Police chief touts mobile command unit at Dover council meeting

By Leann Schenke Delaware State News
Posted 5/29/21

DOVER — As law enforcement agencies negotiate calls for change to traditional policing methods, the Dover Police Department is moving forward with Chief Thomas Johnson’s “community …

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Police chief touts mobile command unit at Dover council meeting

Posted

DOVER — As law enforcement agencies negotiate calls for change to traditional policing methods, the Dover Police Department is moving forward with Chief Thomas Johnson’s “community policing” approach with a mobile command unit.

“As part of the community policing model, we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to brick and mortar,” Mayor Robin Christiansen said. “I believe the model that will make our community policing efforts successful is ‘feet on the street’ interaction with the citizens and community that we serve.”

Chief Johnson said in a Tuesday Dover city council meeting he would like to implement mental health clinicians alongside officers come the fall. In the meantime, he announced a pilot program for the mobile command unit to aid the police department in making community connections.

This new style of policing is meant to help bring the department “into the 21st century,” as Mayor Christiansen put it, and allow officers to have a more “fluid” response to a variety of situations.

“We’ve been trying to envision the best way to deliver services, because the services that we deliver won’t be the same thing every day,” Chief Johnson said. “Sometimes it might be an athletic event where we go somewhere and work with the kids. It might be something where we engage with seniors, other times at-risk populations.”

Chief Johnson said he will be utilizing one of the department’s existing vehicles, a 2001 Ford Chassis-based vehicle, that will be refitted as a mobile command unit.

“In an attempt to be as fiscally responsible as we can, we think we can use this vehicle and we’re going to reassign it to community policing to fulfill various missions,” Chief Johnson said.

Chief Johnson said the mobile command unit will be manned by officers who have been selected for the community policing assignment.

Noting who delivers services often matters, Chief Johnson said the vehicle will be marked as a police car, though he hopes that does not discourage people from seeking police help for social services, mental health or substance abuse support.

“If we don’t make the connections we’re trying to make during this summer season, I would come back and say, ‘hey we need to rethink this,’” Chief Johnson said. “We want to be involved, but if folks don’t want to approach this vehicle marked as it is, looking as it is and we need a different way of doing this — maybe an unmarked type vehicle — something where we break down some barriers to that engagement.”

Still, Chief Johnson said he would like to gather data that shows the mobile command unit is working “before I come to you and say ‘I need dollars for a shiny new’” vehicle. He said this vehicle also could be used by mental health clinicians to do “proactive work” and engage with the community.

Councilman Fred Neil said the vehicle doesn’t necessarily need a “big police” sign, but rather a smaller one with community services listed as well.

“Simply because that may be more welcoming to the folks that are going to be there,” Councilman Neil said.

He also suggested the vehicle be used in other ways like at the Firefly Music Festival.

“It is portable and it can move,” Councilman Neil said. “I see a lot of things that can be done and police are only one part of it, even though we know it is a police vehicle. We don’t necessarily need the bells and whistles saying that it’s a police vehicle. So that it’s more warm and welcoming.”

Chief Johnson agreed with Councilman Neil’s assessment of the various uses the vehicle lends itself, saying it will be the “Swiss Army knife” of his fleet.

Noting it is a responsible and cost-effective plan to modify an existing vehicle, Councilman Matthew Lindell asked if the unit will be moved to other parts of the city rather than just the downtown area.

Mayor Christiansen answered by saying the pilot program will allow fluidity and allow the police department to gather data in support or against the city funding more vehicles like this one — or ending the program entirely if that is what the data suggests.

Councilman Lindell also suggested the council outline long-term funding for this program.

“I have no problem discussing the viability of if it’s going to work or not,” he said. “I think it’s disingenuous if we don’t bring forth the idea of where to fund it. You know, put our money where our mouth is. If we think it’s going to work, then we need to invest. If not, then we need to shut up.”

Council President Roy Sudler also spoke in favor of the program, but said the community “has been very clear” they would like the mobile command unit to help reduce crime, as well as provide other services. He suggested surveying the community to see what services they would like.

Councilman At-large Andre Boggerty spoke in support of Chief Johnson’s focus on providing services over overt law enforcement from the start, saying there needs to be an “atmosphere of trust” before citizens will want to participate in a survey.

“The plan is to go out to build that trust and then ask those questions,” Councilman Boggerty said. “In conventional wisdom, you would make those assessments first. ... In this endeavor, it’s more of building that trust so individuals will participate and then we know exactly what direction we should go.”