This Is What Happens When Neighborhoods Don't Trust the Police

Someone shot at a group of officers in broad daylight in Wilmington, Delaware, and no one will speak up.

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AP

If you're looking for a case study in what happens when residents stop trusting their local police department, look no further than Wilmington, Delaware.

Last Wednesday afternoon, officers from the Wilmington Police Department and the Delaware State Police were questioning a woman suspected of selling stolen merchandise out of her car when someone opened fired on the group, wounding Delaware State Police Cpl. Richard Deskis. Wilmington police have yet to make an arrest, and one reason why is telling: residents are apparently scared to speak up for fear of retribution. 

In a statement released after the shooting, Wilmington Police Chief Christine Dunning said the shooting was "a symptom of decades of socioeconomic decline and moral decay in some of our oldest neighborhoods." While "moral decay" is a hard thing to measure, both the shooting of an officer (not the first one this year) and the department's inability to figure out who pulled the trigger are definitely symptoms of a trust gap between the community and the police. 

Wilmington residents have long complained that there aren't enough officers in their neighborhoods, that almost none of them get out of their vehicles and walk through communities, and that response times are poor. An in-depth investigation published last week by the News Journal made plain the high levels of public dissatisfaction with the Wilmington Police Department. The paper also reported that officers were reluctant to go on patrols (which they call "The Pit"), preferring special teams instead; and that some officers are in roles—such as tech support—that should be filled by non-officer employees. Meanwhile, Dunning says one solution is to hire more officers, despite Wilmington already having a police-to-population ration of 4.5-to-1,000, roughly 2.5 times the national average for a city Wilmington's size. (That ratio alone isn't the best way to determine a department's needs, of course, but it's certainly part of the story.) 

To add to the city's problems, two residents have now filed a federal lawsuit alleging their constitutional rights were violated by the Wilmington PD's stop-frisk-and-detain policy. Allegedly, the department has a "years long" practice of not only stopping and frisking residents, but illegally detaining them, only to release them without charges. As research has shown, stopping and frisking someone makes them a lot less likely to report crime in the future. 

An unwillingness to deploy community policing strategies could help explain why Wilmington is having a record-breaking year for firearm assaults (143 year-to-date, beating 2010's record of 142), and why an individual who opened fire on six cops and a fellow resident is still walking around free. 

Top image: A Wilmington police officer blocks the street after a courthouse shooting earlier this year. AP/Joseph Kaczmarek

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