'We can't arrest our way out of the problem'
Methodist outreach coordinator: 'Those in the life don't fear the cops at all.'
By LEE WILLIAMS and ADAM TAYLOR / The News Journal
Crime fighting in Wilmington ends at the street corner.
The police department's strategy for curbing drugs and the violence they breed can be summed up in two words: Jump out.
When teams of plainclothes officers see something of interest while driving by street corners frequented by drug dealers, they jump out and shake down people, searching for dope and guns. Mugs of those arrested are placed on the city's Web site.
Street-level drug dealers - "corner boys" - occasionally get pinched for $10 bags of heroin in their pockets, but only if an officer sees them making a sale. In neighborhoods around the city, drug dealers brazenly "sling" dope in broad daylight - hailing passing cars as if they're hawking programs at a sporting event.
The $150,000 kilos of heroin coming into the city are seldom seized, nor are the high-volume traffickers carrying them.
"Our primary focus is street-level drug enforcement," says Wilmington Police Chief Michael Szczerba, who acknowledges that his strategy has been ineffective. On the other hand, he says, "We can't arrest our way out of the problem."
Szczerba says it's too risky for his officers to buy dope undercover. But Delaware State Police, Pennsylvania State Police and smaller agencies such as the police departments in Dover and Cecil County, Md., routinely buy drugs undercover, recognizing its effectiveness.
Wilmington Capt. Sean Finerty, commander of the city's Drug, Organized Crime and Vice Division, explains the department's reluctance: "We had a couple of close calls. There was an attempted robbery."
Szczerba says trying to spot drug deals from a distance is safer.
"Undercover work in Wilmington would be very difficult," Szczerba says. "I don't think it would be very successful."
National law enforcement experts say Wilmington's methods are antiquated. They say the police department is focusing on the visible symptom, the corner boys, rather than the real problem, the drug kingpins.
Robert J. Castelli, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Iona College, both in New York, says surveillance and "jump outs" aren't enough - particularly on the drug-rich East Coast.
"You're not going to get to the heart of the problem if you just hope to make an observation," says Castelli. "Drug dealers are not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they're not going to make a sale in front of two white guys in an unmarked car."
Castelli, a former New York State police officer, has seen this culture before, especially among police chiefs like Szczerba "who have come up through traditional means, through the ranks, been in the uniformed force. They have a tendency to shy away from aggressive undercover work because they don't understand the capabilities of these units. One thing we see in police agencies is you don't get into trouble for making safe decisions.
"But you have to be aggressive when dealing with street-level narcotics," Castelli adds. "Besides, I'm sure the officers would rather be out there kicking in doors, doing the fun stuff. They're being restrained by the chain of command."
More officers sought
Szczerba, with 300 officers under his command, claims he needs 50 more to have enough officers to conduct undercover buys and do foot patrols in tough neighborhoods - which citizens, City Council members and those in antiviolence groups plead for regularly.
But one expert says Wilmington already has enough cops for a city of its size.
Larry Hoover, a professor at Sam Houston State University's Criminal Justice Center, and director of the Police Research Center. A former police officer and current president of a labor relations consulting firm specializing in police organizations, Hoover has an extensive background in criminal justice going back 40 years.
Nationally, the officer-to-residents ratio varies widely. Usually, East Coast cities have more police than Midwest or West Coast cities. The more urban a city, the more police officers it will usually have per 1,000 residents. Still, Hoover says, there are several benchmarks used by criminal justice experts.
A ratio of 1.7 police officers per 1,000 residents is generally considered too low.
A ratio of 4 officers per 1,000 residents is high, more than enough police for the city.
Wilmington has 4.2 officers per 1,000 residents, and Szczerba wants to increase that to 5 by adding at least 50 more officers.
Rather than adding more officers, Hoover says, Wilmington should consider long-term solutions.
"They need to attack the core problem," he says. "In narcotics, the core problem is the profit margin, which is enormous."
