In the line of fire: How safe are Delaware police?

An American flag flies at half staff in front of the Dover Police Department on Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

An American flag flies at half staff in front of the Dover Police Department on Thursday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

DOVER — These are especially dangerous times for law enforcement.

A combined eight police officers died during recent ambushes in Louisiana and Texas, another was shot in Wisconsin last Sunday while sitting alone in his patrol car.

Nationwide, some police departments are partnering two officers to a cruiser and taking other safety-enhancing measures for added protection.

There have been no overt violent attacks on Delaware police, fortunately, but the state certainly isn’t immune to the possibility.

Serving the community for nearly four decades, Camden Police Department Chief William Bryson said he’s never seen such a hostile stretch like this directed at officers.

“In my 36 plus years in Delaware law enforcement, I cannot recall a time when police officers were being targeted across the country as they are currently,” Chief Bryson said earlier this week.

“There have been regional safety concerns in the past, following police use of deadly force, but they were essentially limited to one part of the country. Today the threat is nationwide.”

According to Rehoboth Beach PD spokeswoman Lt. Jaime Riddle on Wednesday, 69 officers nationally have died in the line of duty in 2016, including gunfire and vehicular assault incidents.

“Officers from our department have not expressed any concerns for their own safety,” Lt. Riddle said. “However, every member of our department empathizes with the losses of our brothers and sisters in law enforcement in Dallas, Texas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Our hearts go out to the families and friends of our fallen brothers, especially the children who will now face life without the role model they deserve.”

New Castle County Police have not changed patrol staffing, but have implemented a two-car response to in-progress calls, Sgt. Jake Andrews said.

“All officers are aware of the recent incidents that have been occurring and we remain ready to respond to all calls for service,” Sgt. Andrews said.

Serious business indeed

Police work is always serious business, but never more so than now.

“Police officers in general understand that even the most ‘routine’ calls and tasks can quickly spiral out of control and

Cpl, Mark Hoffman

Cpl, Mark Hoffman

train for these very scenarios,” Dover PD spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman said.

“With that being said, it would be safe to say that there is some extra concern and stress with some of the things we have seen across the country.”

Claims of police brutality have fueled an ongoing national conversation driven by a series of officer-involved shootings of African-American men during confrontations. At the same time, police have been sniped at specifically for being lawmen.

“I think officers across Delaware and our nation as a whole are acutely aware of the recent violence committed against us,” Smyrna PD spokesman Cpl. Brian Donner said.

“Due to the random and unexpected nature of these events I think that we all feel a sense of heightened awareness and the notion that this could happen to us at any time without warning. …”

In Cheswold, “I have had discussions with the officers to be more careful and be mindful of their surroundings along with calling for backup and assistance when they feel its necessary,” Police Chief Christopher Workman said.

According to Chief Bryson, also president of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council, some officers “purchased additional body armor, others are reluctant to park in a public place while they complete paperwork from a call or traffic stop.

“If it is not constantly on their mind, they know that they might not go home at the end of their shift.”

Dover Police have held specific meetings regarding officer safety issues, with messages conveyed to the entire force.

Chief Paul Bernat “has spoken with patrol shifts, supervisors and has been in contact with everyone within the agency in regards to officer safety issues,” according to Cpl. Hoffman.

‘Their last call’

The seeming randomness of attacks “absolutely” makes it difficult to prepare for and respond to a potential outbreak of violence, according to Chief Bryson and “public safety is our priority, but when an officer responds to any call, it could be their last call.”

Absent an attack, the added concerns nonetheless take a toll on law enforcement.

“Officer safety has always been a concern, but following the recent attacks on police across the country, officers must be in a hypervigilant state at all times,” Chief Bryson said.

Middletown Police Department officers provide security at a carnival on Wednesday night. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

Middletown Police Department officers provide security at a carnival on Wednesday night. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

“That condition is mentally and physically demanding on the human body.”

The Delaware State Police evaluate conditions when planning to protect and serve the community.

“The personnel assignment allocations are subject to operational security measures,” DSP spokesman Sgt. Richard Bratz said when asked about ongoing safety issues. “We have meetings that fall under operational security.”

Sticking with their mission as troopers, “I can tell you we will always respond and investigate incidents to the best of our ability and provide the best police services to the communities we serve,” Sgt. Bratz said.

While Seaford PD has not paired up officers, “depending on the nature of the call more than one officer will respond,” spokesman Lt. Richard Jamison said.

Any current issues are discussed during roll call meetings before each shift, Lt. Jamison said.

“Patrol shifts manpower varies due to training, vacation, etc.,” he said.

Aware of surroundings

Regarding precautions for safety, Lt. Jamison said, “We consider our officers well trained and remind them to be aware of their surroundings.”

