Posted: Nov. 17, 2015; updated with revised statistics: Dec. 2, 2015
FIDDLING WHILE WILMINGTON BURNS
By Celia Cohen
Timing is supposed to be everything.
It does not even matter if the timing is accidental, as it was earlier this month when Matt Denn, the Democratic attorney general, asked for legislative authority for $2 million to take on a surge in city shootings with more police patrols and video cameras.
Just three days later, there was word from the entertainment press of plans for a television pilot to be called "Murder Town," set right here in Wilmington.
Talk about a call to action. People were outraged. It has not been this bad for the city since Charlie Terry, the Democratic governor at the time, turned the place into a national laughingstock by leaving the National Guard in the streets long after the riots in 1968.
But this is the Delaware General Assembly. It is not going to act over somebody else's dead body.
This is the same legislative mindset that could not be bothered to come up with more highway money, even though I-495 was found to be falling down toward the end of the session in 2014.
Jack Markell, the Democratic governor, had asked for extra highway money earlier, in timing very much like Denn's is now, but the legislators were against Markell's idea for a dime-a-gallon gas tax, nor were they willing to propose anything else.
It took another year and the dire threat of shutting down state government, if no budget was adopted, before the legislature agreed to higher highway spending.
There does not seem to be any doubt that more police patrols would help, not only for Wilmington but for Dover, where there has also been an upswing in gun violence. They worked before.
As Denn noted in his request to the legislature, nightly foot patrols in Wilmington's high crime areas were effective from March until July, before the legislature let the money for them run out.
"Both fatal and non-fatal shootings have escalated since July, and several of the victims have been children," Denn wrote in a letter dated Nov. 6 in conjunction with the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce and the Delaware Community Reinvestment Action Council.
"Each day that the problem is not addressed, innocent residents of our state are being hurt and killed."
Denn asked for the money to be made available immediately by the Joint Finance Committee, the legislative panel that drafts the budget, by having it authorize a disbursal from about $30 million left in a settlement that banks paid to the state for misconduct contributing to the Great Recession.
Not that there appears to be anything wrong with Denn's proposal. It is just that as much as time may be of the essence elsewhere, it does not get the same treatment in Legislative Hall.
This seems particularly so whenever the legislature is out of session, which runs annually from January through June.
"The Joint Finance Committee has not set a date to appropriate any of that funding. The plan was to get back into session," said Melanie George Smith, a Democratic state representative who co-chairs the budget-writing panel.
"Out of respect for the attorney general and because we on the Joint Finance Committee want to do everything we can to save lives, it bears serious consideration."
There was similar sentiment from J.J. Johnson, another Democratic state representative on the Joint Finance Committee with a district that includes part of Wilmington.
"I support the idea. Something needs to be done. I'm concerned about it, especially with the TV show, 'Murder Town.' When we had it before, with police overtime plus the state police and the county, the shooting went down. I just want to make sure the money is used appropriately," Johnson said.
There are undeniably some legitimate concerns, like figuring out the legal technicalities of authorizing the money, deciding if police agencies other than Wilmington should also be involved in the patrols there, and ensuring relief for mortgage foreclosures from the rest of the settlement, but nothing says it all cannot be handled sooner rather than later.
People should not hold their breath. The ways of the legislature are the ways of the legislature.
Meanwhile, it should not be lost how the outrage did not strike over legislative inaction, but over the "Murder Town" show.
It might as well be 1935, when there was also an uproar over crime and punishment, namely, the whipping post.
Delaware was the last place in the free world where criminals could still be sentenced to the whipping post. It was not officially eliminated until 1972, although it was last used in 1952.
Not only were there whippings in 1935, the press was invited. At one of them, a reporter from Philadelphia secretly photographed it, and a picture appeared with his newspaper story.
It was an embarrassment, and furious legislators were having none of it. They passed a bill outlawing cameras at whippings. Naturally they let the whipping post be.
It is like today. Gun violence? Just make that "Murder Town" show go away.