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WPD short on staff, working hard on homelessness

Police Chief Donny Williams poses for a photo.

Police Chief Donny Williams gave several presentations to city council, running through a wide range of topics.

The Wilmington Police Department gave four presentations to the city council, including updates on its strategic plan and homeless outreach.

Police Chief Donny Williams noted staffing problems as a major challenge for the police department, and one that’s being addressed through cultural changes. The police department is budgeted for 270 positions, and back in 2018 it was close to that number — with 256 officers.

“As of today only have 229 people that are field deployable. That is 50 bodies that I am down in the field," he said.

They’ve managed to hire for all but four of those positions, but they’re currently getting the training they need to be deployable.

Getting there was a big effort — the police department even changed its grooming standards to allow beards and tattoos to help bring in more recruits.

"I'm not a beard and tattoo guy, but you have to change to make people want to come to work for you," Williams said. He added that the department extended meal breaks for officers, and created a new officer's lounge. "We began mandatory wellness visits with trained professionals following critical incidents. The next strategic plan would need to focus on compensation and retention to stay competitive in the future market."

Williams pointed out a few changes to the department's mission statement, which changed in 2020 after more than 20 years. Much of the mission stays the same, but there were a few shifts. "Equality and inclusion where all people are treated fairly, that is a change, it used to be equal application of the law and reducing crime," Williams explained. There's also a new focus on commitment to the agency and community it serves, over a prior mission of "officer professionalism and safety."

WPD also gave an update on the homeless outreach team, with Social Work Supervisor Katelyn Maddox from New Hanover County. The program is a joint effort between city and county, and she said the team has helped connect individuals to services, including shelter, healthcare, and financial support through disability or VA benefits.

“One of the most important themes of our team is that change comes at the Speed of Trust," Maddox said. "So over the last six months, we have been doing outreach and building relationships with some of our community's most guarded distrustful individuals. And that takes time.”

Officers are offering transportation for unhoused individuals, keep guard over their things during the day, and have connected them to drug addiction services like Alcoholics Anonymous and The Healing Place.

Kelly Kenoyer is an Oregonian transplant on the East Coast. She attended University of Oregon’s School of Journalism as an undergraduate, and later received a Master’s in Journalism from University of Missouri- Columbia. Contact her on Twitter @Kelly_Kenoyer or by email: KKenoyer@whqr.org.