Paul Bernat’s biggest fear is that Dover will become the next Wilmington. The Dover police chief is certain that Wilmington will eventually clean up its violent crime problem. And when it does, he says, criminals will be looking for a new home. Bernat wants to ensure that the bad guys’ next playground is not the state capital.
“My fear is the disbursement theory,” he says. “Just like a balloon, you squeeze it in the middle, you get rid of the air in the middle, but that air has got to go somewhere. I don’t want it to come south.” Dover, the state’s second most populous city with 37,000-plus residents, experienced more than its usual share of violent crimes in 2014 and the beginning of this year. Bernat says violent crime last year was actually down 18 percent overall compared to the year before, but burglaries, assaults and drug crimes increased significantly in downtown “hotspots.”
Along with a serial burglar and four bank robberies in 2014, Dover experienced several uncommon-but-high-profile cases, including four shootings during one 24-hour period last November. As of mid-March, the department was investigating seven unsolved shootings that had occurred since August 2014, with a suspect sought in another shooting. The reason behind the escalating violence is simple: illegal drugs. “The vast majority of all crimes in the city are drug-related,” Bernat says. “I think heroin has a big impact on the crimes. A lot of the shopliftings and burglaries are because of heroin. A lot of shootings are connected to just drugs, period.” Dover PD responded to three heroin-related complaints in 2011. That number jumped to 24 in 2013 and 176 last year.
Bernat says the department saw the problem coming when a crackdown a few years ago made it tougher for those addicted to prescription pills to get them. “They end up, unfortunately, turning to heroin,” he says. “It’s cheaper to buy the heroin than it
is the pills.” He says pills cost $30 to $35 each while heroin goes for $5 to $10 per bag. Bernat, a 26-year veteran of the department who has lived in the Dover area for close to 40 years, recalls a similar phenomenon during the early 1990s when crack cocaine gained popularity.
“Cocaine was a big thing, and then all of a sudden, crack cocaine was cheaper and had more punch to it,” he says. “Once that happened, we had the same type of surge in violence and theft and robberies and burglaries.” He says that police back then focused on the hot spots by saturating them with walking patrols. Now the department and other entities are working to clean up yet another mess while preventing criminals, such as those who may flee Wilmington, from settling in Dover in the future. Part of the solution is adding officers and other forms of patrols and part is cleaning up neighborhoods.
“We have to be prepared for any influx of criminal-minded people,” Bernat says. “When they come down, your typical criminal is going to look for a place that is not up-kept. There’s trash all over the place, there’s potholes, the sidewalks are torn up, junk cars parked in the yard … They’re going to go, ‘Yup, I’m going to set up shop here because these people look like they don’t care. They are not going to call in on me.’” A state grant allowed the city to add 10 police officers this year. The city is also hiring six cadets to patrol downtown. Another state grant will pay for two officers to work extra duty on downtown “hot spot patrols,” Bernat says.
William Neaton, who leads the city’s economic development movement, is pleased with the additional police presence. He says Habitat for Humanity is planning to build a number of homes downtown this year, which could also make a difference. “There’s a certain level of pride that goes with homeownership,” Neaton says. “We need a better balance of ownership and rental properties. The more people we have in the downtown area, the more people will feel secure.”
As a newly named Downtown Development District, Dover will receive a state grant to renovate buildings into a mixed use of retail and upscale apartments. “People need to know that Dover is a safe place,” Bernat says. “Dover is not necessarily an unsafe place to be. But if you’re in the drug business, it’s a very unsafe place to be.”