Frankford, Del. — a small rural town, population less than 750, no taverns, plenty of churches, a feed mill and a brand new high school. And, as any real estate agent will tell you, it’s minutes from the beach.
But every rose has a thorn or two, and the town is struggling with resurgence in criminal activity, especially drug-related, at certain chronic hotspots.Towards addressing those problems, some of the residents posted flyers, summoning neighbors to a very important community meeting at the Frankford Fire Hall on Aug. 9. Dozens responded.
Council Member Pam Davis (in her role as police liaison) and Marla Daisey (Council President Robert Daisey’s wife) hosted the meeting.
Davis thanked everyone for coming, assuring them their concerns and comments would be appreciated. As she later pointed out, there’d been turnout from every street in town.
Spanish speakers clustered in one quarter to follow an interpreter’s recap (Frankford’s population is more than 20 percent Hispanic) as Delaware State Police (DSP) representatives in the front row fielded questions.
The DSP sent four officers from Troop 4, including Capt. Tim Winstead and Cpl. Dennis Lineweaver, and the Governor’s Task Force (GTF) sent two, with Cpl. Frank Fuscellaro fielding questions specific to the drug-related activities.
The GTF comprises both police and probation and parole officers, and focuses on specific areas of criminal activity. The task force has countywide jurisdiction (approaching 1,000 square miles) and works investigations, rather than complaints.
The DSP has jurisdiction over roughly 400 square miles, Winstead pointed out, and responds to everything from fender benders to armed robberies, 24 hours a day.
He admitted they were sometimes spread a little thin. There are on average between four and seven officers riding the coverage area, Winstead continued — and they’ll come to a call, but it might take a little while.
Frankford has staffed a one-person municipal police force a time or two in the past, but presently hires officers from Troop 4 on a contract basis, for 20 hours a week (the town budgeted $55,000 for that expense this year).
The DSP still responds to emergency calls, if the contracted officers are occupied elsewhere, and enjoys good-neighbor cooperation from Selbyville Police Chief Scott Collins and Dagsboro Police Chief William Dudley.
But this sleepy little town is still experiencing some big town problems.
Daisey explained. “The reason we called this meeting together is, Robert being town council president, it seems like I field a lot of the calls,” she said.
Many of those calls pertained to certain traditional problem areas, and Daisey noted a “riot-type situation” at Reed and Honolulu streets a couple months back. As her husband later pointed out, a state police helicopter attempted to disperse the crowd, with limited success — and afterward, no one seemed willing to step forward and file a complaint.
“The drug deals are going on, as I feel, much as they were in the 80s and 90s,” Daisey said.
“Those two houses on Delaware Avenue, that are enough within town limits that all the traffic going through town goes by those two houses,” she continued. “So, Delaware Avenue, Reed Street and Honolulu are the three hotspots.”
Daisey asked Winstead about a delayed response to a recent 911 call regarding a complaint of unruly behavior at the corner of Reed and Honolulu, around midnight (a noisy group, trespassing into the caller’s yard, urinating on the bushes, etc., Daisey said. They’d also uprooted a nearby street sign, and thrown that into the yard).
“Is there anything we can do to keep them from congregating on that corner,” she asked.
“If someone makes a 911 call, I can guarantee you there will be a police response,” Winstead said. But depending on what else is going on, and the nature of the call, there might be a delay.
Daisey said volunteer firefighters used to sit there some nights, and had served as an effective deterrent in years past.
She asked Frankford Fire Chief Robbie Murray about reviving the bygone tradition, but he balked. “That’s not part of our mission, unfortunately,” he responded.
Later, Murray said he’d fully support “community night out” type events, in partnership with police, but otherwise he would not ask volunteer firefighters to endanger themselves beyond their job descriptions.
Daisey redirected, suggesting the town could do a better job of scheduling the contracted police officers on the weekends, when most of the drug-related activity seemed to be taking place.
Murray kept his peace, but commented after the meeting. When he’s not at the fire hall, he’s working for the Sussex County Emergency Medical Service (SCEMS).
This contract work was above and beyond the officers’ normal work week, he noted — if police were anything like paramedics, even posting an overtime bonus wouldn’t likely entice many people into picking up extra hours on Fridays and Saturdays.
