June 8, 2005

Police officers whose duties normally have them riding desks will spend two weeks between now and Labor Day cruising through neighborhoods as part of an effort to beef up the county police force to deal with the usual summertime spurt in crime.

Chief David McAllister told County Council's public safety committee that the past practice of having officers in administrative positions take turns at street duty on selected nights during the season has been expanded this year to give squad commanders an average of five additional officers every night. The arrangement began during the Memorial Day weekend.

All officers are trained and fully qualified for patrol duty, but a major consideration is the deterrent effect of visible police presence, he explained.

He and public safety director Guy Sapp revealed that a complete review of how the force is deployed is underway. Included, they said, is a study of how both the county and the state force can augment the Wilmington police force in combating drug and drug-related crime on a continuing basis.

"We're in the process of trying to determine what's the best path forward," Sapp said at a committee meeting on Jun. 7.

He said the cooperative talks center on "several techniques that will lead to a long-term solution," but did not offer any substantive hints about what they might be. He did acknowledge concern that any arrangements agreed upon not diminish the county force's effectiveness in unincorporated suburban areas.

Council members George Smiley and Joseph Reda urged Sapp to tread carefully in that regard. "I'm not willing to sacrifice the strides that have been made," Smiley said.

In a broader context, there seemed to be general agreement that the county will have to increase the size of its police force to keep pace with the rate of new development and population growth. Discussion at the meeting, however, skirted the basic questions of how much and how soon.

Councilman Jea Street reiterated his previous call for a significant increase in police manpower. "There's no question about it -- we need more cops and we need them now," he said. Councilwoman Patty Powell said it is particularly critical to match the rapid pace of development in the area of the county south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

At present, the authorized strength of the county force is 357. There are 12 vacancies and, as Delaforum previously reported, 20 on military leave as a result of the Iraq war and Afghanistan campaign.

Material distributed at the meeting indicated that there are about 225 officers on patrol duty, about 45 detectives and about 25 on special units such as the horse-mounted troop and the canine unit, Sapp said interviews are now being conducted with potential candidates for a police academy class next autumn or winter.

State Police has about 200 officers in New Castle County.

Street suggested that it "may be time to revisit" the jurisdictional agreement between county and state forces. In general terms the agreement provides for the state to serve areas defined by major highways while the county handles suburban developments and neighborhoods.

The deployment review, among other things, will measure how New Castle County's force stacks up against other jurisdictions that are comparable not only in population but also the rate of calls for service, Sapp said.

Also under consideration is the fact that the amount of crime and number of calls for service varies widely throughout the county. McAllister said the busiest district encompasses the area around New Castle Avenue, Du Pont Parkway and Pulaski Highway with the area west of Interstate 95 and around Newark running a close second. He said the volume drops off considerably in the northern district and south of the canal.

Another consideration, McAllister said, is that development has significantly impacted response time. "With the traffic, it takes considerably longer to get from one place in the county to another than it used to," he said.

The department, Sapp said, is about to propose legislation to deal with the significant problem of having to divert officers to respond to automatic alarms in residences and businesses, all but a tiny portion of which turn out to be false. He indicated that the proposal is likely to call for fines for falsely triggering more than three alarms. The intent, however, will not be to raise revenue but to provide an inducement for those who have alarms "to learn how to use their systems correctly," he said.

Councilman William Bell, who chairs the committee, said that the size of the force and its deployment will require balancing need against resources. "If we need more cops, we have to find out how to fund them," he said.

It costs $109,000 a year to put an officer on the street, McAllister said. That includes salary and employee benefits as well as the cost of equipment he or she requires.

The federal government is not a likely source of financial assistance to expand the force, he explained.

"There's no money [available] for any hiring purposes," he said. "There's a lot of money for equipment from [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security, but no boots-on-the-ground so far."

2005. All rights reserved.

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