Present Police Plans
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GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council wasn't particularly enthusiastic about two proposals to increase police protection in the county at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001.
Delaware Senator George H. Bunting Jr. (D-20th) asked council to fund 20 state police officers to help fight what he feels is a drug epidemic in the county, while Sussex County Sheriff Robert Reed presented a proposal to create a county police department out of the existing sheriff department with 32 deputies and a dozen administrative and support staff.
While council members agreed there aren't enough police officers serving the county, they were cool to both plans, citing the costs of Sen. Bunting's proposal and the responsbility of the county to pay for it, and the logistics of operating a county police force as requested by Sheriff Reed.
Following are looks at both plans.
Sen. Bunting's Plan
Photo: Sen. George H. Bunting Jr. (D-20th) requests funding for 20 more state troopers from county council.
Following up on one of his campaign promises last November, Sen. Bunting started the presentations with a plea to the council members' sense of duty to protect its citizens from the ravages of the drug trade.
Sen. Bunting said he is most concerned that when law-abiding citizens call state police about drug deals that the state troopers can't respond in timely fashion because they are undermanned.
He said that he personally has witnessed the effects of the drug trade since he and his wife agreed to care for two local boys whose family was destroyed by drugs. He said the boys regularly point out people they know to be involved in the drug trade either as buyers or sellers.
He said the problem has become particularly acute in unincorporated areas as municipal police departments have driven drug dealers into the relatively police-free unincorporated sections of the county.
"It's up to us as leaders to provide law enforcement to be a preventative medicine and also so when our constituents call, the state police can respond in a reasonable time," Sen. Bunting said. "It's our responsibility as a county to provide adequate funding and the wherewithal (to fight drugs)."
Sussex County Administrator Robert L. Stickels said Sen. Bunting's plan to pay and equip 20 state troopers would cost the county $1.8 million the first year and $1.047 million in the second year.
As for the price tag, Sen. Bunting said his fellow legislators in the Delaware General Assembly have been telling him not to expect any more police funding (the state and county currently split the costs of 12 state troopers in the county).
"When I go to the General Assembly and ask for these funds, I know the answer will be, 'You have the money to do it yourself. You need to start taking care of your own business down there.' If it was a scenario where we couldn't afford it, I'd say we should go look for the funds. But that's not the case."
Council President Dale Dukes said the county shouldn't pay for state police and that the county provides significant revenue to the state already through the realty transfer tax that could generate $15 million this year.
"I question that we need to step up to the plate," said Dukes. "I feel they are state police and not county police. I know we need them, but I think we disagree on where the money should come from."
In response to a reference from Sen. Bunting that New Castle County spends $44 million on its 327-member county police force compared to Sussex County's $350,000 payment for its 12 state troopers, Councilman George Cole said the amount of money New Castle County has spent has done little good to stem the drug trade there.
"New Castle County spends $44 million and still has a drug problem," he said. "And if you spend another $44 million, you'll still have a problem."
Cole said he would prefer to continue the partnership with the state police rather than "starting something new".
Stickels also jumped on the $44 million figure, saying "That's why New Castle County's taxes are four times higher than ours."
Sheriff Reed's Plan
Photo: Sheriff Robert Reed listens to questions on his proposal to establish a 32-deputy county police force.
Sheriff Reed, who has been in a battle with county council and the state over his department's powers since taking office two years ago, emphasized what he believes is a need to have a locally controlled police force in the county versus a state-controlled force.
"We believe now is the time to enhance local law enforcement," said Reed, who presented his plan along with Lt. Jeff Christopher of the sheriff's department.
"Expanding the sheriff's office is a wise choice because the office is already in existence and is currently under-utilized. It is an office of the people of Sussex County, where people will have an active voice ensuring the sheriff and deputies serve them well."
Sheriff Reed said his proposal, even if no grants could be found to defray the costs of establishing and operating a county police force, would cost the county $884,503 in Year 1, $294,628 in Year 2, and $459,024 in Year 3.
Those figures include the elimination of the county's payment to the Delaware State Police and the $348,000 already budgeted for the sheriff's department now.
He said that his program would save the county $4.074 million in those three years compared to the cost of the state troopers under Sen. Bunting's plan.
Reed said deputies would remain in the county as opposed to state police who might be pulled out to address major crimes in other counties, and that the county would be able to control the department's budget growth because it controls the department's budget.
Reed and Lt. Jeff Christopher said they would set up three 8-man, 12-hour shifts per day, with deputies working 12 hours on and 12 hours off and 4 days on and 4 days off.
The shifts would be divided into East, West and North districts with two deputies in each district backed up by two roving deputies per shift. They would patrol roads not usually patrolled by other police forces.
The department would focus on three areas: 1. Community Policing; 2. Drug Enforcement; 3. Traffic Enforcement. They said a major part of their drug enforcement efforts would come from their community policing activities.
"We have to get back into the communities," said Lt. Christopher. "We have to get back in touch with the people in the communities in order for them to be our eyes and ears so we can be an effective force."
Councilman Lynn Rogers was deeply critical of the sheriff's proposal.
"You've said many times that you're not in favor of a county police force, so I'm not surprised that you come here with your fantasy today," Rogers said.
"I will reaffirm my concern that we need to support our state police with possibly more money. I think it (county police force) would end up being a fiscal nightmare that would be a cancer that would grow out of control. Looking at the map of the size of this county with the force that you're suggesting we could do, it wouldn't even be a fragmented group of security guards. That's the way it would be. That's my opinion, I will stick to my opinion, and I think we need to nix this thing before it gets legs and gets running."
