Marsha Thompson Decker always knew her daughter, Tiffany Montgomery, might die.
At age 17, Tiffany began using Percocet. At the time, prescription opioids were plentiful and cheap in Kentwood Estates, the mobile home park she lived in just north of Dover city limits.
For years, Thompson Decker watched her daughter struggle with addiction, moving from pain pills to heroin. She and Tiffany were close, but Thompson Decker “couldn’t really do anything to make it stop.”
Tiffany would try to get clean through treatment, and sometimes a stint in Baylor Women's Correctional Institution would sober her up. But she’d always go right back to the same people she’d use drugs with — something Thompson Decker feared might one day kill her.
That day came on Feb. 10, 2020.
Tiffany, now a 34-year-old mother of four, was shot in the head, one of five people injured in a shooting on West Reed Street, just blocks from downtown Dover. She was the only one killed.
The area is a hub for illegal activity, and Tiffany was likely there for heroin.
In Dover, where homicides reached a record high last year, gunfire is routine. The city of 38,000 recorded nine people killed, eight by firearms, in 2020. That’s a 300% increase from 2019, which saw two gun deaths.
PART ONE, 'THE FORGOTTEN CITY': How drugs and gangs drove Dover's record year of gun violence
Much of the violence in the city is drug and gang related, officials have said. Gangs peddle narcotics and use firearms to protect their business.
Curbing the violence by reducing the amount of narcotics in Dover will take years of work. But the cycle can be broken if the city, its residents and the state comprehensively address the social determinants that lead to drug use and gang participation, experts say.
"You have to offer them the opportunity to know a different life,” said Dr. Sandra Gibney, an emergency room physician who has devoted much of her time to fighting the opioid epidemic.
"If you don't address the (issues), they'll go back to what they know. What they know is the street, and then the violence won't go away. It can’t.”
Cosmetic fixes can help — but only so much
Empty liquor bottles and food wrappers lie among decaying leaves in the blocks around South New Street.
Many of the houses here have peeling paint and rickety porches, and some appear vacant with overflowing mailboxes and cloudy windows.
From January to November 2020, Dover’s code enforcement office reported 128 violations in the downtown area, most of them within the three blocks between Kirkwood and West Reed streets. The most common violations included grass growing above 8 inches high and other property maintenance issues.
City officials know of the issues and are bothered by them. Councilman Roy Sudler said he’s embarrassed the area has become such a scourge on the city, and that it only seems to be getting worse.
Add on the drugs and gun violence in these same areas, and people simply don’t feel safe in their own community.
And yet, many residents feel the city and other agencies have done little to intervene.
These blocks weren’t always this bad. Once a working-class area, the neighborhood was home to community events and barbecues, the friendly chatter and savory smells typically coming from Holy Trinity Union American Methodist Episcopal Church on the corner of South New and West Reed streets.
But then, several decades ago, “New, Queen, Kirkwood streets were turned over to landlords that took nice, working-class homes” and required little more than monthly payments from their tenants, said Mayor Robin Christiansen.
“A lot of the families that lived there who could move away did move away, and the neighborhood deteriorated,” he said. “The city of Dover is responsible, (city) council really did nothing to stop that.”
The solution to curbing gun violence in Dover is as complicated and multifaceted as the problem itself. But many agree that cleaning up the street and homes is a place to start.
“The trash and the criminal activity — these elements exist here because people think this is the way it’s supposed to be,” said Lachelle Paul, a Dover activist. “But it’s not.”
In recent years, the city has taken aim at some of its worst neighborhoods by installing cameras and lights, which studies have shown can reduce crime. Those initiatives have proven effective in certain areas, said Dover police Sgt. Jeffrey Gott as he patrolled the city on a quiet night before Halloween.
“I think it does prevent some crime, or at least has dissipated it to other areas,” Gott said while driving through Dover’s Capital Green neighborhood. “When they first started getting installed, half this neighborhood had (cameras), half of it didn’t, and we started seeing more problems in the area that didn’t.”
