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10/1/2008
NCCo unveils plan to increase police department 35 percent over 5 years - Community News

By Jesse Chadderdon
Community News
Posted Oct 01, 2008 @ 01:06 PM
Last update Oct 07, 2008 @ 08:27 AM
________________________________________
Wilmington, Del. —

New Castle County wants to add 117 officers and 12 civilians to its police force over the next five years – an effort officials say will cut response times and allow officers to do more proactive patrolling and community policing.

And next week, officials are prepared to roll out a similar plan for 911 operators.

Put together, the proposals will cost $1.7 million this year and $3.5 million in each of the next four. That’s equivalent to a 4 percent property tax increase, said Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Bullock, something he was very frank with the County Council about when he briefed them at a Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday afternoon.

“Do not authorize us to move forward with these plans if you’re not willing to pay for them,” he warned at the outset of his remarks.

The proposal comes nearly a year after several Council members challenged the administration to put together a report detailing a path forward for the police department. With 364 authorized positions – 336 of which are full-time operational officers – some were concerned the department could not adequately meet the demands of a growing county, where property crimes are on the rise.

Burglaries and thefts both spiked in 2007, with roughly one quarter of them being solved. That’s actually above the national average of 20 percent, but it’s not acceptable to Col. Rick Gregory.

In total, officials estimate the department’s Property Division – made up of five officers – handles 1,500 cases annually. Delaware has also seen the most significant increase in the nation in auto thefts, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, something officials frankly say they simply are unable to adequately investigate.

“The number one thing I hear at community meetings is the need for more police, and the second thing I here is that when the police did come, they did a wonderful job and were a pleasure to work with,” said Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan (D-Newark).

Gregory said if the five-year plan got the blessing of Council, the department could ultimately solve 35 percent of burglaries and reduce crime in the County by 10 percent. He also said he hoped the department could cut its average response time to property crimes from two hours to one hour. Getting to a scene earlier is critical when it comes to gathering evidence and talking with witnesses, officers said.

“It’s not that we don’t have good detectives and it’s not that we don’t have good forensics,” Gregory said. “But at the end of the day, we work on the cases that have the highest probability of being solved or are part of a trend in a specific area.”

There is some good news. Violent crimes are slightly down here and far more of them are being solved than the national average. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. While murder rates have stayed relatively stagnant at 10-12 per year, Gregory said the homicide trend has moved from domestic incidents with known suspects to drug related murders that are far more difficult to solve.

“The pressure on public safety is going to continue to increase,” Bullock said. “We can sit back and hope things get better or we can take the steps now to meet the needs of our community in the years to come. We’re OK now…we’re not in crisis, but we can kind of see the writing on the wall.”

Councilman Jea Street (D-Wilmington South), who co-chairs the Council’s Public Safety Committee and has led the calls for more officers, agreed.

“With the strength we have now we’ve been able to exceed the national average (on arrests),” Street said. “If we want to maintain that with all the growth here, the only way to do that is to increase our strength.”

Also of concern is the amount of time officers are spending responding to calls for service. According to the department, 76 percent of the average officer’s shift is spent responding to 911 calls and following up on administrative activities.

That means there’s not a lot of time for officers to do community policing that allow them to build relationships and trust with the people living in the communities they are working in.

“Only 24 percent of their time is uncommitted time, when they’re doing what we want them to be doing – proactive, preventative patrols,” Gregory said. “And even that is broken up into pieces of 5 or 10 minutes throughout their shifts.”
Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle) said he believed that kind of policing is central to the department’s ability to prevent crime.

“Community contact is a crucial, crucial part of being able to move forward and solve more crime,” Smiley said. “Once we are able to create that comfort level, people are more comfortable with coming forward with tips.”

Joseph Lavelle, who heads the County's Fraternal Order of Police, said the rank and file would be very supportive of the proposal. He said not being able to get to quality-of-life complaints in a timely manner is frustrating for officers.

If the five-year plan is approved, Gregory said he believes officers will ultimately be able to spend half their time doing community policing. By adding between 20 and 25 officers each year, each patrol squad would get an additional 17 officers and two sergeants, bringing each to 95 officers.

The 12 civilians would be used to free up officers currently handling finger-printing and other administrative jobs.

“This is a lot to swallow,” Gregory conceded. “But if you think about a five year plan and what could happen with growth and the trends in crime, I’m very pleased we’re here talking about it.”

Council members were universal in their praise for the police department, but many were cautious about taking a position on the proposal before first going to their constituents.

“I want to digest it,” said Councilman Timothy Sheldon (D-Pike Creek). “I have to go to my community with it and ask them if they want more police or not and then ask them if they want to pay for them or not.”

Councilman Joseph Reda (D-Elsmere) agreed.

“Most people complain they don’t have enough police now, but the public has to be told its going to cost them,” he said.
But Smiley, a co-chair of the Council’s Finance Committee, said he was supportive of the plan and would back a tax increase in order to pay for it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we need to increase our police presence,” Smiley said. “I’m comfortable going to my constituents and saying this is justified. What good are nice parks, nice libraries and other amenities if the citizens of New Castle County don’t feel comfortable going to and from their homes.”

County Executive Chris Coons has dubbed a tax increase specifically for police as a “pay as you go” program and said he hoped the public would be supportive of an increase when the revenues went directly to public safety. With an academy scheduled for December 8, council approval will be sought next month so that the 22 officers designated for year one can be hired.

“We are committed to ensuring safe communities for our children and families, and this plan will give the department the additional resources it needs,” Coons said. “I hope the members of council will share my view that this is a worthy investment for our county.”

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