Multiple towns consider partnership for police coverage

It’s not a regional police force, but three coastal towns are considering a partnership to improve police coverage.

The Ocean View and Fenwick Island police departments have already been helping to fill gaps in South Bethany during a shortage of officers this year. That means the officers were sworn into the SBPD and could patrol, perform traffic stops or respond to calls for service there.

“This past spring, the Town of South Bethany was faced with a public-safety crisis,” Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin said. “In response, the South Bethany Town Council requested assistance from nearby communities. Specifically, South Bethany needed other police agencies to temporarily conduct police patrols and respond to emergency calls in South Bethany while South Bethany re-built its own police department.

“The Town of Ocean View did not hesitate in offering assistance to a neighbor in need,” he added. “Ocean View police, as well as police from the Delaware State Police and Fenwick Island, combined forces to patrol the streets of South Bethany during the summer months.”

Now, the three towns are considering a Mutual Aid memorandum-of-understanding that would allow police officers to provide rapid assistance to each other without having to be dispatched by SUSCOM 911 call center. Police officers would be sworn into the police forces of all three towns.

“The arrangement worked well, and myself, Chief Lovins and Chief Boyden,” he said of his counterparts in South Bethany and Fenwick Island, “saw merit in combining forces to take advantage of in-house resources, pairing important skills and working together to solve and eliminate crime in southeastern Sussex County.

“In the near future, I anticipate that a formal mutual assistance agreement between the Ocean View police, South Bethany police and Fenwick Island police will be approved,” McLaughlin said.

“It is not anything of us trying to form a regional police force,” said South Bethany Mayor Tim Saxton. “We are having our own police force. Most of the time they will be here, unless they’re requested to go do assistance in another town.”

For instance, sometimes an agency needs everyone to attend a firearms training, or employees are absent on vacation or sick leave. They could ask another agency to perform a 15-minute patrol through town once every few hours, just to keep an eye on things.

That could also increase officer safety, because police never know what they could encounter during a routine traffic stop. So if something turns bad, a backup officer is more likely to be nearby. He or she would have already heard the traffic stop being initiated on the shared radio frequency all the departments use.

“If an Ocean View officer or a Fenwick officer is doing absolutely nothing at 3 in the morning, and he hears one of my young officers go on a traffic stop … under the agreement, he doesn’t have to be notified through SUSCOM,” said South Bethany Police Chief Jason Lovins. “My officer doesn’t have to request him to come — he can hear that traffic stop and think, ‘You know, I’m doing absolutely nothing right now — I’ll start in that direction in case it turns into something, in case he needs something.”

The visiting officer could simply drive by, get a thumbs-up and return to Ocean View.

Or if any officer sees a traffic violation during a late-night coffee run in another town, he or she could enforce that traffic violation and write a ticket. Currently, they can secure a situation, but they have to wait and serve as a witness for the agency with primary jurisdiction.

“But I don’t want him up there running radar on a regular basis. He’s not paid to be in Ocean View, he’s paid to be here,” Lovins said of his officers. “It would still be the exception that a Fenwick officer or an Ocean View officer was doing a routine patrol through our town.”

It’s up to the chiefs to supervise their own staff. Officers are first sworn to their own towns, so a chief could also recall an officer who he sees spending too much time in another town (thanks to GPS monitoring on town-owned vehicles).

It would be an assist. Police officers should only leave their own towns as needed.

“I think it’s a great idea because most people around town … wish there was a regional policing,” said South Bethany Town Council Member Don Boteler, adding that he supports “anything that mimics a regional policing solution.”

“What’s important for the people to know is we’re still going to have our own police department, and their main function is to operate in the town of South Bethany,” said Saxton. “If they need help, it’s easier now. … They can radio over, ‘Hey, I need someone to come over quick,’ because they’re a sworn officer.”

The same goes for Ocean View and Fenwick.

Each police department would still be an independent agency, but this is a force multiplier. Each town has less than 10 fulltime officers, but now they could leverage two dozen. (That could also help with grant applications that ask if the money will be shared among other policing agencies.)

“Everyone talks about 24-hour coverage. But when you have trainings and vacations and sick-leave and all that kind of stuff, there are numerous times we don’t have the 24-7 that we think we have sometimes,” said South Bethany Town Council Member Sue Callaway. “So I think it would be an advantage.”

Despite a size difference between departments, they could all potentially play a fair role. Smaller towns might have more empty shifts, but larger towns might have more incidents requiring backup.

Police chiefs would have specific powers over any visiting officers. For instance, if an armed subject is barricaded in Ocean View, all assisting officers would fall under the OVPD’s supervision and chain of command. But each officer ultimately responds to his or her own chief.

“However, I, as the chief, can say, ‘No. South Bethany. Leave and come back. We’re not going to get involved in that,” said Lovins.

Each town would handle its own investigations. But officers would have to attend any court appearances required for the traffic tickets or arrests they initiate.

Lovins said he didn’t anticipate the officers needing to learn each other’s town ordinances. Most life-threatening violations are already covered in state code. So “if it’s a town ordinance or violation, it probably wouldn’t be life-threatening violation,” he said.

The Bethany Beach Police Department has not been part of the discussion.

However, in an emergency, the nearest police officers will always respond, regardless of agency, according to a longstanding mutual aid agreement. For instance, a violent scene in Fenwick could draw officers from Selbyville, South Bethany and Bethany Beach, as well as the Delaware State Police.

If a prowler is rattling around somebody’s house at 3 a.m., SUSCOM will still dispatch the nearest police officer. But maybe, under the new system, a visiting officer would have already noticed that suspicious person on the street.

Saxton said he sees “nothing but an upside. … All three chiefs really want to do it,” and the mayors have also been part of the discussion.

The agreement is not complete yet. Ocean View initiated the idea, so their attorneys drew up a draft, which the other town solicitors are now reviewing. After details are ironed out, the MOU must be approved by all three town councils. The South Bethany Town Council has unanimously supported the concept.

Fenwick Island Mayor Eugene Langan said that town will probably sign on to the mutual aid agreement, but that for now “it’s still in the discussion phase.”

“What we want to do is help each other out,” Langan said. For the county’s eastern portion, Langan said, “There’s not a lot of state police coverage,” making it more important for the municipal police departments to work together.

The issue has not gone before the Fenwick Island Town Council yet, Langan said, adding that that step is probably a couple months away.

“We go all the way to Williamsville,” well to the west of Fenwick Island, to answer calls, Langan said of the FIPD. With a mutual aid agreement, other departments could more easily step in while their counterparts are outside their municipality answering a call.

“I don’t see any downside” to a mutual aid agreement, Langan said.

If it doesn’t work out, the chiefs could abandon the idea after a few months. If it does work, the town councils can still review and renew the agreement every year.

 

By Laura Walter, Kerin Magill and Susan Canfora
Staff Reporters