Next month Dover will join other Delaware cities when it puts police cadets on the streets. The plans are drawing both praise and concern. Others are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

After an extended recruiting period, about 40 people applied to become members of Dover’s new police cadet program. An intensive selection process will identify the six cadets who will patrol downtown streets.

They will go through about four weeks of training before starting patrols in May, according to department spokesman Cpl. Mark Hoffman.

The cadets, age 18 and up, will join 93 full time police officers. They will carry standard police equipment, including pepper spray, handcuffs and stun guns. They will not carry handguns, but they will be authorized to make arrests and issue criminal summonses.

The cadet program, proposed by Chief of Police Paul M. Bernat last year, comes after downtown business owners requested a stronger police presence.

“I think that having cadets patrolling the area is an excellent idea,” Terry Barnes of Amore Bridal said last week. “I think any type of police presence in the downtown area is going to help.”

Cadet programs in Kent County and Delaware are not new. However, some have raised questions about the risks associated with giving cadets arrest powers and stun guns, especially as recent claims of seasoned Dover police officers using excessive force have emerged.

“Our problem is the fact that a Taser is a potentially lethal weapon,” said Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware. “We think it is inappropriate for someone who has had as little as a few weeks training to be able to have the authority to use a Taser.”

Meeting a need and the difference it could make

The cadet program was approved by city council’s Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee in December after being recommended by Bernat.

While approval came a few months after a series of shootings near downtown, Hoffman said such incidents were not the overall deciding factor. He said the Downtown Dover Partnership and business owners had complained mostly about nuisance crimes such as panhandling, loitering, loud music and littering. Adding the cadets to the force would allow officers to handle more serious crimes, Hoffman said.

On average, there are 11 to 15 sworn officers on patrol during daylight hours and slightly fewer at night responsible for covering almost 23 square miles, he added.

The city has successfully used cadets in the past with the most recent in the early 2000s, Hoffman said. That program ended due to lack of funding.

Dover’s new program will be similar to a seasonal officer program used by the Rehoboth Police Department to handle summer crowds for the past two decades, Dover police officials said.

Rehoboth’s temporary officers receive about 96 hours of classroom training before hitting the streets and carry the same equipment the Dover cadets will wear.

“The Rehoboth seasonal police officers are an essential part of our police force during the summer months,” said Rehoboth police spokesman Lt. William Sullivan. “They provide additional officer presence in the city, especially in the high-volume areas, where they are essential to the prevention of criminal activity in those areas.”

Training for Rehoboth’s seasonal officers covers police discipline, criminal and civil laws and regulations, laws of arrest, search and seizure, communications and defensive tactics, Sullivan said.

There have been only a few issues with using seasonal officers over the years, he said, and sworn, more experienced officers are available to help them, if needed, almost immediately.

Recruiting, selecting, and training

In recruiting the 40 applicants, the Dover police department saw “a pretty solid mix” of males and females of different races, ethnicities and ages, Hoffman said.

As part of the selection process, each candidate must pass a standard police physical test, a psychological test and written examination. Successful candidates then will undergo an oral interview, followed by a background investigation. Bernat will hold final interviews and make the selections, Hoffman said.

Training will begin almost immediately

Although he would not go into specifics, Hoffman said each trainee can expect to spend at least eight to 12 hours in the classroom over a three- to four-week period.

A significant portion of the training will be devoted the department’s policy on the use of force, with about a day focused on the use of the electronic stun gun and pepper spray, he said.

“Our training will be similar in nature to that of seasonal officers, but catered to Dover Police Department regulations and city of Dover ordinances,” Hoffman said.

Once they graduate, the cadets will patrol the downtown in pairs, teamed with an officer for their first week on duty. Although each will be issued their own equipment, they will share radios and stun guns in an effort to save money.

Issues, concerns about the program

While all of the downtown merchants that Kent County SUNDAY interviewed for this story supported the cadet program overall, a few raised some questions.

“The only concern I have right now is that funding is good for six months,” said Frank Zaback of Dover Army Navy Store. “After six months, I understand they have to come up with an alternate source of income, and therefore I’m concerned about the program being an ongoing concern.”

Funding for the cadets comes from 18 years of accumulated interest on two federal grants, totaling a little more than $69,200, police officials said.

The cadets will be paid $12 an hour and work staggered day shifts totaling 19 hours per week. The cost of the program, which will run for at least six months, is about $51,500, which includes salaries, benefits, insurance and equipment costs.

The department will look for additional funding to continue the program if it is a success, Hoffman said. “As with many grants, we must apply for renewal on an annual basis and there are plans in place to do so,” he said.

Another downtown businessman, Theo Morgan of Computers Fixed Today, voiced a concern that was raised by others.

“The concerns are just that any time that you bring a youthful individual into a situation with broad authority, no military background, that there is going to be problems,” Morgan said. “I would hate to see the problems occur because of a lack of experience, per se, in life.”

Roy Sudler, a member of the city’s Legislative, Financial And Administrative Committee said that while he supports the program, he questions whether the cadets will be able to handle the authority they’re given.

“At that age, they don’t have that much experience with different cultures and how different cultures behave,” Sudler said. “They could make a bad decision that puts the city at risk for a lawsuit or for themselves or the resident to be physically harmed.”

MacRae of the ACLU said there have been lawsuits filed against Dover police officers, all of whom have had more extensive training and experience than the cadets will have.

The ACLU filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city on September 29, alleging that an officer used excessive force in making an arrest in August 2013. The grand jury on the case declined to indict the officer.

Last month, a West Chester, Pa., man filed a federal lawsuit claiming Dover police beat him and used a stun gun in a March 2013 incident.

“We’re saying that if the regular police, who have gone through the [police] academy, have years of experience and are still not properly trained… how can we expect an 18-year-old, who is still an immature teenager, to react properly when armed with a Taser,” MacRae said. “To even think that three to four weeks of training is sufficient to prepare cadets for the situations they will encounter on the streets is ludicrous.”

Measuring success

Once the program launches, Hoffman said the department will monitor the cadets’ performance just as they do other officers.

Statistics and information on how the cadets perform will be reviewed to determine how the program is working and if it should be continued, Hoffman said.

“The department can then compare those numbers to the impact of calls for service from the areas [that the cadets patrol] to determine if there has been a positive impact,” Hoffman said. The data also can tell police supervisors if they need to alter when they work or where they patrol, he said.

For those with concerns about the program, Hoffman asked that they be patient with the new program.

“Let’s give it chance,” he said.

To see video of some downtown merchants giving their views of the police cadet program, visit doverpost.com.