The cameras have also been helpful to police in solving crimes, especially in the South New Street area, where many have been installed. One homicide, Gott said, “was captured entirely on video.”
But lighting and cameras can only do so much, as evidenced by the fact that nearly a third of Dover’s shooting victims last year — 10 of 32 — have been in the four blocks surrounding South New and West Reed streets.
To really change the area, residents say, the city needs to start by either tearing down or restoring the abandoned homes that contribute to the problem, something Dover did on Kirkwood Street beginning in 2018.
For decades, that road harbored much of the city’s blight. “In the old days,” Christiansen said, police “would only go down there if they absolutely had to.”
But the area has improved drastically since Dover, Habitat for Humanity and NCALL, a Dover-based nonprofit that develops affordable housing, targeted the street for restoration.
With its newly-built homes — the fresh trim on the houses is still crisp and white — Kirkwood Street hasn’t recorded a single shooting this year.
It’s a testament to how an area can change when those who are invested in their neighborhood move in, Christiansen said.
“If people have a vested interest in the neighborhood, if you’re paying a mortgage and you’ve got kids, (you) don’t tolerate it,” Christiansen said.
Still, rehabilitating Kirkwood Street was just a cosmetic fix. Because Dover did not address the issues that led to people loitering, using and selling drugs there, the city “just moved Kirkwood Street to New Street,” said Bobby Wilson, a member of the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP.
“We can’t keep moving streets; we’ve got to completely revamp them,” Wilson said. “It’s called restoration of life.”
'Drugs become the way of coping'
Sitting in front of a barbed-wire fence on South New Street one warm October afternoon, a group of older men gathered around several small tables, playing cards and dice.
As they puffed on cigarettes and drank out of bottles concealed in paper bags, they laughed, showing off gaps in their mouths where teeth once were. From down the street, two middle-aged women limped toward the group, dragging a mattress in the dirt behind them.
These Dover residents have led tough lives.
Most have been arrested, and some are homeless. Others have been shot at, or witnessed friends and family die from drug or gang violence, or overdoses. Many spend what little money they have on alcohol or drugs and whatever food they can get hold of cheaply.
Born “automatically locked into poverty,” said University of Delaware Black American studies professor Yasser Payne, these are people who may be living without power or water at times.
And yet, society expects these residents, who may not know when their next meal is coming or who have been wearing the same clothes for days, "to act like none of these things should be affecting" them, Payne said.
But they are affected, said Gibney, chairwoman of the access and treatment committee for Delaware’s Behavioral Health Consortium. And without health insurance and money for mental health counseling, let alone basic necessities, “drugs become the way of coping, the way of dealing.”
“Unfortunately, that perpetuates it, because if you use drugs, no one's going to help you out with a job,” Gibney said. “It's a Catch-22 in that regard.”
There are some options for addiction treatment in Dover and Kent County, but they’re limited. Cost is also a factor — even with insurance, treatment is expensive, and free options near the city are almost nonexistent.
“Dover suffers from extreme lack of resources even in comparison to Wilmington, and definitely in comparison to cities like Philadelphia or Baltimore or New York City,” Payne said.
Dover activists like the Rev. Carol Harris, founder of a nonprofit that focuses on preventing drug abuse, say that while a handful of local nonprofits and organizations want to help, they don’t have the funds to do so.
It would take an organized effort between these entities and the city to get something up and running, she said.
DOVER'S ATTEMPT TO HELP: Dover police start Angel program to combat heroin
Dover has tried to tackle the problem on its own. In 2016, the Police Department launched the ANGEL program, which gives anyone seeking treatment the opportunity to walk into the police station and ask for help with no repercussions.
Offered in partnership with Connections Community Support Programs, it pairs participants with an “angel,” who helps them get into treatment “regardless of their financial means or insurance coverage.” The “angel” then aids the participant through his or her treatment journey.
The program has been successful in other cities across the nation, but hasn’t taken off in Dover. In Gloucester, Massachusetts, where it began in 2015, more than 400 people were helped in less than a year.
