Del. PD to revitalize community policing unit
Dover City Council voted unanimously to approve a federal cost-share grant that would add five officers for the new unit
By Emily Lytle
Dover Post, Del.
DOVER, Del. — Dover Police Chief Tom Johnson and Mayor Robin Christiansen agreed that the police department is moving into a new age, and that creating a solid community policing unit is going to help with that vision.
“It was one of the biggest pieces of what I saw as the puzzle of what the new version of the Dover Police Department is going to look like,” Johnson said. “I was fortunate to arrive and find a very strong organization with an agency that had incredibly talented people. [It] just needed more resources.”
Dover City Council voted unanimously to approve a federal cost-share grant, called the COPS Grant Award, Aug. 24. It allows the police department to hire five more officers, raising its authorized strength from 101 to 106 officers.
The additional five officers will form a revitalized community policing unit.
What is community policing?
The police chief, mayor and Councilman Ralph Taylor, chair of the Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee, all used a common phrase when describing community policing: relationship building.
Christiansen recalled growing up and always knowing who the community police officer was in his neighborhood. “The police officer who walked the beat in my neighborhood … he knew every family in the area that he patrolled on foot. He’d stop and play stick ball with us,” Christiansen said. “He knew us. He knew all of our families.”
Johnson said the Dover Police Department used to have a community policing unit of four full-time officers and one resource supervisor who directed operations. “Then, we started running into staffing challenges for reasons outside of our control,” Johnson said, referring to mass retirements or transfers. “Suddenly department strength was down and you still have to make sure patrol is staffed adequately.”
The community policing unit started to dwindle as officers shifted responsibilities to make sure the department could answer all the 911 calls and calls for service.
Also a retired Dover police officer, Taylor said the police department had built a strong relationship with the community, but the staffing challenges made it difficult to maintain. He believes the five new officers are going to make a difference.
“They are going to give the city the opportunity to help [rebuild] those relationships that have eroded over the years,” he said.
Community police officers are visible at community events and available to educate the community on safety issues, Johnson said. For example, around Labor Day, they would hand out information about the importance of not driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
“We’re there when the neighborhood is having a block party. We’re there when the Little League is getting ready for the playoffs,” Johnson said. “We can not only show support for the community function, [but] we’re there to answer questions.”
Once COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings are lifted, Johnson hopes to hold events with the youth in Dover and focus on mentorship programs.
Each community policing program is designed to fit the people it serves, he said. By partnering with community members, civic organizations and faith leaders, the officers in the community policing unit get to know the people better, so they can serve them better.
These officers can keep a record that will help with future calls. Johnson gave an example: If a call comes in for a fire, and the police know that one of the residents uses a wheelchair, they can communicate that to the fire chief and better coordinate service.
Christiansen agreed with Johnson that creating a sense of familiarity will help build trust and prevent crime. “It’s going to be a win-win situation for the police department...and for the citizens that we serve and help to bring our crime rates down, which [have] elevated over the last two years,” he said.
When Councilman Tim Slavin introduced the COPS grant discussion Aug. 24, he said the citizens of Dover want to know that, “we’re not trying to arrest our way out of problems like addiction. We’re not trying to arrest our way out of problems like poverty,” he said. “They just want to know that it’s not just business as usual.”
He said he supports the chief’s initiative and then introduced the motion that unanimously passed and created positions for five more Dover police officers.
How the COPS grant works
The U.S. Department of Justice has awarded Dover $125,000 per officer that the department plans to hire. That means the city receives a total of $625,000 over about three years.
This pays for part of the cost of hiring the five new officers. After the first three years, the funding fades away, and the city is expected to pay the rest. The federal money helps to make sure the initial cost is not a big hit to the city’s budget, Johnson said.
Before council decided to accept the grant, Johnson had extended offers of employment to eight people to fill existing vacancies. Those eight people will join Dover’s new police academy in October and graduate as officers by mid-winter.
Once they fill the vacant positions, bringing the force up from 93 officers to 101, Johnson can transfer veteran officers into the community policing unit.
Taylor said using veteran officers will make a huge impact. “They’re going to be officers who know the community and know the citizens,” he said. “We’re going to get back on a first name basis with our community.”
Johnson said he is excited to see the unit come together. “I’m just a fan of watching it all come together, and I’m incredibly proud of what the officers, from the newest to my most seasoned supervisor, what they’ve been able to do together as a group to get us to this point,” he said. “Now, it’s our overarching goal to make everyone proud.”
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