Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings Talks About the City's Crime Problems

Opening up about his background and daily dealings, Cummings shares some insight into the pressure of policing the largest city in Delaware.

photo by joe del tufo


We sat down with Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings in early September after the city had experienced yet another weekend of deadly shootings and violent crime. At the time, there had been 20 homicides in Wilmington and the city was on pace to surpass the record 27 homicides in 2010. Mayor Dennis Williams appointed Cummings to the post in May.

- Advertisement -

DT: Can you give us a little background?

BC: I was born in Georgia and raised in Delaware. My family moved here when I was about three years old. I was born in 1963, and we moved to Wilmington in 1966. We started out in the 1800 block of West Third. I lived on the West Side in the Little Italy area. We moved down to the Fourth Street area around Adams Four. We lived in Riverside around the 1300 block of E. 24th St. We lived on Jessop Street in the 2400 block. All of my schooling years were spent in the city until I got to high school. The first year of high school in ninth grade I was at P.S. du Pont and then [desegregation] came about, so I went to Claymont High School, where I finished up my high-school years. Shortly after high school, I worked at Acme supermarket for about four years until I came to the police department in 1985. From 1985 to present, I’ve been on the police department. And, obviously, I’ve been able to advance through the ranks. I finished my college education while on the police department. I went to the FBI National Academy, which is one of the highlights of my career as a police officer. I’ve, obviously, had the opportunity to meet many people in this law-enforcement profession—either law enforcement, the community, business contacts or just friends. I know people all throughout the city that I’ve gone to school with. I can’t say anything but great things about my experience being a police officer and living in the city.

DT: You moved around quite a bit.

BC: Yes. My mother, my two brothers, my sister and my grandparents lived in the city. That was very … I’m not going to say a challenging upbringing … but we had a very close family environment where my grandmother and my grandfather, my two uncles and my mother, along with my older uncle’s kids, we all lived in the same house on the 1800 block of West Third. We grew up in an environment where we didn’t realize that we didn’t have a lot. But we had a lot of family, and we had great family values. So to live with other family members throughout the city meant a lot to us. We always thought we were rich. We didn’t really know what we didn’t have. My mother worked at Saint Francis Hospital for a number of years and retired from there. She provided for my brothers, sister and I. I can’t complain about my upbringing. My father remained in Georgia. I went down there every summer and visited my family. I still have a lot of family in Georgia today and travel back and forth every now and then. My mother relocated there when she retired. That’s where she is right now with my younger brother and younger sister.

DT: Did you deal much with crime when you were growing up?

- Partner Content -

BC: Well, to be honest, I really didn’t know a whole lot about crime. At that time period, being the age I was, I was not aware of a lot of those kinds of conditions. Even as a juvenile playing in that area with a lot of friends … I remember playing in the parking lot of the bank that was situated there. We played football, kickball, every sport you could name, we played in that parking lot, which was a slanted surface. We raced Popsicle sticks down the edge of the curb while people were washing their cars. Crime-wise, that wasn’t something that was real heavy on my mind or something I was thinking about. To be honest, I didn’t really know any police officers growing up because the police officers that I was worried about were my grandmother and uncle. Those were the ones who policed us. I never had any negative contact with the police. I didn’t even recognize police.

DT: When did the interest in law enforcement come about?

BC: Once I finished high school and I was working at the Acme supermarket. That’s where I came in contact with a lot of police officers. They were working extra jobs, assignments at the supermarket, and I made a lot of friends through that aspect and started talking with a lot of police officers. They kind of encouraged me to join. They told me about all of the money I was going to make as a police officer. I actually took a pay cut leaving Acme and coming to the police department. Once I got here, it was something that I really thought I could do and really enjoyed because the main purpose for me was just helping people and trying to give back.

DT: Being a cop is one thing, but being the chief in the here and now—why would you want to do that?

