttered and moved, Ms. Tollinger said she’s seen more spurts of crime, with vehicles going back into the area at all times of the night.

“They hang out there a lot,” she said.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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