DOVER — A Pennsylvania transplant, new Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson first had to learn about Delaware’s capital city upon arrival in February 2020.
Seven months later, he knew enough to create the community member driven Police Chief’s Advisory Committee (PCAC).
At the end of September 2021, the nine-member committee reached a year’s existence. Like the police chief who became familiarized with the city, the committee of citizens now knows much more about the police department as well.
“Chief Johnson has been a great asset to the city,” member The Rev. Carol Harris said. “He didn’t come in with a determination to make changes to the city before he knew the city himself.”
Early committee sessions often revolved around presentations from police special units outlining their operations and aims for members. With that came explanations of internal affairs responsibilities, hiring process methods and more.
The committee was formed as part of Chief Johnson’s push for a series of initiatives announced on June 18, 2020.
The No. 1 achievement, according to Chief Johnson, was applying committee suggestions to update the police academy curriculum.
“We went over it over several sessions over the winter months and the course coordinator was very attentive and actually applied some of the (committee’s ideas) after it heard what we taught and how we taught it,” he said.
“The input was utilized in subsequent training sessions.”
Recruits hearing from more community members during academy training became more emphasized, Chief Johnson said.
“We continue to bring in more people that have special situations that apply to policing situations. The faith community comes in, the NAACP has visited on more than one occasion, we had mental health advocates, those who represent those with substance abuse programs.
“We’re trying to change the dynamic a bit on how those sub-populations might be viewed right out of the gate, so that way the police interaction might go a way that perhaps it might not have gone a mere 10, 15 or 20 years ago.
“That’s pretty exciting.”
Early on, member Dr. Chanda Jackson, the Restoring Central Dover Manager at NCALL Research, came away from meetings impressed by “the transparency it created. ...” as a well-intentioned bond between the residents and police strengthened.
According to Rev. Harris, who serves as Bayhealth’s supervisor of Pastoral Care, “Our role is to make sure the Dover Police Department hears the voices of this committee, which speak for the citizens who want to have more of a say when police come to the table to discuss their operations and how they respond to things.”
Besides Ms. Jackson and the Rev. Harris, committee members include Schatze (Joreen) Sykes, Victor Giagrant, Courtney Ford, Arqum Rashid, Matthew McNeil, Jordan Demby and Waverly DeBraux. Along with Chief Johnson, participating Dover Police officers include Kevin Kober, Nathaniel Warren and Ian Thompson.
The group brings a wide range of perspectives coming from an array of backgrounds, the Rev. Harris said.
“Everyone has something to add to the diversity,” she said. “We’re across the spectrum in age, race, gender, culture, religion,” she said.
Including youth Jordan Demby came after a video contest promoting anti-crime messaging fell short of expectations in March 2021, despite the lure of at least $1,500 in total prize money/scholarships to be shared among the student winning video creators.
“We didn’t do well and that triggered some serious reflection at the committee level. It really identified the need to be better engaged with the youth member of the committee,” Chief Johnson said.
The committee conferred with Demby, “who went about the business of giving us a pretty tough report card as to how a lot of young people see policing and police officers and it became readily apparent that we needed a youth sub-committee,” Chief Johnson said.
Also, among other input, the committee weighed in on the coming implementation of body-worn cameras, how best to administer the Police Athletic League, utilization of the Community Response Vehicle, implementation of contracted social service clinicians (two working a combined 60 hours weekly), vetting a Wilmington-based Group Violence Intervention (GVI) program, and determining how to best host National Night Out events.
Chief Johnson was particularly enthused about the Wilmington-based intervention project aimed at providing support to high-risk individuals susceptible to resuming a lifestyle that increases the likelihood of returning to the criminal justice system.
“GVI tries to find out what unmet needs do they have that allows violence to become a viable option for that individual,” he said.
“Some people have economic challenges, some people have substance abuse challenges, some people have behavioral challenges and they either can’t get their medications, or aren’t taking their medications like they’re supposed to.
“Then there’s someone with a long criminal history that can’t get gainfully employed because that history becomes a barrier. So there are re-entry challenges for those who have been previously incarcerated.”
For committee member Mr. McNeil, that means “doing what we can do to make them a part of society again where they’re not a number, they’re not a statistic anymore.
“For me personally, I like the aspect of having eyes in the street (and spotting those in need). My focus is on the recovering person who comes out of jail and has a hard time getting a job because he has a record.
“They tend to go back to what they were doing. You might be recovered physically, but might not have the proper mindset.
“If the police can get to know an individual and then identify their strengths and weaknesses, they can perhaps provide the support that they need.”