Other council members weren't as emphatic. Councilman George Cole suggested putting the issue to a referendum to let the voters decide once and for all if they want a county police force. Sheriff Reed said he would have no problem with that.
Cole added that because the county subsidizes fire service, he could see it subsidizing police service, as well.
Sheriff Reed invited three sheriffs from Maryland to discuss how they handle their law enforcement duties. Reed introduced Sheriff Hunter Nelms of Wicomico County, Sheriff Bill McKelvy of Dorchester County, and Sheriff Charles Martin of Worcester County.
Nelms said his department has effectively addressed the crack cocaine problem in Wicomico County and has formed the Wicomico County Narcotics Task Force with Salisbury City Police and Maryland State Police.
The Wicomico Sheriff's Department has grown from 19 deputies to 78 deputies since Nelms first took office in 1984. There are an additional 33 staffers in the department, which has its own canine division, a criminal investigations division, police communications specialists, a D.A.R.E. program, a sheriff's school police resource program, and a licensing and gaming unit.
Those 78 deputies cover 368 square miles and a population of 83,000 people compared to Sussex County's 960 square miles and population of 140,000 during the winter and more than 250,000 during the summer.
"If I've learned any one thing in the years I've been sheriff since 1984, it's that law enforcement does not solve the drug problem," said Sheriff Nelms, a former police chief in Delmar. "That problem is going to have to be solved through education and rehabilitation. The very best that we can do is try to give the community a sense of safety in that you keep the problem off the streets, you try to keep the crime associated with drugs at a minimum. Another thing we have learned is that a majority of the crime in our community has drugs in its background."
Best Solution to Drug Problem
State Sen. George H. Bunting Jr. of Bethany Beach promised during the November 2000 election to do something about the drug problem eating away at some of the communities in his 20th Senatorial District. And he kept his word during the Sussex County Council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001.
In fact, his request that the county pay for 20 additional state troopers to fight drugs in the county struck nerves not only with councilmen who don't believe the county should be responsible for paying for state troopers, but also with Sussex County Sheriff Robert Reed, who quickly put together a proposal for a 32-deputy county police force when he learned of Sen. Bunting's plans.
Sheriff Reed has been battling state and county officials over the Constitutional powers of his office for nearly two years now, and with this proposal we now know that his vision has been to establish a county police force despite his claims that he had no such intentions or desires.
Sheriff Reed went way beyond Sen. Bunting's request for drug enforcement officers by proposing a department for whom drug enforcement would be one of only three priorities, the others being community policing and traffic enforcement.
We don't think the county needs more traffic enforcement given the constant presence of municipal and state police on our roads, but it does need community policing in the unincorporated areas, which would lend itself to drug enforcement activities.
Like Councilman Lynn Rogers, however, we are concerned about the sheriff's proposal on a couple of fronts.
First, like Councilman Rogers, we don't believe a 32-officer department will be able to significantly deter drug trafficking in the county while trying to serve papers, make traffic stops, embark on a community policing program, take training programs, and tangle with the time-consuming tasks of filing arrest reports and making court appearances.
True, community policing and traffic stops will lead to drug arrests, but when you compare Sussex County's needs to what Wicomico County's sheriff's department has grown into, we wonder how these 32 officers -- or just 8 officers per shift -- will be able to effectively implement a community policing program over an area as wide as Sussex County.
Consider that Wicomico County has 78 deputies covering just 368 square miles and serving 83,000 people. Then, consider that Sussex County has more than 960 square miles, more than 140,000 year-round residents, and more than 250,000 people here during the summer months.
Also consider that under the sheriff's proposal that the county would discontinue its partnership with the state to fund 12 state troopers in the county, and you have a net gain of only 20 officers, or the same number of officers Sen. Bunting has requested to work on drug enforcement alone.
Sheriff Reed has also forgotten that he wasn't voted into office to operate a 44-person police department (including support staff) stopping motorists, making arrests, etc. He was voted into office to head a handful of deputies serving court papers and transporting criminals.
We don't disagree with Sheriff Reed's contention that a local police force focusing on community policing would benefit the county's unincorporated areas more than another state police contingent, but we wouldn't favor any such move without voter approval, either through a referendum or through the next election for sheriff, when the voters would understand they were voting for a police chief.
We encourage the sheriff to stay at this because his idea has some merit. In the meantime, we hope the county and state can come to some agreement that will allow the county to start taking drug traffickers off the streets now.
We also think all parties involved in this discussion should heed the words of Wicomico County Sheriff Hunter Nelms, whose department has battled a serious crack cocaine problem and all of the resulting criminal activities for years.
"If I've learned any one thing in the years I've been sheriff since 1984, it's that law enforcement does not solve the drug problem," he told council. "The problem is going to have to be solved through education and rehabilitation."
The drug problem is a war, and Sen. Bunting, a Vietnam veteran, knows the consequences of entering a war without a realistic plan for victory. Neither he nor Sheriff Reed presented a realistic plan on Tuesday for winning this war.
We believe the best option for fighting the drug war here would be the creation of a narcotics task force combining state, county and municipal law enforcement resources like the task force that Sheriff Nelms says has been so successful in Wicomico County, and private efforts to dry up the demand for drugs through education and rehabilitation.
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