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Dover City Council debates downtown police substation plan

Dover council.jpg
Paul Kiefer / Delaware Public Media
A Dover city council meeting on April 26, 2022.

A Dover city council discussion Tuesday night stirred debate about downtown revitalization and longstanding public safety concerns there.

City councilman Ralph Taylor brough forward a proposal to turn a vacant commercial space along Loockerman St. into a police substation to increase visible officer presence in the area, where he says development has stagnated because of unchecked crime. The proposed location of the substation is roughly a half-mile from the Dover Police Department's current headquarters.

Business owners and downtown residents complained of break-ins, assaults and vandalism driving away customers; others cited slow response times by police and paramedics. The co-owner of an artisanal food store described watching recently released patients from the nearby hospital wandering through downtown in crisis, and one downtown landlord—the owner of the building that would house the proposed substations—said that tenants in one of his downtown office spaces regularly broke their leases because they feared for their safety.

But Dover police chief Thomas Johnson says a brick-and-mortar substation offers less flexibility than officers in cruisers parked nearby.

"Brick-and-mortar police stations have limited usefulness for the problems we're trying to solve," he said. "Once you establish them, the problems often move just far enough away to be out of sight from the substation."

He also noted that a substation would require staffing, which would require him to pull some of his officers off the street.

"Allow me to have mobility for my officers rather than keeping them in a fixed position," he said. If the council wanted to use the station to detain people temporarily, Johnson noted, the costs of bringing the space up to federal standards could drastically increase the cost of the project.

The council and Dover PD previously planned to launch a mobile police substation that could serve any city neighborhood; the mobile substation would eventually have included behavioral health care providers alongside uniformed officers. That plan stalled during the pandemic, though several council members and community members argued on Tuesday that the council should focus on bringing that plan into reality.

Downtown Dover Partnership operations manager Tina Bradbury says most business owners simply want increased police presence, mobile or not.

"The bottom line is whether it’s mobile, brick and mortar, on foot or on a bicycle, we need to do more and create a presence," she said.

Some at the meeting, like NAACP of Central Delaware President Fleur McKendall, question whether a larger police presence can address the roots of downtown Dover’s woes.

"Investing in law enforcement to address homelessness, poverty and substance abuse has proven time and time again to be a failed policy,” she said.

Meanwhile, Council President Roy Sudler Jr. took the meeting as an opportunity to propose prohibiting panhandling — which he described as a contributor to the unsafe atmosphere downtown — within city limits. After a court challenge, the City of Wilmington repealed its panhandling ban in 2020.

"I know people say you can't do it," Sudler said of his proposal, "but times have changed."

Andre Boggerty, the city's councilman-at-large, says that attempting to revitalize downtown Dover through policing and prohibitions on panhandling wouldn't have the desired effect, though he remains supportive of the original mobile substation plan.

"I think we need to set realistic goals about how we manage downtown's problems," he said, "but thinking we’re going to be able to make them go away just by putting a brick-and-mortar substation there seems a little far-fetched."

A long-term plan that involves connecting people to behavioral health interventions, he said, would be a more effective way to manage Dover's public safety problems than arrests alone.

Johnson, along with a representative from Delaware's Department of Justice, also argued that arrests alone won't be the key to revitalizing downtown Dover, in part because charges for minor infractions likely would not hold up in court.

The council did not take any action on the proposal on Tuesday night; city staff have not yet determined how much the downtown substation would cost.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.