The ink has finally dried on a police partnership between the Towns of South Bethany and Ocean View. Both town councils have approved a mutual-aid memorandum-of-understanding that will allow police officers to provide rapid assistance to each other without having to be dispatched by SUSCOM 911 call center. Police officers will be sworn into the police forces of both towns.

The agreement is not the makings of a regional police force, but an exercise in cooperation “with our neighbors” to improve police coverage, outgoing Ocean View mayor Walt Curran had previously said.

“We are [still] having our own police force,” said South Bethany Mayor Tim Saxton. “Most of the time they will be here, unless they’re requested to go do assistance in another town.”

The Fenwick Island Police Department was invited to participate, but the town council there eventually voted it down, in January. Because that vote came after Ocean View and South Bethany had approved the MOU, both Towns have since had to re-approve a new document with two towns instead of three.

“It’s essentially the exact same contract as we had before, just minus the information related to Fenwick Island,” said Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin.

“It was good timing, because it was right before all this COVID-19 stuff hit,” he added. “I was able to sit down with [South Bethany Police Deparatment] Chief [Jason] Lovins and work out a strategy in case one or both of our agencies was hit with this COVID-19 … to ensure uninterrupted service to our communities.”

As the pandemic was heating up in March, Lovins told his town council, “Chiefs are looking at what resources they have, if a department falls victim to multiple absences or quarantines. … It’s almost exactly what we were talking about, what we’re doing with this MOU. With this vote, we’re definitely a step ahead of what I believe will become a trend.”

“For example, if their entire department went down, we would just incorporate regular patrols of our officers into South Bethany, as if they were part of Ocean View, and we would handle all their calls,” McLaughlin told the Coastal Point.

Like many people, the chiefs have been discussing the coronavirus health threat, and in their cases, specifically about how the MOU relates to it. But typically, Delaware’s more likely to have a weather-related State of Emergency.

“Our regular threat that we usually deal with is coastal storms. So, for South Bethany, that means flooding,” McLaughin said. If the low-lying police building there is impacted by back-bay flooding, “they can come here and operate out of Ocean View Police Department temporarily until flood waters subside.”

They’re also discussing opportunities for grant applications, joint investigations and traffic safety. The two towns are about 1.5 miles apart at the nearest point. The police departments worked well together last year when the SBPD was rebuilding its staff from a single officer, and the Ocean View and Fenwick Island police departments helped to cover shifts in South Bethany town limits.

Ultimately, it’s up to each police chief to oversee how much time his officers spend outside town limits. Their priority is still their home jurisdiction.

“I’ve looked at the population growth. It’s going to increase more and more,” said Lovins, so this plan becomes a “force-multiplier that I really don’t think we’re paying much into. … It would still be the exception that an Ocean View officer is patrolling in South Bethany.”

But if there are major absences for illness, vacation time, training or even another incident, a visiting officer could swing through town and keep an eye on things until the home officer is back on the road.

Police chiefs initially proposed a partnership between the two towns. But South Bethany Mayor Tim Saxton would not support the proposal unless three towns were involved, hoping to spread the responsibilities more. That’s when Fenwick was invited.

“I still hold that position. … I was never in favor of a dual agreement,” Saxton said in February. He apologized to the South Bethany Town Council for allowing their vote before Fenwick had voted.

“We wouldn’t have been here if this was a dual agreement originally. … When we voted do this, I was under the impression that Fenwick Island has already approved it. … That was my mistake.”

Ultimately, the entire South Bethany council unanimously approved the MOU, asking the chief to give a monthly progress report, in addition to the annual reviews.

“I’ll be honest — [Chief Lovins] moved me off the fence. I support trying it for a year, at this point,” Saxton concluded.

“And we’re able to get out of this, if we wish — if you find out that it’s not helping our town,” said Council Member Carol Stevenson.

All three police chiefs seemed disappointed and surprised by the Fenwick Island Town Council’s decision.

“I believe ‘the more the merrier.’ I’m still a little perplexed as to what happened, because personally I saw no downside. It was an MOU. It wasn’t a legal contract. They can opt out of it at any time,” said McLaughlin. “I think there was concern there was more to this. It’s not. It’s basically saying, ‘Hey we’re here to help each other out.’”

“Sometimes you have to be a leader. If we help establish the precedent of doing this, maybe the other towns will follow,” said South Bethany Council Member Dick Oliver.

South Bethany council members wondered about the public perception of relying on a bigger police department, especially when the SBPD has worked hard to rebuild.

“Going into this summer, I assure you our police station’s going to be in great shape,” Lovins said. “Our manpower and the training and the officers we have — I’m very proud. I’m very excited for the summer.”

The two departments have already had several joint trainings that might not have been possible individually with a smaller staff, due to lack of staff.

This is not one department being absorbed into another, nor is it a regional police force.

“I just don’t see that ever happening — definitely not in the tenure of my lifetime,” said Lovins. “That’s not my intention. I don’t believe that’s Chief McLaughlin’s intention. To me, that’s not a realistic concern not to be in favor of this MOU.”

A regional force is also unlikely in the near future, because it would require town charter changes, so the state legislature would also have to approve it.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.