The Dover Police Department's Quality of Life Task Force is back.
Virtually eliminated by manpower shortages in late 2011, the task force has been reinvigorated by an influx of new personnel with the goal, as senior task force officer Cpl. Michael Wisniewski puts it, "to keep the small stuff from becoming the big stuff."
Part of the department's Community Policing Section, the team concentrates on street-level issues, those areas of concern to Dover's business community and its citizens in general.
"They address anything and everything," said Chief of Police James Hosfelt. "They're out contacting people who are doing things they shouldn't be doing."
Put into place as a temporary pilot program nine years ago, the task force at first included only four officers. They were challenged to target less serious and sometimes overlooked crimes such as loud parties, loitering, disorderly conduct and public intoxication, among others.
These were the types of crimes patrol officers sometimes did not have the time to answer because manpower constraints forced them to respond to more serious calls first. In the beginning, the task force generally concentrated on the downtown area, but over the years expanded to encompass the entire city.
"It was our creature," Hosfelt said of the idea to create the task force. Just as each city comes with its own needs and its own problems, Dover's task force was brought on board based on the needs of the Dover community, he said.
The task force became a permanent part of the Community Policing Section in 2008 as the city budgeted necessary funding to hire more officers.
Any problem, anywhere
In addition to Wisniewski, team members include Cpl. Carlton Turner, Patrolmen 1st Class Tom Hannon, Pete Martinek and Chris Peer. Together, they have approximately 35 years of professional law enforcement experience.
All are former patrol officers, and each has additional qualifications so he can be used in other dedicated police units, such as the special operations team or the hostage negotiating unit.
The team also includes state of Delaware Department of Correction parole officer Dan Stagg, who provides information and guidance regarding persons on probation and parole living in the Dover area.
"They're not just good at one specific thing," said Lt. Alan Rachko, who commands the Special Enforcement Unit, of which the task force is a part. "They're all well-rounded officers."
A typical day for the task force begins with a roll call and sit-down briefing on whatever problem area is being targeted that shift.
"There's no limit as to what they can do or what they can enforce," Hosfelt said. "If I get word on something from a city council member or a concerned citizen, I'll bring it to them."
Page 2 of 3 - "Some things are easily labeled, you have others that aren't so easily identifiable to a specific unit," noted Operations Division Commander Capt. Tim Stump. "A lot of those are neighborhood complaints that require more attention than just one officer talking to someone."
The team works a 12-hour shift, with several days on duty followed by two or three days off. Unlike the department's patrol officers, who generally watch over a designated part of the city during their shifts, the task force can tackle any problem, anywhere. One duty day may find them looking for noise violations around Wesley College, another might find them in the vicinity of Woodcrest, Mayfair or the Hamlet, following up on complaints of possible criminal activity. Sometimes they work in uniform, other times they're in street clothes.
Task force members also work with other agencies of the city, such as the Division of Planning and Inspections, to enforce building codes and code violations.
And they're always on call in case patrol officers need a backup.
'It's good to see them'
Money to run the task force is provided through the state Violent Crime Fund, an extra $15 penalty levied on persons arrested for violent crimes. Half of that money is automatically disbursed to the Delaware State Police, with the remainder parceled out to individual police departments.
In 2012, Dover received more than $46,000 for the task force from this fund.
Since April 1, in its first seven days on the job, the Quality of Life Task Force has arrested seven fugitives, made 33 traffic arrests, 22 criminal arrests, five arrests for public alcohol use, three for loud music, three for loitering and 33 drug arrests.
These included the arrest of a man carrying more than eight grams of crack cocaine and two Wilmington men who were in possession of more than 700 bags of heroin.
Downtown businesses and area residents seem to welcome the added police activity.
"We've noticed their presence," said Toni Mohr of Bel Boutique on Loockerman Street. "They come in and they check with us. It's good to see them here, walking around and coming in."
Area resident Brittany Tieman agreed.
"I live downtown and I definitely feel safer when they're down here," she said.
Tom Smith, owner of Delaware Made, also on Loockerman Street, said, "They're really excellent.
"We used to have panhandling characters in the daytime, now they're gone," Smith said, although he's noticed the problem tends to crop up again in certain areas once the sun goes down.
"I feel badly for some of the restaurants because there still are panhandlers on the street," he said. "I've had people tell me they don't feel safe."
Page 3 of 3 - Stump said the department is aware of Smith's concerns and those of his neighbors.
"We've worked to clean that area up during the day," with the Quality of Life Task Force, Stump said, and patrol officers have been told to keep an eye on the Bradford and Loockerman street area at night. "Anyone who has seen this type of activity, we encourage them to pick up the phone and call us."
Dover residents needing to report crimes handled by the Quality of Life Task Force should call 911 or 736-7111.