THE GLOUCESTER MODEL: Delaware can learn from fishing village fighting heroin
Comparatively, in Dover, which has a population of about 8,000 more than Gloucester, it has helped only a handful of people since its inception. Though the Police Department has advertised it on social media and posted flyers throughout the city, only three people have taken advantage of it in the last three years, all in 2018.
“We told the world, ‘If you have a problem with drugs, we don't want to arrest you, we want to help,’” Christiansen said, “and we still feel that way.”
The mayor acknowledged, however, the program is not doing what it was set out to do, and that there are few other options in the city. He also said for those who struggle with addiction but haven’t committed crimes, “I don't know if the Police Department is a great place to have you report to.”
Voices from Dover: What's needed now
William Bretzger, The News Journal
“But that’s all we got right now,” Christiansen said. “I really wish that maybe Bayhealth or somebody who's in the medical business would partner with us."
Police 'one part of the process'
Driving through the alleyway between Water Street and Collins Drive in Dover’s Capital Green neighborhood the night before Halloween, Gott waved at two older men, who were perched by a car near the end of the street.
Smiling, the men waved back.
“Those gentlemen are normally playing horseshoes,” Gott said as he passed the duo without slowing. “Tonight, it's a little cold.”
This neighborhood has long been troublesome for the city of Dover. Providing low-income housing, for decades it’s been plagued by gangs and violence, and many of its residents, most of whom are Black, are distrustful of police.
Across the nation, police have long had adversarial relationships with Black Americans. In nearby Camden this summer, nearly two dozen demonstrators protesting the death of George Floyd were arrested by Delaware State Police in an incident along Route 13.
Police said the protesters were blocking traffic and would not get out of the way when a patrol car tried to get through. Video shows Dover officers and state troopers shoulder-checking and throwing protesters to the ground — force that demonstrators and residents say was unnecessary for the situation.
A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that police violence is a leading cause of death for young men of color in the United States. For Black men and boys, researchers found, 96 deaths out of 100,000 are at the hands of police.
For white men and boys, the likelihood of dying at the hands of police is 39 out of 100,000.
“How can you trust them if you don't know if it's going to be a nice interaction that day or if you're losing your life?” said Christine Etienne, legal redress criminal justice chairwoman for the central branch of the NAACP.
“How can you trust someone you fear?”
The men in Capital Green on this cold October night weren’t fearful, though, as Gott passed, and even welcomed the familiar sergeant’s presence.
This is the kind of policing Dover Chief Thomas Johnson Jr. is trying to encourage in the city, where almost 46% of the population is Black. White residents make up about 41% of the population.
In a force of a little more than 90 sworn officers, the department’s community policing unit is made up of just two or three officers. But Johnson, who was hired in February as only the second chief from outside the department, has received approval from Dover City Council to more than double the unit.
That will add five new officers and allow the chief to “revamp and reorganize” what’s currently in place.
“I think in a year from now, you're going to see a clear distinction in our ability to be proactive,” Johnson said. “Being out there on the ground and establishing relationships and getting to know individuals and starting to develop not only neighborhood information, but police information, will be (huge).”
That information isn’t about going out and making more arrests, Johnson said. It’s about finding out what residents need and providing them with help and resources, which, in turn, should help address the city’s drug, gang and violence problems.
Still, police “are just one part of the process,” said Dover Police Lt. Jordan Miller. Because of that, the community policing unit will also include a designated social services contractor.
“There are currently community partners in place that provide services, we just need to do a better job at identifying them and trying to integrate them into our initial response,” said Miller, who is spearheading part of this effort.
In addition to these new positions, many of Dover’s residents, business owners and city officials have said they want to see a greater police presence, especially in the downtown area. They believe that visible foot patrols and police cars could deter violent offenders.
For years, conversations about establishing a police substation in the city’s most dangerous areas have floated around Dover city council meetings.
Wilson, the NAACP member, has been one of the biggest advocates. After watching people overdose frequently, he says there is “no reason why it’s taken this long to have a substation on New Street.”