BC: It was nothing that I aspired to do, to be the chief. When I came onto the police department, I just came because I wanted to be a police officer after talking to a lot of officers and learning what they do. It was something I wanted to do, but to be a supervisor or the chief … that never crossed my mind. But as I did the work that I did, there were opportunities that were made available to start taking a promotional test to be a supervisor. I did OK, which got me in the system. I would say even in school, playing sports and stuff, I was never last, never first, but I was always that person in the middle—mediocre. I always did well enough to advance but not get the gold. So throughout my career, I learned a lot. I was always willing to listen. I watched people—what they did and what they do. It kind of helped me along as I advanced through the police department. And I had people who saw me and thought I had potential and started to invest in me a little bit to get me to the point where I’m at today. I still owe a lot of credit to them. That’s why everything I do; I don’t look at as something that I accomplished on my own. There was always help along the way and that’s what I try to do with the officers here, is try to give back and set them on a course where they can also succeed.

- Advertisement -

DT: So it just happened? You just rose to the top by doing what you’re supposed to do?

BC: Yes. I’ve been willing to make the decisions when the decisions need to be made. Looking for the advice when you need advice. Listening to others when they have something to offer. Not that you implement everything that someone brings to you, but the fact that you’re willing to listen and you can learn something from that and then you can move forward with it.

DT: When Chief [Christine] Dunning left, there were 50 candidates interviewed. How did you become one of those candidates?

BC: From the time that I have been on the police department, all of our positions of chief have come from within. I felt that I had a skill set that would relate to the job that was being posted. I wanted it to remain within. I knew there were many candidates out there who were probably just as capable and qualified. But we needed to continue the tradition of having somebody from within lead our department. Not only did I have the skill set, but I knew the environment in which the chief was going to have to operate in. I know the city. I know the mayor is also in a position where he has a number of years left and a person coming from the outside … I don’t know that they would have the time to develop relationships, to understand the environment of the city and what is going on. So I thought I had a skill set, a knowledge base that I could fulfill the role. So I went ahead and applied. And I had some encouragement and people who were supporting me to move in that direction.

DT: You said you know what environment the new chief would be facing. What did you mean by that?

BC: Well, when you look at what the media is putting out about our city being one of the most violent cities in the United States based on per capita—the perception that we are a violent city. Again, growing up here, I understand that there is some crime that is going on, but to be recognized as one of the most violent cities, I don’t see that. Because again, you’re basing it off of stats and per capita numbers. But I’ve lived here my entire life, and I don’t have a problem going anywhere in this city. Again, I know the city. There is a lot of commitment—not only police officers and law enforcement—there are a lot of other organizations that are committed to this city, including the residents who live here. Everything that happens in this city is not occurring by a majority of people. There is a minority of people who are committing some violent crimes that we are looking to pinpoint. And if we are able to affect them, then we can impact the quality of life that is occurring within our city. I knew that I was coming into those kinds of things and that the challenges were going to be great, that the police department is being looked upon as being the ones who need to solve all of these issues. But if we can bring to light that you need to attack it from a holistic approach where there are other stakeholders in this who have to also step up—that’s what we’re trying to bring forward. We’re not trying to shirk any responsibility, saying it’s not the police who have a role in this. We know we have a role, and we’re willing to step up and handle our role in this.

DT: I suppose the answer to this is obvious, but what’s the No. 1 problem in the city?

BC: Violent crimes around drug sales and the weapons that come with that. And then the shooting incidents come behind that. People not knowing how to resolve their differences without bringing it back to violence. The issues that create that violence are generally based around someone’s economic development around the drug trade and somebody wants somebody else’s capital. That’s what’s driving a lot of the violence in our city. And the shooting incidents become a big part of that. Some of the shootings lead to homicides.

DT: What are your thoughts about adding a homicide unit?

BC: What people keep asking me is, ‘Why don’t we have a homicide unit?’ The reason we don’t have a homicide unit is that we don’t have the manpower to support one. If we were given the funding to support a homicide unit, obviously, we would put one in place. But that would cause us to increase our manpower. Authorized strength is about 320. If we could move somewhere around the area of 350 or better, we could then put a homicide unit together that would consist of maybe two homicide squads with a sergeant on each squad and then a lieutenant, who oversees that, who would then report back to the captain. But a homicide unit would be dedicated to investigating homicides. A homicide unit doesn’t stop a homicide. You follow up on incidents that have already occurred to try to get closure. Maybe if the homicide unit was able to arrest some of those individuals who were involved, maybe those are some of the individuals who impact some of these other incidents. And that way you would decrease the number of homicides that you’re getting. But a homicide unit would be dedicated to following those incidents up. It gives you the ability to assign a dedicated group of individuals to look at incidents that have already occurred, trying to get a resolution.