Szczerba has other ideas. He believes crime rates would decrease if officers who live in the city could take their cars home after their shifts. Some law enforcement agencies, usually rural sheriff departments, have experimented with take-home cars. There has been some successes.
For municipal departments, the results have been mixed, according to studies.
City Council member Stephanie Bolden doesn't buy the chief's solutions. "It's priorities," Bolden contends. "It's all screwed up here."
Wilmington's Jump Out squad pushes dealers from one street to another. Quarrels inevitably break out over who gets the most lucrative corners, and the resulting disputes are settled with gunfire.
Szczerba initially said he would give The News Journal a copy of the Jump Out Squad policy, then denied it existed. Pressed by the newspaper, city attorneys said the squad is guided by a legal opinion, which they contend is privileged. Under the Freedom of Information Act and City Rules and Regulations, The News Journal asked for a copy of the opinion and copies of all e-mail communications exchanged between city officials concerning shootings, street violence and drug activity.
Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker and Szczerba refused to release the opinion or the e-mails. The newspaper has appealed that decision to Delaware Attorney General Jane Brady.
The News Journal also was denied access to initial police reports of all 97 shootings in Wilmington last year, most of which, police say, were linked to the drug trade. Many of the victims refused to cooperate with investigators, preferring to settle the score later. That partly explains the never-ending cycle of gunfire, screaming sirens, heart-wrenching funerals.
When someone's shot on the streets of Wilmington, police are frequently apathetic, residents of tough neighborhoods say. Officers too often blame the victim, contending he wouldn't have been shot had he not been in the drug trade, the residents say.
"It's stereotyping," contends Kris Crawford, whose husband, Hakeem, was shot and killed on West Street in April of last year. "How they treat you depends on how they think the crime happened. I could have been treated better. They didn't even return my calls."
Szczerba counters that his officers are frustrated.
"The lack of cooperation manifests itself in frustration when we're dealing, time after time, with no cooperation," the chief says.
Crawford's husband was arrested for drugs before. But on the day he was killed, he had been walking down the street to get ice cream for his family. Now Crawford, an unemployed mother of five, is struggling with only welfare and food stamps to make ends meet.
While angry at police, she clearly places the blame on the thugs who killed her husband - reportedly over a remark Hakeem had made earlier that day.
"I can't stop crying," Crawford says. "These guys need to know that when they shoot and kill someone, they not only kill one person, they kill the entire family. What do I say to my kids? They don't have a father."
Crawford couldn't make payments on her car, and it was just repossessed. She says she's left messages with churches, but so far none has responded to her cries for help.
"Maybe Oprah will help me," she says. "No one else will."
Police cause shootings?
Wilmington City Council members are demanding an end to the violence. Councilmen Kevin Kelly and Mike Brown Sr. say Szczerba should be fired.
Baker says the chief's job is secure.
"It's not in jeopardy," Baker says. "I think council members sometimes don't know what they're talking about."
"I don't take it as a hit at me," Szczerba says about calls for his ouster. "I take it as a compliment, because the people turn to me to create change."
Baker and Szczerba have admitted their approach to solving the drug problem may actually cause shootings.
In a February 2002 press release, they explained that stepped-up enforcement at hot spots had actually caused more street violence. "The crackdown on drug and gun-related operations is similar to stirring a hornet's nest, in that such crackdowns can lead to turf or territorial clashes that oftentimes become violent."
And Baker made clear who the bad guys are: "No one should get the idea that the majority of violent incidents in Wilmington involve innocent, law-abiding people being shot. The clear majority of gun-related violence in our city is caused by or somehow involves people with criminal records who are in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing and are thus paying the consequences."
Wilmington police have tried various techniques to stop the violence. In the 1970s, the department tried "split-force policing." The idea was to use half of the patrol force to answer calls for service, while the second half roamed the streets looking for crimes in progress, always available as a mobile reserve.
Though hailed as innovative at the time, the experiment didn't take.
After several years, the department returned to a more traditional deployment, assigning officers to patrol specific districts of the city. That practice remains in effect.