Cpl. Hoffman said officers take precaution through “operational security.”

Nationwide incidents have created an apparent racial divide among citizens in some areas, with many expressing anger toward the police for their deadly use of force in some cases. Police in Delaware chose not to describe their relationships with the local African-American community, expanding their thoughts to all citizens they serve.

“We are aware and concerned with what is going on around us and take these issues very seriously,” Delmar PD Chief Ivan Barkley said.

“As a father of young black men, two of whom are police officers, I am even more determined to make sure everyone in the communities we serve are safe, including police officers and citizens alike.”

Chief Barkley told of a “fantastic” relationship that Delmar PD serves noting that included all races. Delmar PD will “strive to maintain that throughout these troubled times,” he said.

Describing Dover PD’s interactions with its community, Cpl. Hoffman said, “We believe we have a positive relationship with citizens across the city of Dover and surrounding areas.

“We continue to explore new and innovative ways to improve those relationships beyond the things we already have set in place.”

There’s a positive bond between law enforcement and the Seaford community, according to police.

“We have what we believe to be a good relationship with the citizens of Seaford,” said Lt. Jamison.

A personal level

Upon arriving at Laurel PD in March, Chief Danny Wright increased emphasis on officers connecting on a more personal level with the citizenry; patrol officers were required to contact five businesses on a 12-hour shift in an informal manner, and engage residents in at least three housing developments.

“I think it’s paid huge dividends,” Chief Wright said. “We’re getting a lot of people … thanking us for what we’ve done so far.”

There has to be a healthy partnership between the community and police to make strides in relationships, authorities said.

“These recent events will take more than just the American police officer to conquer,” Smyrna PD’s Cpl. Donner said. “It will take a collective and concerted effort by all stakeholders in a given community to say enough is enough and we aren’t going to stand idly by while senseless violence is carried out upon our public servants.”

According to Smyrna PD Chief Norman Wood, “Regardless of the issues occurring around our country we still believe that our work has a vital impact on the quality of life in our community and we strive to provide professional, competent, and effective service in a partnership with out community.”

Nationally, Chief Wright believes the news media’s coverage of police and citizen interactions has added to the public’s awareness of the worst encounters.

“A lot of older people, including myself, can remember when the news came from [television station] WBOC and it included only local coverage,” Chief Wright said. “That’s obviously not the case anymore.”

Currently, there have been no statewide meetings regarding officer safety, but Chief Bryson said “the Delaware Information Analysis Center is providing all agencies with regular updates on threats to law enforcement personnel.”

Limited force available

Due to limited manpower, Chief Bryson said no partnering of officers in vehicles is possible; one Camden PD officer patrols the entire town at all times, and a second officer worked a 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift for the past several months.

Camden’s force is stretched thin, and Chief Bryson noted that “we currently have an officer out on extended leave from an injury and another officer planning leave for the birth of a child.”

To aid safety, Chief Bryson believes “Officers must be vigilant at all times. We obviously rely on other departments such as Wyoming Police Department and the Delaware State Police for backup, that has never been more important than it is today.”

Regarding Camden’s citizenry, Chief Bryson said, “I believe we have a good relationship with all members of our community, our officers are reminded to treat everyone as they would want their family treated.

“I also ask officers to remember that what seems like a very minor call to them, may be the only contact that person has with the department for years, and that is significant.

“Everyone in Camden deserves the same level service from this department, if they do not receive it, they should bring that to my attention.”

Though “the Delmar Police Department has not changed the way we do business,” Chief Barkley said, “Every call is assessed for risk to determine what the proper response will be.”

Backups, multiple units

To compensate for a smaller force, “we … monitor calls, back up officers (both ours and others) even when we’re off duty and make sure everyone gets home safe,” Chief Barkley said.

“That doesn’t mean we are jumping out getting in the middle of another agency’s response, what that does mean is we can be there if needed.”

With approximately one square mile of jurisdiction, the Rehoboth Beach PD considers itself fortunate to have at least 17 full-time officers; during the summer, another 18 to 24 seasonal officers arrive in the summer.

According to Rehoboth PD Lt. Riddle, and average of 8 to 12 officers are on duty most of each day.

“There are very few complaints that do not receive a multiple unit response,” she said.

Lt. Riddle categorized Rehoboth Beach Police relations with citizens as “Unchanged. Unwavered. Appreciative.

“Police officers in our country pride themselves on being the thin blue line that separates right from wrong. If a member of our community is in danger or is a victim of a crime, they need to do nothing more than call the police.

“Our response is not based on color or race, it is based on the simple fact that a member of our community is in need of help.”

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