DT: One of the things you did was change your deployment. It’s been a few months. How is that going?

BC: In the past, we had a captain who was in charge of the uniform services division, which is the black-and-white cars that ride around and the majority of the officers on the street. Those individuals would have to report to one captain and that captain was in charge of the entire city in terms of providing the initial police services. And when we looked at it, that’s a great responsibility. So we divided it into three sectors, and we then put a captain in charge of each sector. So what we wanted out of that was some strong accountability in terms of that captain knowing what the issues are within the sector that they work and knowing the pulse of the area. And then have a group of officers who are primarily responsible for reporting to that area when they come into work. So then you build a sense of community relationships with that. The officers and the commander and then the community get involved so that they know what’s happening within the area. That sense of affecting crime and the quality of life gets to be that much stronger. We didn’t think it was going to happen overnight, but we do see some improvements there. The officers are getting out of their cars more and interacting with the community a lot more. Our command staff goes out, and we do park and walks, where we get out of our cars and go to certain areas of the city a couple nights a week, and we walk and introduce ourselves to make sure that people understand that we are available to them and that we are here to listen to their concerns. One of the things I looked at, too—a lot of times we look at things based on stats. And when we evaluate ourselves on whether or not we’re doing well, it’s based on how many arrests we were making, how many car stops we made, how many tickets we give out. And we could sell that as we’re doing a good job. But when you go to the community, and you ask them, ‘How are we doing?’ their perception of that was, they don’t care about the number of arrests you made. They don’t care about the number of tickets that you give out. What they want to know is, ‘How are you impacting our quality of life?’ So we looked at the community-policing model, where we want the people in the community to tell us if we’re doing well. The only way we know how to do that is if we go out and listen to what their concerns are and what impacts them the most. And how do we put practices in place that will impact them? So again, that’s what our deployment is doing for us in this community-based structure. We’re looking to build stronger communities through relationship building. And then through our sector deployment, it gives accountability to a commander who works an area to know what the issues are.

DT: How do you know whether it’s working?

BC: Right now we’re developing measures. People generally turn to numbers. So we’re looking at measures and how to determine that. Community surveys are one of the ways we’re going to do that. And then we’re looking at a matrix based around, ‘Have we been able to decrease the violent crimes that are occurring in the city?’ And we’re looking at solvability rates. We haven’t totally developed all of it yet. We want to get away from the arrests and moving violations to say what we’re doing well.

DT: How are you going about getting witnesses to violent crimes to share information with police?

BC: In order to get people to give information, we’re looking at, ‘How do we change the perception or the perspective in where they trust us?’ The only way we get to that is by building relationships. We have to get out and talk to people and let them understand that. A lot of us live in the community. We are residents of the city. We genuinely care about what’s going on. For them to trust us is to get out there and speak with them. Because if we don’t get information, we can be as good as we want to be in terms of—we know how to collect the evidence, we know how to investigate the crimes, we know how to go out here and carry through a protocol. But protocol without information and cooperation really gets us nowhere. So we continue to have the crime that occurs on the street. One of the things that we look at in terms of information, if you have people who trust you but they’re a little afraid of some sort of retaliatory measures, they’re not going to give you information. If you have leverage over people, like some kind of act that they committed, and you try to use that against them, you’re not going to get information. Some people want to be rewarded for the information that they give, which then gets them past some of the fears that they may have. They may be able to put themselves at a little bit more risk for some kind of monetary value. These are things that have been on the table and we’re looking at, but trust plays a big role in this. They want to know that they’re protected, that we’re not going to release information about them. These are things we’re working on.

DT: You said you can go anywhere in the city and not have a problem. Can I go anywhere in the city and not have a problem?

