MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Crime is down throughout Middle Township, with a steep drop seen in the Rio Grande area, township police Chief Christopher Leusner reported to Township Committee recently.
At least part of the credit belongs to increased police efforts in the area around the intersection of Route 9 and Route 47.
The area is the largest and busiest retail area in Cape May County, with numerous fast food restaurants, national chains and convenience stores within a short distance. It has also been one of the highest crime areas in Middle Township.
As Leusner told committee members at the Monday, Sept. 16, workshop meeting, before the increased police presence began in 2013, the square half-mile around that intersection saw 30 percent of the crime and accidents in Middle Township, which includes almost 83 square miles from the Delaware Bay to the marshes behind the barrier islands.
He said he asked his officers to begin spending 30 percent of their time in the area.
“The research is clear,” Leusner said. “People see the police activity. It acts as a deterrent and has a positive effect.”
In January of 2013, he said, police launched its DDACTS program, which stands for Data Driven Approach to Crime and Traffic Safety. Police look at crime and accident statistics to determine where to deploy resources.
“We’re pretty fortunate that in the last few years we’ve seen a very nice reduction in reported crime in Middle Township,” Leusner said. In 2017, he said, the township dropped below 500 reported crimes for the first time since the department began keeping track 25 years ago.
The listed crimes are those reported under the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report. In 2018, Leusner said, the reduction continued, with 449 reported crimes. As of the meeting date, Leusner said there were 191 crimes reported townshipwide for 2019.
“We’re projecting to be at 380 for the year, which is something I’m very happy with,” Leusner said. The difference is more dramatic in the Rio Grande section of the township, he said, down from more than 300 reported offences in 2012 before the initiative began to 151 reported in the area in 2017. This year, there have been 65 reported crimes so far.
In May of 2016, police opened a substation in the area on Route 47, open 24 hours. Members of the public can speak with a dispatcher and there is usually an officer in the station or nearby. Leusner said it has been made available for use by officers with the Cape May County Sheriff’s Department and the county Prosecutor’s Office, along with probation officers.
“The way I view it, the more law enforcement activity we can drive in that area, the more visibility, the more positive feedback we’re going to see in our community,” Leusner said.
The substation has also been designated as a safe exchange spot, where those who have arranged a sale through Craigslist or elsewhere can meet in a monitored space.
“It’s a safe place for the buyer and the seller,” he said.
Ordinance violations, such as noise complaints or other minor violations, are also enforced but are not included in the Uniform Crime Report. Leusner believes they are an important part of local policing.
He cited the numerous shopping carts around Rio Grande, which he believes makes the area look in disorder. Leusner mentioned to the three-member Township Committee that there had been a previous discussion about an ordinance governing wayward shopping carts.
Aside from improving how the area looks, Leusner said, citations for ordinance violations may put people in contact with the township’s public advocate, who regularly attends municipal court sessions and can direct people toward the available social services.
“It’s not about making money. It’s not about issuing fines. It’s about making sure we have law and order in the area. We’re just going to let people do whatever they want. When there is a citation, we try to connect people to our public advocate,” Leusner said.
Announced in 2014, the public advocate program was in part in response to the increase in the use of opioids and other addictive drugs in the county. He said he’s seen excellent results.
At the meeting, Mayor Timothy Donohue asked about homelessness in the Rio Grande area. The chief said the department receives calls occasionally about people coming out of the woods, where there have been reports of encampments of homeless people for years, but he added that his officers say things seem to be improving this summer.
Leusner indicated the police have tried to take a lead role in the issue, including calling for a meeting on options for addressing homelessness last year.
“We do at times have issues with panhandling, with some homeless folks that are in the area, where people don’t feel as safe as we would like them to,” Leusner said. “That’s a tough social issue.”
He said officers try to balance compassion with enforcement. Police have been working with local advocacy groups, he said, attempting to address the few individuals who create a large percentage of the problems.
Substance abuse issues are often a large part of the issue. According to Leusner, officers are trained to help those who ask for it, including making connections with programs in the area.
“They are treated with compassion and respect, and they respond pretty quickly,” Leusner said. “You have to have law and order. You have to have tough, hard-nosed policing, but it needs to be embedded in community support, and you need to be ready to help people when they want the help. If they don’t want the help, then you have to be ready with enforcement action. That’s just the way it’s got to be.”