When Szczerba took over as chief on Jan. 1, 2001, he centralized his command at a time when other departments nationwide were decentralizing patrol forces by creating substations throughout communities. Szczerba closed substations, some of which were little more than mobile homes.
Rather than reporting for work in the communities they policed, the officers now work out of one downtown building. Szczerba says the change was necessary because of command-and-control problems brought on by the scattered force.
"We were fragmented," he says. "It wasn't a good fit for a town this size."
Parole officers involved
In 1997, after the city saw more than 100 shootings the preceding year, Wilmington police began teaming its officers with Delaware's Probation and Parole agents, who do not need probable cause to detain people on probation, or search warrants to enter their homes.
Operation Safe Streets also puts vice officers and state troopers with K-9 units in neighborhoods known for drug dealing and violence. The law enforcement teams arrested people on probation for either breaking curfew, selling drugs, carrying guns or otherwise violating terms of their probation. The practice continues today.
Initially, officials were worried the unarmed state agents would get shot. Now the agents are armed and equipped like the police.
This concept is troubling to Delaware Public Defender Larry Sullivan.
Before Operation Safe Streets, Sullivan says, the goal of probation and parole was to rehabilitate clients. The agents often had connections with local employers willing to hire ex-cons.
"Now, probation and parole agents are riding around in police cars," Sullivan says. "Their hiring has focused on ex-military and law enforcement, rather than people with degrees in sociology, and they're armed. Now, probation and parole are an arm of the police force."
Sullivan says violating probation is the number one reason for going to prison in Delaware.
West Center City activist Dwight Davis says the process is insidious.
"They can be taken away without any review and sent to Georgetown [Sussex Correctional Institution]," Davis says. "You can't frighten young people with jail anymore. They just say get me there before dinner."
Beth Welch, spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Correction, would not allow interviews with probation and parole agents, and she declined to be interviewed.
In 2002, the city adopted an ordinance allowing landlords to waive their privacy rights, granting police full access to properties they rent without the need for warrants. Only a handful of affidavits were ever filed.
Recently, the police department started putting mugs of drug suspects on its Web site. "Drug Mug" was designed to discourage drug use through public humiliation.
Fear and ignorance
Shawn Allen, an outreach coordinator for the Methodist Action Program, spends most of his days in the high-crime parts of the city counseling teenagers and young men. As part of his job, he's in frequent contact with drug dealers.
He contends that Wilmington police are incapable of addressing street violence for two reasons - fear and ignorance.
"Those in the life don't fear the cops at all," Allen says. "So when it gets to be a big crowd, I don't blame the cops for being scared to approach a large group. If there's a big crowd, the cops ain't gonna fool with them. The violence is so bad the cops are scared to get shot."
Allen frequently encounters kids 12 and younger carrying pistols.
"There are guys who used to sell dope who are now selling guns," he says. "The police want to attack violence, but they don't have a clue about where the boys are getting the guns."
Wilmington police and federal agents have recovered hundreds of firearms while executing search warrants and making traffic stops.
By contrast, Philadelphia police use undercover drug buys to locate guns used in homicides.
The Violence Response Team, a unit housed within the Philadelphia Police Department's Narcotics Bureau, is sent into a neighborhood following a shooting because city leaders see a direct correlation between shootings and narcotics.
The team consists of undercover officers led by a sergeant.
"Once there's been a shooting, they go in, make undercover narcotics purchases, execute search warrants and try to recover guns," says Assistant District Attorney Scott Sigman, who's assigned to the Special Narcotics Prosecution Unit. "We've got a wide variety of techniques -- undercover buys to buy-busts. We try to link it to a house where we'll find the evidence."
The aggressive tactics produce results, Sigman says.
"We're buying everything you can imagine," he says. "Last week we had a guy with a pound of meth [methamphetamine] and explosives. We had another bust with 27 kilos."
Szczerba and Baker point out that Philadelphia and Baltimore have more shootings than Wilmington - and more homicides. Philadelphia, with a population of 1.5 million people, had 327 murders in 2004, Baltimore has almost 703,000 residents and had 278 murders. Wilmington has 72,600 residents and in 2003 had 17 shooting deaths, plus two additional murders, one by beating and one vehicular.
