New Castle County Council is pressing pause on an effort to expand the county police force.
At its last meeting of 2020, New Castle County Council tabled an increase in the authorized strength of the county police department—from 400 to 415.
The proposed expansion comes during a year when racial justice activists across the country have called for police budgets and the broad responsibilities police are tasked with to be scaled back.
New Castle County Council seems largely in favor of expanding the police force, but members hesitated Tuesday because of unresolved questions about the cost.
The additional New Castle County police officers would help cover the fast-growing area south of the C&D canal.
Councilman David Carter represents part of that area and supports the expansion.
“I can tell you in a rural area, everybody that I talk to says they don’t even bother to call the police down here most of the time,” Carter said during a committee meeting Tuesday. “Their best protection is a loaded gun and a mean dog. That’s not the type of policing mentality I want in my community, so we need a few more bodies.”
County Executive Matt Meyer proposed the expansion to Council last month. He argued that over the past four years specialized units like the behavioral health unit have removed officers from the street— and that increasing the size of the force would address these staffing challenges.
Police Chief Col. Vaughn Bond Jr. told Council Tuesday the expansion is also necessary because of an increase in violent crime. He says New Castle County Police have seen 30 shootings this year, compared to 17 by this point last year. There have been 101 shots fired complaints this year compared to 42 by this point last year. Homicides increased from 5 to 7 in that time.
“The calls for service have gone down,” Bond admitted. “But when you have those more serious criminal offenses taking place, the violent crimes taking place, that consumes several more officers.”
But a majority of Council was not ready to move forward with the expansion Tuesday. Of Council’s 13 members, 9 voted to table the ordinance.
Council members said they had unanswered questions about the total cost, since figures the police department submitted did not include benefits or equipment.
“I’m really uncomfortable with this, because I think people need to know the full amount that they’re voting on,” said Councilwoman Lisa Diller.
The police department initially estimated the expansion would cost $260,579 for the rest of this fiscal year, $845,610 next fiscal year starting in July, and $887,880 for Fiscal Year 2023. But those estimates do not include benefits, training or equipment such as weapons or police vehicles.
Public Safety Fiscal Officer Karla Jones told Council the total cost next fiscal year would likely be around $1.4 million and will be included in the department’s budget request.
It is unclear whether the police department could realistically fill the 15 new positions it is proposing.
The department is already understaffed by 32 officers, and 64 more are eligible to retire in 2021. The current police academy is expected to graduate 22 new officers.
The 15 new positions would be rolled into the next police academy starting in May.
Councilman Jea Street, co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, plans to vote against the expansion.
“When they get to 400, then they should come back and ask for the 415,” he said. “I think it’s premature.”