Violent crime ‘unprecedented’ in Dover

Dashawn Friend, 19, of Dover, was the victim of a shooting April 30 in the parking lot of Pine Grove Apartments in Dover. (Delaware State News file photo)

Dashawn Friend, 19, of Dover, was the victim of a shooting April 30 in the parking lot of Pine Grove Apartments in Dover. (Delaware State News file photo)

DOVER — The violence continues on.

A Wednesday night shooting in a residential development was the City of Dover’s third homicide in 18 days, and fourth overall in 2015.

Three of this year’s homicides remain unsolved, along with eight shooting investigations since Aug. 2014, plus a suspect sought in a ninth.

Addressing the assembled newspaper, television and radio media at the scene of a Friday afternoon shooting at Capital Green, Dover Police Department spokesman Lt. Jason Pires summed it up succinctly:

“The amount of violent crime we’ve seen this year is unprecedented for the City of Dover,” he said.

As to what’s triggering the violence, Lt. Pires said there’s no specific attribution such as gang activity or guns alone, but “ … the only commonality we can find is that it (always involves firearms).”

Dover PD Chief Paul Bernat was unavailable for comment on Friday, but has earlier said crime issues in Dover revolve in large part around the illegal drug trade.

Lifetime Dover resident David Brown, 50, said he heard of the Capital Green shooting “on the streets” and shook his head while watching investigation into the latest incident proceed. Mr. Brown called for a gun buyback program to get some weapons off the street, along with a Police Athletic League for youths and a push in the school system to reach out to students at risk.

Most of all, though, he said, “Parents need to get off their (expletive), start raising their kids, and get to know where they are.”

Also, Mr. Brown concluded, “We are a small city with big city problems.”

On Saturday, Dover police identified 25-year-old Rakim Strickland as the suspect in the shooting and is wanted for attempted murder, criminal mischief, trespassing and several gun-related charges.

Rakim Strickland

Rakim Strickland

Earlier in the week, Dover PD described the public’s cooperation in providing information to investigators as “inconsistent.”

Mayor Robin Christiansen said information received in an April 30 homicide in the Pine Grove Apartments parking lot brought a quick apprehension of two suspects and first-degree murder and first-degree robbery charges followed.

On April 28, a suspect in a South Queen Street shooting was taken into custody in the short aftermath of an alleged incident captured by downtown surveillance cameras.

Earlier, two arrests followed a Feb. 8 shooting at Bubbas’s nightclub on North DuPont Highway, one within hours, the other 12 days afterward; authorities credited witness tips received as speeding the investigative chase.

Other cases haven’t been resolved that quickly, unfortunately.

The search continues for those responsible for three other alleged shooting deaths occurring on Jan. 25, April 26, and this week’s incident in which a 19-year-old Smyrna High student was killed.

“The Dover Police Department has received numerous leads in each case and has made significant progress in each respective case,” spokesman Cpl. Mark Hoffman said. “However, the level of public cooperation is inconsistent.”

Police said two of the four homicides since January have occurred in broad daylight, and all locations were scattered throughout the city.

Within a week in late March to April 1, police reportedly confiscated three illegally possessed handguns.

“We tend to see a lot of handguns (in incidents), many of which are illegally possessed by convicted felons or stolen,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

Infrequent discoveries of knives, blunt objects such as bats and other dangerous weapons are also made, police said.

Urging no retaliation

La Mar Gunn, president of the Central Delaware Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, spoke at a recent victim’s funeral and the family asked him to push for no violent reaction to the loss.

“Speaking at the funeral was sad and I never want to have to do anything like that again,” Mr. Gunn said. “I was asked by the family to share some kind words and urge people not to retaliate.”

City Councilman David Anderson, whose Fourth District was the scene of two of the recent homicides, said officials continue to seek answers on how to curb the violence.

“It seems to be tamped down in one part (of the city) and then it pops up in another part,” he said. “It’s definitely frustrating.”

After reaching out to a family member or friend of each recent victim, Mr. Anderson said there’s no consensus on how to slow the recent homicidal surge, the shootings and overall violence.

“They are usually grappling with the situation as well,” Mr. Anderson said of those close to the victims.

“Different people have different takes on how do we do something to keep people from getting associated with people who would drag them into those situations.

“The question is how do we educate people to keep themselves out of situations with people who are attracting those kind of problems.”

Mayor Christiansen, who oversees the police department, said “I am very disturbed because once again this is symptomatic of what’s been going on here for awhile now.

“The culture has to change and there’s no short-term solution other than additional vigilance by a proactive police force and increased presence in patrol operations.”

Economic development within city limits is key, Mayor Christiansen, Mr. Gunn, and Mr. Anderson agreed. With more business comes added jobs, and less need to make money through the drug trade and other illegal activities, they said.

“Most people will do what’s right as opposed to what’s wrong unless they feel like they don’t have any other opportunities,” Mr. Gunn said.

Wilmington to Dover

Coming from South Central Los Angeles where violent crimes, gangs and shootings were just a way of life, Mr. Gunn is troubled by what he’s seeing after a relocation to the First State.