BC: I think you can. It’s about awareness. Anywhere you go in the United States, you can travel around and if you are aware of your surroundings and you pay attention to what is going on, you can be safe. But anywhere in the United States that you go, if you are oblivious to what is happening, you don’t pay attention to traffic lights when they turn red and green … you just think you can walk out in the street, you’re going to get hit by a car. But if you pay attention to the surroundings that there are traffic lights, there are controlling measures that take place, environmental conditions that go on, and if you are aware of those surroundings, then you are going to be safe. I’m not going to say there’s nothing ever going to happen, but your chances of being safe are a lot greater when you are aware of what you are doing and where you are at.

DT: I recognize that there’s a lot of cool stuff to do in the city, but is it wrong of me to be worried about taking my family to Market Street, for example?

BC: First of all, when we have fears, you have to take a look at where they are coming from. What put the perception in your mind that you should be scared in this area? And without looking into that and without doing the research based on it, you might be scared for no reason at all. Because someone said something and someone else carries it. And that rumor or whatever it may be gets carried and now people keep saying it and it becomes their truth. So now they believe that this is a bad environment because of something that they heard, not something that they’ve experienced. I don’t know that you get rid of all fears, because if you take away all fears, then you’re setting yourself up for trouble. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up and you feel something is wrong, you should look around and maybe go in another direction. As human beings, when we have a fear, we’ll just walk right into it and we’ll overlook the innate stuff that we have. When you see an animal out in the wild and they look up and they see something is not right to them, they’re taking off. A lot of times as humans, we want to seem like we have this power that we can overcome a lot of things and we don’t listen to that innate voice inside of us, and sometimes we put ourselves into a position that we don’t need to be in.

DT: You mentioned media coverage. What do you think about The News Journal’s coverage of the city, crime and the police department?

BC: I don’t think we always get the fairest look. We have things that we do every day of a positive nature that we release, and it doesn’t always get put out. Anyone who follows the media about the city, all you see is the negative thing that goes on about us. And that’s not this city. This city is not negative. There are a lot of positive things to do in the city. There are a lot of cultural things that go on in the city: arts, jazz, businesses that are going on. But, sometimes, they are being fed an image of our crime that puts them at a point where they think they need to move outside the city, or they don’t want to be here. We’re just constantly in a battle trying to combat that. We have an excellent city. We have a good city. We do have our issues at times, but for the most part, this city is not a terrible city. We have pockets of areas in the city that some people may think are more undesirable than others but there are a lot of good people, even in those areas that people consider undesirable. Not everybody has the means to move outside the city or have this luxury house or environment; to have whatever their upbringing was that told them that this is the environment that you need to be in. Not everybody has that means. What’s more important is that people have values. And that they understand that everybody has a right to move about wherever they are without having to be compromised by some kind of crime or incident. But again, in reality, there are people out there who prey on other people. We have to be aware of these circumstances as we live this life.

DT: The News Journal just ran a story that noted the city is on a record pace for homicides this year. How does that affect you? Do you lose sleep?

BC: To be honest, I don’t lose sleep over it because we do the best we can to impact people’s lives every day. We also know that there are people out there, that when they make up their mind to do something, they’re going to do it whether the police are around the corner or right there. And most of these criminal acts, you find that they do it when police are not around. They do it during hours when there’s not a lot of people out. We have had some incidents that have occurred during the daylight hours, but again, people aren’t willing to put themselves at risk to say who did what when they actually saw what happened. I know that for me personally, I can only impact those things that I have the resources and power to do. But for those things that I cannot control, that’s out of my hands. I can’t do anything about that. But everywhere I can provide resources, I have the ability to impact a situation, to deploy a plan that we believe is relevant that we believe will be the best for our city. I can do that. Deploying those plans sometimes, it causes us to change based on what we see. But to lose sleep over it … I don’t take on all the stress that can be taken on by this job because I would be diminishing myself. I am concerned about what happens, but I know I can only control those things that I have the power to control.

DT: Does media coverage affect how the department goes about its job?

