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Wilmington police strategy making inroads

December 26, 2016

Sgt. Bill Schmid, of the Wilmington Police Department, explains to another officer how a motor vehicle collision occurred from witness statements after coming from witness statements after coming upon the vehicles while on patrol Sunday night, Dec. 18, 2016.

After one year of clearing street corners and connecting with city residents, Wilmington's DISRUPT unit is making a dent in crime through old-fashioned policing and a little help from technology.

Arresting people who possess or sell drugs, drive recklessly or have guns, as well as serving arrest warrants for nearly 800 people, is just a piece of what the unit, which was lauded by Wilmington Police Chief Bobby Cummings, has accomplished in its first year. The small crimes and quality-of-life issues that the 19-officer unit targets are what lead to much bigger problems, especially violence, and it's exactly what the city hopes will lower crime rates in the long term.

"We approach it as the little things," said Wilmington Sgt. Bill Schmid, one of two supervisors who has overseen the unit since it began in January.

The "little things" are loiterers outside of abandoned homes on Bennett Street or those killing time outside the corner store at Seventh and Madison streets in Wilmington's West Center City. When the temperatures drop to the 20s and people are still hanging around outside, police start paying attention.

It has been a tough year in the city, as homicides by gunfire climbed to 21, with another seven people killed as a result of a fatal fire, stabbings and an assault. These deaths can't be attributed to one trend in particular, but the department has to deal with the ramifications.

Sgt. Bill Schmid, of the Wilmington Police Department, drives his car through the streets of Wilmington on patrol Sunday night, Dec. 18, 2016.

DISRUPT stands for Dealing with Issues of Stabilization, Respect, Understanding and Promoting Trust. These factors are key for fighting crime in the city and making the streets a safer place to live and play, said Sgt. Andrea Janvier, spokeswoman for Wilmington Police Department. They also define what policing in the city strives to encompass and promote, she said.

"Working in combination with our Uniform Services Division, Criminal Investigations Division, as well as monitoring weekly TAPS (Targeted Analytical Policing System) analysis, DISRUPT officers have without question made an impact in crime prevention and reduction efforts in 2016," Janvier said, noting that the unit received a commendation for its work in the first year of existence.

Wilmington Police Department officers examined a wound on the back of a man's head after he reported being stabbed inside a home in Wilmington on Sunday night, Dec. 18, 2016.

With these strategies in mind, the unit uses weekly police strategy meetings to determine where its services are most needed on a particular night or week. Because the unit doesn't operate like traditional patrol officers, who respond to all calls for service, DISRUPT officers are freed up for "special attentions," often performed by parking a police vehicle and walking an area.

These tactics help prevent crime while also putting officers in direct contact with those living in neighborhoods most affected by crime. In some cases, it helps police build relationships with residents in a particularly troubled area, Schmid said. The unit can then work with them to take care of their biggest concerns while building trust with locals.

In other cases, Schmid said the unit has prompted troublemakers to simply move.

"We've heard from some people that they got tired of officers on their block every day," he said. "In a lot of ways, that's a success story."

On a recent Sunday night as temperatures dropped, Schmid's officers spotted a man standing outside a liquor store in Hedgeville. Within seconds, the patrol car was parked and the officers were out of the vehicle, talking to the now-frustrated man. The woman with him scurried off almost instantly.

The same officers had arrested the man  the previous week, but Schmid said he failed to appear in court and was wanted. Wilmington's size allows many police officers to quickly become familiar with those out in the community, especially those they often interact with. Akin to Wilmington's past "jump-out squads," the routine gets results, Schmid said.

It's a unit he hopes won't be lost in a transitioning administration, either.

Sgt. Bill Schmid, of the Wilmington Police Department, aids other officers as they look for a stabbing suspect on Sunday night, Dec. 18, 2016.

"There's a need for diversity in the department," Schmid said. "A unit like this is necessary because it lets you address violence. We're going off a lot of information from community members."

It doesn't hurt that many DISRUPT officers came from the Community Policing unit, which was disbanded in early January much to the dismay of community leaders and residents. In some ways, the link has proved incredibly helpful, Schmid said.

Outgoing Wilmington Councilman Michael Brown agreed, adding that his constituents and others have voiced support for the unit. The handpicked officers have turned stark results in the city, including taking 40 guns off the street, that shouldn't be lost in the transition to a new mayor.

He stressed that the tactic or the idea behind DISRUPT isn't new. Jump-out squads and the Mobile Enforcement Team focused on the same goal, but the new unit seems to be working. It's also putting officers back in touch with community members.

"They disrupted a lot of things because of the initiative they took on," Brown said. "I think not only should they continue it, but I think they should go ahead and accept that ($1,875,000 federal) grant, which is a help to them."

The city was recently awarded more than $1.8 million to hire 15 new police officers dedicated to community policing. Under the department's current mission, all police officers are trained to be community police officers so the grant would allow these new hires to focus on one of Wilmington's biggest obstacles: homicides.

Sgt. Bill Schmid walks through a court year with other members of the Wilmington Police Department as they look for evidence of a shooting scene following a ShotSpotter call on Sunday night, Dec. 18, 2016.

The grant has not yet been signed by Mayor Dennis P. Williams and his administration, and Brown fears the money will be lost if action is not taken soon.

"Until we give these men and women in blue all the necessary resources to do their jobs, it's going to continue," he said. "They get more calls for service than any other agency in the state. Sometimes, it's like they're chasing their tails."

On a recent Sunday night, a reported stabbing and two ShotSpotter alerts for two separate incidents of gunfire had police cars flying across the city. In both cases, no one was injured and a shooting scene couldn't be located. The stabbing turned out to be nothing more than a fight between a father and his son with insignificant injuries.

Wilmington Police Department officers lead a stabbing suspect to their patrol car on Sunday night, Dec. 18, 2016.

Because the unit doesn't respond to all calls for service, DISRUPT officers typically go to major crimes like shootings, stabbings and assaults.

Too often this year, though, the scenes officers responded to were bloody and sometimes fatal. The DISRUPT unit's connection with the community can sometimes help solve these crimes.

"Solving a homicide is a multi-faceted effort," Janvier said, "and we will continue to move our department forward by implementing strategies to assist in relationship-building efforts."

The department, despite reporting a high homicide clearance rate this year of 69 percent, still struggles to get information from Wilmington residents. Many still believe in the "no snitching" policy and won't speak with police.

"Community policing is important, but this is another link," Schmid said of the work the unit does. "It's another way to gather and feed information."

Schmid paused at a crest in the city, where the Riverfront and downtown Wilmington spanned below.

"The little things are the big things," he said.