A call for change
Newly-elected New Castle County Councilman Jea Street has no doubt that there is a problem with the Wilmington Police Department.
Street, who also serves as executive director for the Hilltop Lutheran Community Center, has a long list of strategies to reduce street violence. Much of his draft plan calls for changes at the police department - a department he knows well.
For 25 years, Street served on the Police Advisory Council, a group that met monthly with the police chief to discuss hot spots and potential problems with staffing and individual officers.
"After he was elected, Baker terminated the council," Street says. "It's unfortunate. We accomplished so much."
In addition to restoring the Police Advisory Council, Street has other suggestions:
Federal Investigation. Street wants the U.S. attorney to investigate allegations of malfeasance in the Wilmington Police Department.
"We have a lot of people saying some officers are just riding by, not paying attention to crimes, out of their own self-interest," says Street. "Some say officers confiscate money and drugs and make no arrests. If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear from the investigation."
Hire outside consultants to review police practices. Street says Baker's current plan to hire former Wilmington police officers to review the department does not go far enough.
"The whole thing needs to be done from the outside," he maintains. "Their current practices are antiquated."
Conduct undercover drug buys. "They've done it before," Street notes. "To me, if they're not trying to purchase guns and weapons, they've given up."
Street no longer has confidence in Szczerba as chief of police.
"I like him as a person. He's a nice guy and he was a great cop. But the shootings are out of control, and it's on his watch," Street says. "Either he starts doing things differently, or we get a new watchman."
Mayor Baker wants a coordinated response to crime, similar to the antiterrorism network created after 9/11.
Colm Connolly, U.S. ttorney for Delaware, doesn't support the idea.
"We have seen drug money used to fund terrorism but I don't think it's prudent to focus the efforts of our terrorism resources exclusively on drugs," he said.
Councilman Brown Sr. and others believe creating a metro force consisting of Wilmington police, New Castle County Police and Delaware State Police would reduce crime in the city. Last August, when many Wilmington officers called in sick to protest the lack of a new contract, county officers and state troopers patrolled the city.
"When the county and state officers were here, the street corners were clear," Brown says. "We need metro policing. It's the politicians that don't want it. People don't want to sacrifice territorial control to save people's lives."
The idea has already been discussed at several levels, but no formal request has been made.
New Castle County Police Chief David F. McAllister opposes the idea.
"I have 350 officers for 500 square miles. Wilmington has 300 officers for 11 square miles. Nobody is overflowing with officers," McAllister says. "We're all willing to help, but the city needs to look at itself, its long-term financial picture and long-term drug and poverty issues.
"If I go in there, it's a Band-Aid. I can't sustain it for long without my primary jurisdiction suffering."
New Castle County is not immune from drug dealing and the violence it breeds.
Several recent home invasions have stunned usually quiet neighborhoods. Some victims were taped to chairs, cut with knives and interrogated by suspects seeking the whereabouts of money owed to them.
One man was thrown through a second-story window.
New Castle County Police have characterized the robberies as "drug related."
Delaware State Police acting-superintendent Lt. Col. Thomas F. MacLeish has 641 troopers.
"We are committed to assist the city with whatever course they choose," MacLeish says. "Not only can we, but the governor directed us through Homeland Security to reach out to the city with whatever resources we have available."
Delaware Public Defender Sullivan says the city needs a metro approach because it adds long-term resources rather than short-term fixes.
"Now, if they start blitzing the northeast, the problems go to Claymont," Sullivan says. "If they blitz Southbridge, the problems go to Highway 13. It would all be more efficient with one force."
Szczerba acknowledges that the county and state assistance provided during the recent Wilmington police sickout - called an illegal strike by a judge - was beneficial. The chief wants more officers, but he wants them wearing Wilmington PD blue.
"The earlier success should show the City Council there's a need for more officers," the chief adds. "The other police departments are just as taxed as we are."