New ways of fighting crime in Delaware’s biggest city

This spring, Governor Jack Markell helped the city of Wilmington launch “Operation Pressure Point,” a multi-faceted plan that includes using state police troopers to help city police fight crime, but since the beginning of the year, Wilmington Police have been working on a number of other new initiatives to make Wilmington safer.

Late last month, a 30-year-old Wilmington man was gunned down after opening the door to his apartment on West 28th Street around 8:20 a.m.  The murder was the tenth in the city this year, and since then, homicides are now on pace to match last year at this time.  The 27 murders in the city in 2010 broke the modern record of 26 set in 2008.

Since the start of the year, Wilmington police launched a new effort to arrest “high-risk” offenders. Police say 87% of suspects in violent crimes last year were previously charged with other violent crimes. They also say that out of 178 people shot in the city last year, only eight of those victims did not have criminal records.  And although killings in the city are still on record pace, city police say the number of shooting incidents is down.

Wilmington Police Chief Michael Szczerba says police often deal with the same suspects over and over.  “It’s the constant circle of people we deal with. Whether today they’re the victim, tomorrow they may be the suspect, and they’ll be yesterday’s witness. They’re the constant folks that we have to deal with,” Szczerba says.  

In April, State Police started helping city police patrol the North Market Street corridor as part of Operation Pressure Point.  But Szczerba says, “The Wilmington Police are still the main police agency handling all the calls there, but we have the Delaware State Police there again for high uniform,  high visibility impact.” 

Wilmington Councilman Stephen Martelli (D), who was a member of the Wilmington Police for more than a decade, says a strong, uniformed police presence is a necessity.  “It can’t be we’re going to [use] a band-aid affect.  It can’t be we’re going to throw some uniformed guys at this particular area for a week, and then move them over here.  You have to have a very concerted uniformed presence throughout the entire city.”

Wilmington Councilman Michael Brown (R) says he welcomes Operation Pressure Point, and says the State Police help amounts to something he’s been asking for for a long time: a metropolitan police force.  “This is only going to last a year, so to some degree, it’s just a bandage.  You put a band-aid on there to stop the bleeding for a minute, but the bleeding is still coming through the bandage that you’ve got on there now.”  Brown says, “Some folks would even say that Wilmington is under siege.  And if you go into some neighborhoods, they have a right to say that.”

Getting the State Police to patrol in the city is just a small part of the changing tactics in the department.  Wilmington Police have also launched a cold-case homicide unit, and opened a curfew center at the Walnut Street YMCA for teens caught on the streets after hours.  In just ten nights of use so far this year, 57 teens have been taken to the center.  Wilmington Police Captain Nancy Dietz says, “Out of all shootings, like 20% involve kids that are 18, under the age of 18.  So just simply picking up kids that are out on the street, and taking them to the curfew center in and of itself is a good thing.”

Szczerba says one challenge facing the police department in the coming months and years is attrition.  He says the department is losing about an officer a month through retirement and other reasons.  The current authorized strength of the department now stands at 328.  There are no current plans for a new police academy class, so if things don’t change, the force could soon be short-handed.

See more from our interview with Wilmington Councilman Michael Brown (R) below:

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