Wilmington officials need to make tough choices

 City of Wilmington (NewsWorks/file)

City of Wilmington (NewsWorks/file)

Doug Rainey checks in with his thoughts about the selection of Bobby Cummings as chief of the Wilmington Police Dept. 

Here are Doug’s thoughts:

A recent local cable television advertisement underscored a possible turning point for Wilmington.

In the ad, the business (which will go unnamed) made no reference to its location in Wilmington. Instead, the ad noted that its location was a short drive from Greenville, an affluent area outside the city limits.

It serves as evidence that the city is seen as a liability by at least one advertising copywriter and, presumably, his or her client. Left unchecked, it will lead to the perception of Wilmington as a failed city, a category that often includes Camden, N.J., and Chester, Pa.

It does not help that the digital world is quick to develop rankings that may or may not be accurate. In one aggregation of FBI crime statistics, Wilmington ranks as the nation’s most violent small city.

However, efforts from the business community and government are keeping Wilmington from failed-city status. At times, the results have been spectacular, leading to vibrant areas like Trolley Square and the Riverfront. 

Downtown has benefited from the Wilmington Renaissance Corp., a public-private partnership that led the way in redeveloping lower Market Street (LOMA). The Riverfront remains under the control of a state-owned corporation.

More recently, Christiana Care, despite options to expand elsewhere, chose to spend more than $200 million on a new Wilmington hospital and health care campus.

But with a reputation inside the state of Delaware of the city being in tatters, such efforts are rarely mentioned. To repeat the cliché, the “elephant in the room” remains the failure of the city council and mayor to make tough choices.

Endorsements and reassurances

We saw more evidence of the problem last week when Mayor Dennis Williams appointed police department veteran Bobby Cummings as chief. This comes after a campaign pledge by Williams to go outside the department for its new leader.

The need for a fresh strategy in dealing with the city’s high homicide rate was apparent when Williams ran in 2012. Little has changed in the handful of troubled neighborhoods where most of the homicides occur.

In the meantime, some police resources appear to have been shifted to downtown in an effort to reassure a nervous business community, but the flight of small and mid-sized service businesses continues as attractive space in suburban locations becomes available.

While too many of us have witnessed street crime in Wilmington, downtown is actually a fairly safe place. Plenty of crime also takes place in shopping center parking lots. But the risk of more businesses fleeing is simply too great not to “show the flag” in terms of a greater police presence.

Williams, a former city policeman who for a time had a security detail resembling that of the governor, is now on his second chief. Both chiefs came from inside the department.

Cummings may be the answer, although a 29-year career with one department is not normally a recipe for change.

More troubling are endorsements for the new chief. Most centered on an insider being able to move quickly, while an outsider would need several months to get the lay of the land.

That has not stopped other mayors from coming to a different conclusion by recruiting chiefs with proven results in using technology and other tools to cut the crime rate. Neighboring Philadelphia has successfully used outside talent. While results vary, many categories of crime have seen marked declines.

Then we had the following comment:

“I don’t think anybody coming from another city could give an interview like Bobby because he knows this city, he knows the inner-workings of council, he knows the inner-workings of the mayor’s office and the inner-workings of the (police) department,” Wilmington City Councilman and former city policeman Robert Williams told WHYY’s Nichelle Polston.

Regardless of the endorsements, Cummings’ ability to get along with the powers that be will be trumped by a scorecard that judges his performance by homicide totals.

Without a sharp, long-term reduction in that tragic tally, Cummings will be shown the door and the perceived decline of the city will become a reality.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.