Enlighten Me: Dover Police cadet program sees smooth start, despite concerns
It's been about two months since the Dover Police Department sent its new police cadets onto downtown streets. The cadets are part-timers who are trained to give citations but not make arrests.
Local merchants say the program has made the shopping district feel safer -- and so far, concerns about how cadets are armed haven't been realized. Delaware Public Media's Annie Ropeik followed two cadets as they walked their beat on Tuesday, and has more.
Just before 10 a.m. on a quiet, muggy morning in downtown Dover, local shops are opening their doors, and police cadets Logan Spicer and Lee Killem -- ages 19 and 20 -- are on patrol.
Spicer and Killem wear bright blue shirts with "police cadet" stamped on the back, radios on their shoulders and Tasers and pepper spray on their hips. They're two of six new cadets who've been out issuing citations and getting to know downtown merchants over the past several weeks.
Inside the Brunch and Lunch on Loockerman Street, owner Domonique Williams jokes around with the cadets. His restaurant's only been open a couple of months, but he says he's already seen the program make a difference in the neighborhood.
"They come in all the time, they make sure we're alright," Williams says. "Sometimes people like to come sit in the seats, they don't really come in to buy anything. If [the cadets are] walking by, they'll come in and say, 'Hey, are these guys bothering you?' You know, they're good."
The cadets mainly deal with people loitering, panhandling, drinking or urinating in public. They can't make arrests, but they have been the first on-scene for a handful of drug crimes.
And while they went through the same psychological and physical evaluations and interviews they'd need to enter the full police force, Killem says not being fully-fledged officers hasn’t created major problems.
"Some people want to challenge you, and challenge that you don't know the law, but we haven't had anything too serious," he says. "Most of it's just been they thought they knew the law better than we did, and it wasn't the case. They were actually wrong."
Killem, Spicer and other cadets are hoping to apply to join the force full-time when they turn 21. The cadet program isn't required before the academy, but police department spokesman Mark Hoffman says it doesn't hurt to cultivate the next generation -- especially since 30 percent of the force will soon be eligible for retirement.
"We look at it as our farm team, basically," Hoffman says of the cadet program. "It gives us an idea of how they perform, gets them the experience they need, and it gives us an idea of whether they can handle the full-time responsibilities of a police officer or not."
Dover's cadets get the same kind of training as seasonal officers in Delaware's beach towns. Rehoboth, for one, more than doubles its force in the summer. The seasonal hires work full-time hours, and make misdemeanor arrests. But they only carry pepper spray, not Tasers like Dover’s cadets.
That was a sticking point for some before Dover's cadet program got off the ground. Delaware ACLU executive director Kathleen Macrae says they're still worried about entrusting what can be a deadly weapon to officers with less training -- but she says they haven't had any complaints so far. And Spicer and Killem say the training they did receive left them feeling confident in the field.
"We haven't been unprepared for any situation we've encountered," Killem says. "They did a good job of preparing us."
But just like with Rehoboth's seasonal officers, the biggest role for Dover's cadets is public relations. The department is still mired in a civil rights lawsuit after an officer was caught on dash cam kicking a suspect in the face in 2013. Cpl. Hoffman, the Dover spokesman, says their cadets are doing important work by talking with residents and being a face for the department downtown.
Back on Loockerman Street, the cadets have stopped in Forney's Jewelry Store, where a chocolate lab named Stella is greeting them like old friends, panting and rolling around at their feet. Behind the counter, assistant manager Amy Macheska says the cadets do a good service.
"We have less complaints of people standing on the street, and everybody loves to have them around," she says -- including her dogs.
Plus, with the cadets on foot patrols, full-time officers can do more work in other neighborhoods. That's been especially necessary this year, with more homicides on the books since January than in all of 2014. The fifth and latest was on Monday, when 35-year-old Jamal Weeks was shot dead just east of downtown. The department is also still short more than a dozen full-time officers.
Still, Cpl. Hoffman says the cadets' impact should have a ripple effect throughout the city -- statistically and otherwise.
"By combating a lot of those little quality of life issues, you're going to push out the major issues as well," he says, referring to what's known as broken windows theory. "And ultimately it's not about numbers … it's about making people feel safe and being welcome downtown again. And that's what we want to do, is create that friendly environment. They can come down, they can say hello to the cadets, they can wave to them as they walk by. But ultimately they know that somebody's going to be there at all times and they don't have to worry about that stuff anymore."
The cadet program is grant-funded for at least the next two years. Down the line, Hoffman says they hope to hire up to 12 cadets total and put some of them on bicycles. And they plan to ask the city for a code change to expand the cadets' patrol area to nearby housing projects.