Search for Solutions to Violence is Ongoing
by Esteban Parra, Adam Wagner, and Xerxes Wilson
February 7, 2015
Delaware’s largest city is hurting.
Thirty-eight days into the new year, 20 people have been shot, seven of them fatally. Businesses have begun to publicly rumble about moving out if the crime problem isn’t solved.
But there is action being taken.
Wilmington police have started receiving help from their county brethren, Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams told The News Journal on Friday. County and city police leadership plan to meet daily to determine how to move forward, Williams said.
“The support they’re giving us has supplemented us on the street,” Williams said, adding the New Castle County units will stay in city limits even after the police academy graduates its 34 new cadets in May.
New Castle County police Col. Elmer Setting confirmed they will have a Mobile Enforcement Team in the city Sunday consisting of five officers and a supervisor. The MET units, a concept Setting developed before becoming chief, will handle quality of life issues.
“The MET concept is a very clean, clear concept,” Settings said. “It is a derivative of the broken windows theory.”
These teams will go into the city when they are needed. “If they ask for help on a particular day, for a particular time frame, I’m going to be able to do that,” he said.
Williams said he also is asking for 10 more people to monitor the city’s security cameras in hopes of providing around-the-clock coverage, a request that would cost $460,000. These latest attempts to curb street crime come less than two weeks after Williams announced the redeployment of 28 officers to the city’s high-crime areas at peak times.
Adding additional police is a typical reaction to outbursts of violence, but that’s not enough, said Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“City officials have to do something,” Butts said. “They don’t know where to turn. They don’t have the luxury of making long-term investments to build strong communities, so they turn to the quick solution. … If you never make those long-term investments, then you live in a constant state of emergency.”
It seems Williams is aware of that and has outlined plans to bolster the city’s social services.
The mayor wants to keep some community centers and schools open late and plans to ask for an additional $1.7 million in funding that would help expand the city’s Cure Violence program while also bringing a youth intervention program back to the police department.
Williams outlined another prong of his plan at a YMCA event last weekend, saying he would ask for $1 million from various sources, including the state and private partners, to create a comprehensive summer jobs program.
As part of that program, 1,000 kids would receive summer jobs and job training with organizations such as local banks and offices within city hall such as the finance and human resources department.
“We know police aren’t the only answers, but if we have programming, prevention and jobs, I think that’s a mixture for success,” Williams told The News Journal on Friday.
A coalition of black Wilmington leaders last week announced its strategic plan with 11 priorities for creating change and unity in a community fractured by violence and poverty.
The Complexities of Color Coalition wants to organize the black community to work together long term, influencing institutions, policies and laws to attack the root causes of social decay, said the Rev. Donald Morton, the initiative’s director.
The coalition’s agenda calls for concerted actions on institutional and individual levels, from reconfiguring school districts to reforming the justice system to reconnect people to spiritual and cultural roots.
At a Friday gathering, Ty Johnson and a Churches Take a Corner group vowed to take responsibility for turning around neighborhoods.
Several churches and organizations said they would reclaim parts of the city in “prayer and presence,” meeting once a month to give updates on their efforts. The organization is also determined to build a database outlining who is doing what and where in the city to make sure organizations can network correctly.
The state has agreed to pay up to $200,000 for two consulting firms to study gun violence in Wilmington and help recommend new policing strategies to reduce shootings. The firms will work with the newly created Wilmington Public Safety Strategies Commission, a panel created last month by the Legislature and controlled by Gov. Jack Markell.
The crime commission, which begins public meetings on Tuesday, has authority to study police deployment, crime data, violence reduction strategies in other cities, the structure of the Wilmington Police Department and to gather community input.
Guns, in sheer numbers and also their types, are at the center of the the city’s problems.
At a January rally blocks away from where 16-year-old Jordan Ellerbe was killed, Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn said the state would soon take action to stiffen penalties for juveniles found guilty of serious firearm offenses.
“We need to look at whether we are treating 16- and 17-year-olds who have guns and are using guns in a serious enough fashion,” Denn said. “My take on it is we’re not.”
The presence of firearms is a key factor leading to violent crimes, said Butts, the John Jay researcher. While anger is a typical reaction to a slight or an insult, it rarely reaches a tipping point across society.
“It’s just when you have that normal human behavior and you throw in the possession of handguns that it becomes a problem,” Butts said.
Wilmington police averaged one confiscated gun per day in 2014, Police Chief Bobby Cummings said. The sheer quantity of guns is much higher than when he was a patrol officer.
“To see a weapon on the street back then was like, ‘Wow, we got a weapon off the street,’ and you rarely saw that,” Cummings said. “But today, we come across a weapon or two each day, and to them it’s nothing.”
These guns range from 9 mm and .40 caliber handguns to what the chief called “Uzi-type weapons,” or semi-automatics with an extended clip.
Police confiscate weapons in any number of ways, Cummings said, from vehicle and pedestrian stops to having someone run away, clutching his side and tossing a weapon into the bushes when police approach.
Denn promised to keep juveniles facing serious charges behind bars while they await trial, saying law enforcement officers said they often arrest someone and see them on the street almost immediately.
During his short time as attorney general, Denn has tried to fund the city’s battle against violence, proposing a plan that would use a $36.6 million settlement with Bank of America and Citigroup to fund after-school programs, substance abuse treatment programs and teachers in high-poverty schools throughout Delaware.
If the Legislature signs off on the proposal, it would also provide $5.9 million in funding for the Neighborhood Building Blocks Fund. Denn has already announced plans to use existing money in the fund to ask for overtime that would provide six additional patrol officers every evening from March through the summer.
While there are many plans being pushed, Fred Sears, president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation, said there is still a segment of the population that will feel uneasy on city streets.
Catching some of the perpetrators, Sears said, would go toward easing the minds of the public and, hopefully, slowing the violence.
“It’s frustrating to the average citizen to see this going on,” Sears said. “We know where it’s going on in the same five or six areas. These kids can’t be that smart that they’re outfoxing us every time.”
Increasingly, jobs and employment opportunities are seen as a critical part of crime prevention. A 2014 study conducted at the Chicago Crime Lab by Sara Heller, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, compared three groups of high-risk children between 14 and 21. One group was offered a summer job, another was offered a summer job and behavioral therapy and the third was offered nothing.
When the study concluded, the group offered employment were arrested half as much for violent crime as those without jobs. The group offered a job and therapy saw virtually the same results as those who only received a job.
Heller’s finding is important because “we always think kids are broken and bad and we need to send them to therapy, and what they actually need is a sense of hope and the future,” said Butts, of John Jay College.
He compared the social services and public health approach to battling cigarettes 40 years ago. Where something such as smoking a cigarette in the office once was normal, before a concentrated and relentless campaign changed attitudes to where they are today.
“Changing norms takes time, but you can do it,” he said.