“You would think coming here to Delaware there would be less of that, but it seems like more of the same,” Mr. Gunn said.

“I first came to Wilmington and it was bad. Now what’s going on in Wilmington is spreading to Dover.”

Echoing other city officials thoughts, Mayor Christiansen said community cooperation with the police is a key part of investigating illegal activity that detracts from the quality of life of law-abiding citizens.

An information flow from the public will allow Dover police to continue and increase clearing violent crimes at a rate the mayor said was one of the highest in the country.

Three ongoing homicide investigations puts a strain on the Dover PD’s nine-detective Criminal Investigations Unit, authorities said.

“Having a single investigation open is difficult, so three is definitely a challenge and eats up a lot of man-hours,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

“However we have a talented group of detectives working these cases with assistance from other units and we are confident in their ability to clear these cases as they continue to make progress.”

Regardless, several homicide and shooting suspects have so far evaded apprehension and are still moving freely somewhere.

“Obviously the goal is to get as many criminals off the streets of Dover as possible, especially violent offenders,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

“With that being said, it is our firm belief that these acts were not random. There is concern for the safety of our community and its citizens and we are working around the clock to insure that we keep our city as safe as possible.”

Police said they don’t have an answer for what’s causing the current rash of gunfire, injuries and homicides.

Response to proactively police violent firearm and crime issues is confidential since, “We don’t discuss this as it could disclose tactical advantages,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

Initial homicide responses bring an all-out Dover PD response from patrol officers, detectives, and crime scene investigators, Cpl. Hoffman said.

“At that point much of the work is done by the criminal investigations unit (detectives), but is assisted by any and all members of the department as needed,” he said.

Dover PD’s manpower

The available manpower is lessened by patrol officer Cpl. Tom Webster’s unpaid administrative leave continues after a felony second-degree assault indictment, though two officers involved in a winter shooting are back on full duty at this time, police said.

Added staff is coming from recent police academy graduates who have just completed field training with the past two weeks and are assigned to platoon shifts.

“This has helped the manpower issues for the shifts, however, we are looking forward to the next graduation class and getting them on the streets upon completion of their training as well,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

Former police chief Jim Hosfelt, now a city councilman after recent election, said that while the police department has an authorized strength of 102, there are likely fewer available officers for a variety of reasons, including retirements that take time to replace with trainees.

There’s a disconnect between police and the citizens, Mr. Hosfelt said; there’s no time for community policing efforts to reach out to people affected by the issues. Also, communities must make efforts to cooperate with law enforcement in reaching mutual solutions that benefit all, he said.

“For a long time we had good relations with the neighborhoods and communities throughout the city, and it’s getting tougher,” he said.

“A large part of where that has been lost is through the lack of community policing. Our officers are busy running from complaint to complaint and they just don’t have time to get out and meet the community on a more personal level.”

Finding budget money to support a larger police force is quite a challenge, Mr. Hosfelt said, adding “We could have 197 officers and we’re never going to prevent all the crime. When bad people want to do bad things, they will, but we need to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to do it.”

Another newcomer to council — Brian Lewis — said a big picture approach is essential to supporting police efforts to thwart crime, along with fostering open communication among community leaders and council members.

“Clearly, any level of violence in any form is a serious problem,” Mr. Lewis said. “That said, as the new city councilman I believe we must continue to have prayer and police intervention …

“I intend to continue to carefully study the issues, taking a global perspective, have conversations with key community leaders and my fellow council members

“In this, my hope would be to bring the City of Dover back to a peaceful perspective were the community can live, grow and enjoy the historical culture.”

Belief in community

Also arriving to council is Scott Cole, who said, “As a former educator for 18 years, I am always saddened when young people are taken too soon. My heart goes out to their families and loved ones.

“When any violence happens to our citizens in Dover it hurts the fabric of our community.

“Dover is where we live, go to school, socialize and raise our families.

“I have a strong belief in our community, its leaders and our police department working together moving forward.

We need a grassroots solution in tandem with our professionals to help protect our community and its citizens.

“My belief is we can accomplish this as a community.”

As his time on council moves forward, Fred Neil hopes to find ways to better raise children to respect those around them as they grow emotionally and physically toward adulthood.

“The cause and effect of violence is being debated across the world, and not just in the United States or Dover,” Mr. Neil said.

“Anything happening in Dover hurts more because it is our home and because of efforts being made by the governance, immediate past and current.

“As a young news reporter in Baltimore years ago, I came to learn this type of violence stems, in part, from the values instilled when people are growing up. The quandary is how can we go back and undo the gap in teaching right from wrong?

“That doesn’t mean I and my colleagues won’t be looking for solutions. I do have great confidence in our police department to act and react with professionalism in protecting the public.”

City law enforcement officers dealing with the daily stress of possibly responding to violent situations have maintained a steady, purposeful stance to protecting and serving the community, police said.

“I believe the large majority, if not all of our officers, look at this as a challenge and take it personally when these incidents are occurring in the city we patrol, the city we work in, and the city many of us raise our families in,” Cpl. Hoffman said.

“There is a sense of pride in what we do and when major incidents like this occur, it makes all of us want to work even harder to assure the citizens that they’re safe.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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