TOWNSEND — This tiny southwestern New Castle County town is no hotbed of crime, but that doesn’t mean that the 1,000 or so residents feel safe and satisfied.
In fact, even though Delaware State Police handled just 222 calls for service in Townsend all of last year, the community is thinking seriously of starting its own police department, which could increase its budget by more than 50 percent.
Officials and some residents say having a town officer or two would make them feel more secure as the community grows on the crest of a suburban housing boom that has slowed only in recent months.
Mayor Dave Raughley thinks criminals are capitalizing on the absence of a constant police presence.
“They know that there isn’t a police force in town, and they know what they can get away with,” Raughley said.
Townsend’s interest in establishing its own force follows Middletown’s decision last month to hire its own officers and end a contract for coverage by New Castle County police.
It mirrors interest by other small towns now served by state police as part of often sprawling patrol zones.
Townsend is part of the coverage area of state police Troop 9, which is based in Odessa and serves an area south to the Kent County line and as far north as the Christiana Mall.
Sussex County towns such as Millville and Frankford also have contemplated starting police departments, but can’t yet afford them.
Cost remains the biggest obstacle for Townsend. It could start up a bare-bones, two-officer force using a sizable surplus built up over the years from real estate transfer taxes.
But after that nest egg disappears in five years, a police force would add at least $150,000 in annual costs to what now is an annual budget of $280,000.
Not every resident supports that idea.
One town couple sent Raughley an e-mail saying the town couldn’t afford its own agency and didn’t need one.
But Sally Cannon, 37, said she would like the peace of mind she’d get just knowing officers are within town limits. She feels safe now, but worries about the future as the town grows.
“It seemed like we were just a speck on the Earth, and now it seems to be growing pretty fast,” said Cannon.
‘They’re not here all the time’
The main thing that Townsend would gain from its own police force is just what Cannon desires — a cop on the beat.
“We don’t have anybody in town to enforce our laws right now, because the state police — they’re here, but they’re not here all the time,” said Granville “Bud” Higgins, 63, who sits on the police committee.
Troopers from Troop 9 patrol Townsend as part of a larger service area that includes major highways such as Del. 1 and U.S. 13. Townsend is roughly a thousandth of the 200-square-mile service area. Townsend also pays troopers extra to occasionally run radar, mainly on Del. 71.
Like many midstate towns, Townsend’s population has ballooned in recent years — up to an estimated 1,100 residents from the 346 counted in the 2000 U.S. Census.
But Townsend sees little crime, at least by the numbers.
In June, for example, there were three car accidents, one triggered alarm, two acts of criminal mischief, one domestic assault, two noise complaints, one robbery, three reports of suspicious vehicles or persons, two thefts and one traffic violation. Of those complaints, only 10 required written reports.
Last year, state police handled 222 calls for service in Townsend — less than one call per day and just a bit more than 1 percent of Troop 9’s 14,828 calls for service.
“There’s not a great criminal element in Townsend,” said Capt. James Paige, who commands Troop 9. “It’s a very safe place to live. It’s a very safe place to have a family.”
Town officials say they have not reviewed crime statistics or analyzed state police response times as part of their consideration of establishing a police force.
Councilwoman Sherry Drake, who heads the town’s police committee, said many crimes go unreported to police, though she doesn’t know why. Town officials have heard of cars getting broken into or egged, but sometimes weeks after the crimes occurred, she said.
“There’s a lot more crime than people are reporting,” Drake said. “We’re just trying to nip it in the bud right now, because it will probably get worse” as the town grows.
Residents have complained of slow state police response times at least twice in the past year, but both complaints turned out to be groundless.
In one case, a resident reported suspicious people outside her home on Mayfield Lane. A dispatcher apparently didn’t tell a trooper to contact the resident after checking the area — seven minutes after her call, according to state police.
Another incident involved two men picking fights with people leaving a New Year’s Eve party at the town’s fire hall.
A councilman and town code enforcement officer were injured, and police seemed to take a while to arrive, Drake said. Police records show the first trooper arrived about eight minutes after dispatchers received a 911 call.
From Jan. 1 to April 16, state police responded to 51.1 percent of calls in Townsend within 15 minutes, and to 77.8 percent of calls within 30 minutes.
Funding is biggest challenge
The town thinks it can afford to start a department but isn’t sure it could afford to run even a small agency five years from now.
Projected annual costs of $150,000 for a two-officer force would eventually require some sort of new revenue. The town’s budget of $280,000 includes only $65,000 paid to the state for extra work by state troopers.
A draft budget up for approval at Wednesday’s Town Council meeting earmarks $200,000 for police protection this year, with most of that coming from the surplus from real estate transfer taxes, Drake said.
The town might think about enacting an impact fee on new development to pay for a police department down the road, she said.
Similar funding problems have slowed down other towns’ drives to start police departments. Greg Johnson, president of Frankford’s Town Council, which has an estimated population of 685, said plans to form an agency have stalled because startup funds fell short.
Nearby Millville, estimated to have 274 residents last year, also needs more money before it could create a police department, said Mayor Donald Minyon.
“We’re still a pretty sleepy town,” Minyon said. But residents said in surveys they want a police department, and as the town gets new banks and stores, the businesses should also get enhanced police service, the mayor said.
“When they pay taxes to the town, they deserve something, too,” Minyon said. “And police protection is probably the best thing we can provide for them down the road.”
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