Makeup of Dover Community Policing Unit may reflect some experience

DOVER — Rather than putting a handful of rookies fresh out of training onto the streets of Dover, when the Dover Police Department unveils its new Community Policing Unit next year, it hopes to also be manned by the face of experience if manpower need and coronavirus conditions allow.

Matt Harline, assistant city manager, spoke of the changes before the Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee at Tuesday night’s virtual Council Committee of the Whole meeting.

A budget amendment revealed that the new Community Policing Unit will not be staffed with the five new officers hired under the COPS — Community Policing Grant — application. Instead, the Dover Police Department hopes to get the Community Policing Unit up and running by late spring or summer 2021 with a mixture of the recruits to be joined by some experienced officers.

Therefore, the grant’s matching funds will not be credited to the cost of the Community Policing Unit, but rather, the law enforcement unit.

“The grant will cover some costs of adding five officers,” Mr. Harline said. “The city will be hiring five new officers and putting them into the academy this fall, but to make the community policing effort more effective, the actual officers who will be transferred into the community police department will be experienced officers — a master corporal, two corporals and two patrol officers — that will provide experience to beef up that unit.”

Another change is a radio purchase of $18,000 for the Community Policing Unit, which is now planned to be covered by a State and Local Law Enforcement Grant.

“It sounds like a valuable program getting some of the older, more experienced staff to come in with the new folks that are (eventually) going to be coming in,” City Councilman Fred Neil said.

Police reform has been a hot topic throughout a turbulent 2020.

Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson noted the need for changes in the way the community is policed in the wake of the death of George Floyd under the weight of a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis at the end of May.

Thomas Johnson

“There are trust challenges right now in policing,” Chief Johnson said. “There are trust challenges right now in Dover policing and, … the more that I’m able to hear about the causes of these trust issues and variables that play into these trust issues through the kind of meetings we’ve had, we’re going to break those things down.”

In late July, the chief presented the 2019 department recap and 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.

Members of Dover City Council noted the need for community police to help open the lines of communication and trust between officers and citizens.

Councilman Tim Slavin met with Chief Johnson over the summer to better understand community policing. He came away impressed with the chief’s strategy.

Tim Slavin

“I had three primary concerns,” Councilman Slavin said, of adding five new community police officers. “One, it is a midyear budget request in the middle of a budget cycle. Second, there was an issue related to the academy and being able to get our new recruits certified and on the street. The third was just really a rising concern in the community that more isn’t necessarily better — better is better. We are looking at new ways of policing our community.

“The approach that the chief explained to me was really to create kind of a new and much stronger emphasis on community policing, so that it’s not just more of the same … that we’re not trying to arrest our way out of problems, like addiction, or trying to arrest our way out of poverty.”

Councilman Slavin added: “I’ll be quite honest to tell you that I trust what (Chief Johnson) says and the way he said it to me. He has earned my confidence, and we hired him to come into the community to do a job, and to do that job, they asked for these resources, and I think he has taken it head-on.”

Dover’s Community Policing budget for fiscal year 2021 tentatively includes five existing officers at 12 months and five existing officers at three months, but could change due to manpower needs and if coronavirus issues persist. The community unit is expected to have an equivalent full-time staff of 6.3 officers for fiscal year 2021.

The change in the makeup of the unit also changes the new-hire cost of supplies and materials to be included in the law enforcement unit.

For clarification, since both the new officers and the transfer of the five experienced officers to the Community Policing Unit only reflect three months of operations, the annualized personnel-related cost of the COPS Grant officers based on current budget amounts is $477,200.

The annualized personnel cost of all 10 officers that will eventually be transferred to Community Policing is $1,384,000, plus supplies and materials.

“The total (cost) for the Community Policing Unit for the 2021 year would be $893,500, and the total for the rest of the police operation would drop from $17,819,900 to $17,086,300,” Mr. Harline said.

Dover city councilmen agree that a different approach needs to be utilized between officers and the city — and they hope the addition of a Community Policing Unit fits the bill.

David Anderson

“We need community policing and community engagement, and that takes enough people to do it,” Councilman David Anderson said. “It would be shameful to play politics with the lives of people in our city, many of them in the 4th District.

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

Councilman Ralph Taylor is a veteran of the Dover Police Department and applauded the renewed focus on community policing.

He reflected on the city of Dover in the 1990s to mid-2000s, when it was “nationally recognized as one of the better places in America to retire and to raise kids.”

Councilman Taylor said community police officers made a noticeable difference in the relationship between the city’s citizens and law enforcement, particularly by participating in activities such as the Police Athletic League, hosting homeowners’ association meetings and having bicycle patrols that were “everywhere.”

Ralph Taylor

“Community police officers attended every event, and they built relationships, and that was the biggest thing that I think we’re missing right now,” said Councilman Taylor. “When you’re going from complaint to complaint to complaint to complaint, you don’t have time to build the necessary relationships. There were a lot of positive things happening that I know we can get back to if we have manpower.

“The municipalities in Kent and Sussex counties understand the need, and Dover has taken its rightful place as leaders in policing in 2020, when everything must change — it’s mandatory with our citizens that we cannot continue policing the way it is. I support this initiative 100%.”

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