BC: It does in a way because when the headlines go out and imply one thing or another, what that does is it makes us have to respond to it. We have to give an answer of why something is occurring. And doing that, it sometimes takes us away from other responsibilities and directions that we need to be headed in and we’re sitting around answering questions. We understand we have to answer questions. People have the right to know some things. But when you get too far into it and it then draws our resources from areas we can be focusing other places …  it’s what we do. It’s the environment that we’re in, and I understand that. But, again, it just takes resources from one location to prepare a response for something. My position is to be in a position to answer questions, to be the point person for the police department, to take the heat, to answer those tough questions when people are looking for certain answers. And one thing I will say is, I don’t always give the politically correct answer. I select to tell the truth. And, sometimes, I have to hold back on what I say because telling the truth sometimes hurts. I’d rather tell the truth and not deceive people. I don’t tell them that we’re going to do something that we really can’t do or promise you something that I know is not going to happen. I’m never going to promise something that I can’t deliver. We will try our best to do certain things, but I’m not going to tell somebody that we can do something when we can’t.

DT: Is it a help or a hindrance to you that Mayor Williams is a former Wilmington cop?

BC: It helps that he understands what we’re going through. And it helps that he’s in a position that he can help bring about change and resources to what the needs are of the police department and of the city. So he’s not been a hindrance to me at all.

DT: Does he let you do things the way you want to do them? How much does he impose his will and his thoughts? Of course, it’s his right to do so.

BC: Obviously, he’s my boss. So he can weight in on scenarios that he may have concern about. But he’s given me autonomy to run the police department. He has made some suggestions. If he feels as though I have the best interest of the city and of this department, he allows me to make those calls. He’s not been micromanaging me since I’ve been the police chief—not at all.

DT: How often do you see the mayor?

BC: He tries to stay out of the police department. Actually, I don’t know that he’s been in the building since he’s been the mayor. But I meet with him regularly as we have department head meetings every Monday. So I see the mayor quite frequently. It’s not about him running the department. He meets with his department heads to have a pulse on what’s going on within the city.

DT: How long do you have to get this violence under control?

BC: There’s been no time limit set on the time that I’m going to be here. What I do understand is that this is a political position and that I’m appointed. Anytime that the mayor does not approve of what I’m doing, he has the ability to let me go. And when I took this role, I understood that. So I don’t look at it like I’m under some kind of time period to get things under control. I look at it on a day-to-day basis, where we try to impact the things that we can and make the difference through deployment plans, through strategies, by networking with other groups, using the resources that we have at hand to make an impact and build a stronger relationship with the community. If the things we do make an impact for the city and turn out great, that’s fine. If it doesn’t turn around because of the innate environment that’s going on out here, again, we can only affect those things that we have the power to, and I’m comfortable with that. But I also know that I have job to do, and people have expectations. I try to fill the expectations the best I can. And if I can’t and I don’t meet those measures, again, I’m fine with that. It’s why I don’t have the pressures that I’m going to fall apart if this doesn’t happen. If it doesn’t happen by this date … I don’t set those kinds of pressures on myself.

DT: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to discuss?

BC: Some people look at our department as not being capable of doing the job. When you look at this department, every single day we go out and we impact this city. Every day, we stop violent crimes from occurring through our presence. Every day, we go out here and we take weapons off the street. It seems, like immediately, there’s two or three that replace the one we just took. Every day, these officers go out here and put themselves at risk to cause the city’s residents to have a better life, and try to impact their quality of life within the city. These officers do that selflessly. They put themselves out there. There are conditions that go on within the police department that officers will complain about. Maybe we don’t have the best cars or the best technology; they want to work this shift versus that shift. But even in all of that squabble, our officers go out here every single day and do the job. When you listen to this radio, these officers are out here and committed to what they are doing. No matter who the leadership is in this department, the officers who come to work here really want to serve the citizens. And again, there are things that go on internally that they may not agree with. They talk about not having a new contract in the last few years. Talking about having a uniform that represents professionalism when they go out to represent this department at either a ceremony or funeral service or paying respects to another office. Again, day-to-day, they will go out here, and they will do this job. I would say morale problems come from internal matters. Again, they’re talking about pay, equipment and things of that nature; maybe not having an assignment that they would like to be in. Those things cause morale issues. But again, when they go out here and serve the public, they will still do the job.

Our Best of Delaware Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!

Holiday flash sale ... subscribe and save 50%

Limited time offer. New subscribers only.