But Daisey said extra coverage on weekdays didn’t effectively address the problems, especially when, according to some accounts, officers simply ran traffic control in one spot for two hours at a time. And she’d received one report of an officer reading the newspaper while on duty, Daisey relayed.
Winstead agreed that would be unacceptable, and handed out his cell phone number in case residents ever wanted to report something like that to him.
Or, they could always approach the officer, he pointed out — he hinted that there’d be more serious recriminations if he took the call. And residents should certainly approach an officer in a parked cruiser if they know there was “action” somewhere else in town, Winstead noted.
“Let the officer know,” he said. “Please don’t hesitate to go up and say something to them.
“I think it just makes sense, if there’s a certain day or time that these offenses are occurring, where there’s a need for police services, then it seems ridiculous, on our part, to schedule these special duty officers at any other time,” Winstead admitted.
Davis declined to specify days or times, but she was clear on location. “We need to focus on Reed and Honolulu,” she said. “We need to clean up that corner first.
“School’s about to start again, and we have young kids down there. We have no adults down there that can stand there watching, and those kids are petrified to go down there to catch the school bus.”
As a bus driver herself, Davis has a first-hand perspective on that situation.
However, Murray said it wasn’t just at Reed and Honolulu — police had netted one of their biggest community drug busts just south of town, on Pepper Road.
Daisey asked about a neighborhood watch, and Lineweaver said there were any number of ways the residents could coordinate such a program. The DSP would merely advise, though, he said — it would be up to the citizens to run it.
“We’re aware of the activities on Delaware Avenue,” Fuscellaro (GTF) pointed out. “But they’re smart. If you watch somebody who goes into Delaware Avenue to buy drugs, they’re going to use their signals as soon as they leave.”
And marked or unmarked, Fuscellaro said suspects typically had an idea where the cruiser was parked. There were other hurdles to overcome as well — he noted the recent arrest of one Frankford resident who’d been wanted for eight months or so to make an example.
“He’s a big player in the drug-dealing trade, plus — a lot of people know him. A lot of people here know him,” Fuscellaro said. “Might have even known he was wanted, but maybe were thinking, ‘Oh, he’s just wanted out of Family Court.’ Well, [the individual] was wanted out of Superior Court.”
He noted another arrest on Reed Street, and agreed with comments from the audience that the individual in question had indeed been released.
“Most people here know the players,” he concluded. “And most of you know what they’re doing.”
There were comments about officers responding to 911 calls by approaching the house where the call originated, and how that sometimes discouraged people from reporting criminal activity (nearby suspects could link the contact to the caller). And there might be some lingering paperwork issues within Hispanic community — another disincentive to call.
However, Winstead said there was always a “no contact” option, if people preferred, and a Hispanic liaison at Troop 4.
As Murray pointed out, it was important for people to realize they could call 911 more than once, not only to ask for a progress report, but if a situation changed, to give dispatchers the opportunity to reassess.
Winstead agreed, and encouraged people to keep calling, and keep talking to police officers.
There were complaints of people getting pulled over for seat belt violations on their way home from church, while all the real problems festered right around the corner, but Fuscellaro said that was one of the best ways for them to get at the real criminals.
“What we try to do, is make them feel uncomfortable in their environment — and we need your cooperation and understanding if we pull you over for something minor,” he said.
Someone asked about the possibility of a drug checkpoint, similar to drunk-driving checkpoints. However, Lineweaver said they’d been tried, and failed miserably.
It wasn’t permitted to set up in some random neighborhood, he pointed out — that carried the appearance of profiling. As Winstead added, police needed a history of previous Driving under the Influence (DUI) arrests and/or accidents involving DUI on a certain stretch of road before they could set up a checkpoint.
However, he did say Troop 4 was beginning to compile a solid database on incidents and suspects around Frankford, and advised residents they could check out some of that information themselves, online.
For instance, there’s a list of people who have outstanding capiases (warrants) at the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System (DELJIS), and what they’re wanted for.
Daisey recruited some potential “street captains” while she had everyone together, and scheduled another meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 13, to continue discussions about a neighborhood watch program.