Johnson said part of the problem is substations quickly become a “political football” because as soon as the city establishes a substation in one community, another neighborhood will come calling.
Johnson suggested that instead of a brick-and-mortar station, Dover might benefit from a mobile station that visits communities on a regular schedule, distributes educational materials and allows people to report crimes — an outreach that could be an extension of community policing.
“Probably the only successful way to do mini-stations is to have a mini-station on wheels,” he said. “That way everybody gets equal access and it doesn’t get stale.”
'Get our kids back from the streets'
Though police play an important role in combating drug and gang violence, their job is often more reactive than proactive, law enforcement officials and community members agree.
Because of this, federal, state and local organizations need to shift their focus toward children most at risk of being groomed by dealers to sell drugs and join gangs, said Shawn Ellerman, special agent in charge of the DEA’s Philadelphia field office.
Research has shown that children of parents addicted to drugs or alcohol have more problems in school and in their social lives than kids whose parents are not addicted. Studies have also found these children are more likely to have higher rates of mental and behavioral disorders and to turn to drugs or alcohol themselves.
Knowing this, schools across the nation have long pushed anti-drug programs.
The most well-known program, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or D.A.R.E., used variations of one curriculum for more than two-and-a-half decades before revamping its structure in 2009 to more effectively reach kids. Researchers found the initial program had minimal long-term influence on drug use.
In recent years, federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration have stepped in too, offering local programming to schools and districts. In 2019, the Philadelphia field office hosted its first drug summit in Delaware, at Lord Baltimore Elementary School in Ocean View.
Held in conjunction with the Ocean View Police Department, the Indian River School District, atTAcK addiction, Hip Hop Fundamentals and several other organizations, the summit marked a shift from focusing prevention programs on high-schoolers to targeting students as young as 9 or 10 by using fun, interactive programs.
“We found that by high school, we were too late,” said DEA Community Outreach Specialist Robert Niczyporowicz. “The curriculum is geared for third through eighth graders because we know that that's a primary age to get that education and prevention effort started.”
The program, and others like it that have been introduced by various organizations in the last decade, do more than just send anti-drug messages, though.
They’re about connecting the most at-risk children with “positive people in their life” who can help them set goals and show them a different way of living.
"You don't desire something you don't know exists, and if drugs and gangs are their norm, they’re not going to be motivated to fix it,” Gibney said. “That’s why the education system is so important because there are mentors who can reach out and help.”
Just over four years ago, FBI agent Justin Downen founded the nonprofit The Green Beret Project to help provide those positive role models to Dover’s young people.
Kids in the city’s most underserved neighborhoods are referred to the program, and when they join, they work to earn a spot in the community and become leaders to even younger children.
Through its youth center, CrossFit Dover, after-school programs and more throughout the state, The Green Beret Project has reached 250 kids.
Kaseem Cotton, a young member, said the program has taught him how to eat better and present himself as an adult. And because his father is in prison, Green Beret Project leaders have served as father figures to him.
But mentors like these can only do so much. It’s hard for them to compete with the factors that would lead a student to drop out of school because he or she needs money to help keep the lights on in their home.
“If you look at the high school dropout rates, it’s particularly high for African Americans,” said Clay Hammond, president of the Delmarva Black Chamber of Commerce. “They're not getting the education they need. We need to talk more about other options, whether it's college or trade schools.”
Etienne, the NAACP legal redress criminal justice chairwoman, said school curriculums need to be revamped to “promote jobs while these kids are in school and give them credit for that.”
“That would be a way to keep kids engaged and keep them active so they're not turning to crime because they're not meeting their economic needs,” she said.
The state of Colorado has implemented such a program, called CareerWise. Based on the Swiss education model that places high school students in apprenticeships, CareerWise offers three-year apprenticeships that are designed by businesses and offered in partnership with schools.
The program takes students out of the classroom and puts them in the workplace, where they are paid while also earning high school and college credit. The first year, students spend the equivalent of three school days in classes, and 12-16 hours per week in the apprenticeship. Apprenticeship hours increase in year two and year three.
