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October 1,  2008

County Council asked to
provide for more cops

Responding to what it sees as strong public demand, the Coons administration will ask County Council to expand the county police force by more than a third over the next five years. 

Key goal of the expansion is to reduce the overall crime rate in the county by 10%.

If Council agrees to the proposal as quickly as it will be asked to do, the expansion could get underway as soon as December when a new police academy class is scheduled to begin training.

The proposal, nearly a year in the making, is to increase authorized strength of the force from the present 364 officers, by 117 more officers and 12 civilian positions before the end of fiscal year 2013. Twenty-two officers would be added and seven freed from administrative-type assignments by hiring civilians during the remainder of the current fiscal year.

Expanding police strength is the larger of two components of a public safety proposal presented to a meeting of Council's public safety committee on Sept. 30. When time ran out because members were obligated to begin their bi-weekly plenary session, the committee meeting was adjourned for a week. When it resumes, members will hear a proposal for additional staffing of its emergency communications operation.

Together, the two "separate but related" proposals will cost $1.7 million this fiscal year and $3.5 million in each of the next four fiscal years, according to the county's chief administrative officer Jeffrey Bullock.

Acting chief financial officer Edward Milowicki said that would be equivalent to a 4% to 5% increase in the property-tax rate.

Bullock laid down a blunt challenge to Council: "Do not move forward to authorize these plans if you're not willing to pay for them."

The $15.7 million public safety proposals come in the wake of a $7 million proposal to significantly upgrade the county's sanitary- and storm-sewer network to comply with an environmental mandate to eliminate overflows into the Delaware River by the end of 2018 that was put before Council on Sept. 23. That will require a 5% to 7% increase in sewer fees.

The increases cannot occur before the fiscal year which begins July 1, 2009. Meanwhile, both will be have to be financed by dipping into reserves.

"We're not in an emergency; we're not in a crisis," Bullock said. "But the pressure on our public safety services is going to continue."

Council members did not respond per se to the police-expansion plan, but there appears to be a consensus among them that the adequacy of police protection is the primary topic at civic meetings and in other interactions with constituents. Public safety committee co-chairmen Bill Bell and Jea Street, in particular, have long been outspoken advocates of a stronger force.

Police chief Rick Gregory gave the committee a detailed briefing which, in substance, seemed to indicate that the force is providing the public with a reasonable degree of protection but is stretched too thin to do all that it, and the public, would like to have it do. That boils down to being almost entirely responsive to calls for service and not doing enough in the way of community policing and preventive patrolling.

Right now, he said, a typical tour of duty has an officer "going from call, to call, to call."

"We can't ask our officers to do more than they are doing. They are maxed out," he said.

Adding officers and civilians in support roles will enable the force to beef up both patrol and detective divisions, he said. Effects of that would not be seen, however, until after the current fiscal year ends. It takes nine months of both academic and on-the-job training before an officer is fully qualified for duty.

Gregory said eventual goals of the expansion are to increase the amount of time officers are not committed to responding to calls from the present average of 24% to 50% and cutting in half the time it takes to respond to a call. Response time, he said, now ranges from seven-and-a half minutes for the highest priority calls to two hours for route low-priority calls.

The county police force covers unincorporated areas and municipalities which do not have their own forces. Wilmington, Newark, Middletown, Elsmere, New Castle and Newport as well as the University of Delaware have their own forces.

The more non-committed time that is available the more officers are free to follow up on complaints, provide surveillance directed by trends in criminal activity and "to create early intervention of potential problems," he said.

Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan said that comes down to allowing county police to be "proactive as well as reactive."

Gregory said the increase in authorized strength being sought is not an arbitrary number but one that was calculated by a formula worked out with the University of Delaware's urban affairs department. He said it will be possible to recruit the personnel necessary to fill the authorized positions. "We have a good base of applicants, he said. "I'm confident we can do it."

The staffing analysis called for in a resolution enacted by Council in November, 2007, was conducted entirely in-house.

Bullock said the conclusions reached concerning the need relative to population growth and increases in crimes are both realistic and attainable.

"We need to enter this with our eyes wide open," he said.

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