CareerWise has since expanded to other states and the District of Columbia.
In the Capital School District, high school students can choose to follow a Career and Technical Education Pathway, where they receive college credit and are required to participate in a variety of work-based experiences in their field.
Students’ junior or senior years culminate in a paid or unpaid internship.
Because of the success of the program — about 75% of all students take advantage of it by enrolling in at least one CTE course — Dover High School continues to add more pathways based on students’ interest and career opportunities, said Eugene Montano, supervisor of instruction for the district.
But while CTE programs are a good start, internships that begin at younger ages and pay students, like CareerWise, are key, said Paul, the Dover activist.
“We need to get our kids back from the streets and put them someplace where they're actually able to be productive and take care of themselves,” she said.
'All hands on deck'
Stepping carefully around drug paraphernalia scattered along South New Street one warm October afternoon, Paul shook her head in disgust.
As she described the overdoses she’s seen on the street, she paused, grumbling to Wilson, the NAACP member, about the lack of social services in the area.
“They want to lock (people) up, not give them services," Paul said.
Christiansen said that's not true — the city does want to help its residents. It's limited, however, in what it can provide.
"The city is charged with providing police, fire services, basic utilities, water and public works, because that's what our tax base allows us to do," Christiansen said. “The tax dollars that we take in don't allow us to provide those (other) types of services.”
Even if Dover did have the money to establish a treatment center or other type of centralized building where residents could get aid, the mayor said, “why would we want to reinvent the wheel on the local basis when we have the state as a resource?”
Delaware, he said, offers social services to help those who are homeless and who struggle with addiction. But given the feedback he receives about the lack of offerings in Dover, the mayor said the state may need to rethink what it’s providing to local communities.
“Apparently they are not addressing the issues that really need to be addressed,” he said.
Christiansen said the city would be willing to partner with churches, nonprofits and other community entities to tackle the blight and social problems that lead to drug use, gang participation and violence. And it has in the past — the partnership with NCALL and Habitat for Humanity to revitalize Kirkwood Street was successful.
The mayor said the groups are hoping to target the South New Street area next.
But “a few Habitat houses don’t change the dynamic if the family doesn't have enough money to support their needs,” said Hammond, the Delmarva Black Chamber of Commerce president.
That’s where a community center like Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House, which provides Wilmington’s residents with job training, educational opportunities — including GED programs — youth programming, financial services and other social services, could help.
The problem, Hammond said, is Wilmington has a history of settlement houses dating back to the late 1800s, and Dover does not.
“We have no community development corporation,” he said. “We don’t even have the infrastructure here.”
Still, other cities similar in size to Dover have found ways to provide comprehensive social services to their residents.
In Beverly, Massachusetts, a city of 42,000 located about 15 miles southwest of Gloucester — where the ANGEL addiction program was started — a nonprofit called Beverly Bootstraps offers many of the same services that Wilmington’s West End Neighborhood House does.
The nonprofit began as a food pantry in the basement of a Beverly church in 1992. Since then, through the support of individual donors, businesses and religious organizations, and in collaboration with the city of Beverly, local hospitals and schools, it has helped thousands of community members in need.
While the city of Dover and its nonprofits lack funding individually to establish such an entity, Hammond said if local officials, businesses, nonprofits and residents came together to pool their resources, they could create something similar to what's offered in Wilmington and Beverly.
“We've got to get the whole community at the table because if we're serious about saving our children, it's going to take all hands on deck,” Hammond said. “It’s not rocket science. We just need that private-public sector partnership in all aspects."
As Hammond spoke these words, Wilson and Paul sat around a table in Wilson’s office, located off Loockerman Street in Dover’s downtown.
Nodding, they agreed emphatically as Hammond’s suggestions came through Paul’s phone, which they had placed on speaker at the center of the table.
“We'll work on getting this together, to get the churches and others to sit down and have a roundtable discussion about what we need to do to move forward,” Paul chimed in.
“We have to do it because it’s never going to be anybody else except for us.”
Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at email@example.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_ Emily Lytle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @emily3lytle
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