By Rachel Lord

For the first time in weeks, a recent Delmar meeting ended on a slightly hopeful, even cathartic note.

The Delmar Mayor and Council (Del.) meeting on Monday, June 7 was a continuation of the same issues that have been the subject of every interaction between the public and the Delmar elected officials since the on-the-job assault and murder of Cpl. Keith Heacook: police pay and schedules and what was being done by the town to address these issues.

Mayor Mike Houlihan began with an update on the mediation services being provided to the town and police department by Tri Community Mediation in Salisbury. A three-hour meeting had taken place the week before, which he said was productive and positive. Another meeting was scheduled for this past week. Houlihan explained that though people had questions about the meetings, it was a process to go through and was confidential; he wanted to get to the point where they could stand together, explain, and give better answers to these questions.

Town Manager Sara Bynum-King announced that the Sussex County Council expressed their condolences to Cpl. Heacook’s family and their interest in commissioning a stone tribute, similar to Patrolman Chad Spicer’s (killed on-duty in 2009). A local artist also reached out to say he would like to create a mural for the Corporal as well. Locations would need to be determined for both projects.

Chief Ivan Barkley, Sr. gave his report, stating that there are 10 active officers at this time: six on patrol, two administrative (Chief and Lt. Wade Alexander), one School Resource Officer (SRO), and one main task force officer.

They had one recruit graduating from the Maryland Police Academy on June 17, but he must then receive his Delaware certification. The department also planned to offer a position to another applicant any day.

The officers are currently working on a modified 19-shift of 7 a.m. – 2 a.m. In the five off hours, the Delaware State Police, Wicomico Sheriff, and Maryland State Police forces are covering for them. In that coverage, major calls may still go to the Delmar Police Department, and they still handle investigations. They plan to review these plans monthly to determine if the need is still there. In the time since coverage began, there have been few calls between 2-7 a.m. Overtime has been used to supplement and to do their best to have two officers on patrol.

“Now I say that,” Chief Barkley cautioned, “but that doesn’t cover all instances. We’ve still got moments in time where there’s just one of us alone.”

He added that he and his lieutenant were also backing up on calls when necessary. “We’re doing all we can to make it right,” he said.

This is also the time of year where people take vacations or try to fit training in, Chief Barkley continued. His SRO, for example, usually tries to get training during the summer when school is out. “There are going to be points in time where people are going to be gone, and we can’t fill it with overtime,” he said.

On May 19, he went on, a major drug operation in town was busted, where cocaine, marijuana, and oxycontin, as well as two vehicles, were seized; a followup search occurred in Laurel, and arrests were made. “Those investigations are continuing. We know we can’t let up when it comes to drugs in Delmar,” the chief explained. “I think last month we had two to five overdoses.”

During public comments, Robin Bond, wife of Sgt. Michael Bond (28 years with Delmar Police), said that though she appreciated and applauded the mediation, she was concerned with the “slower process” of it all. “Since Keith’s murder, my husband has worked alone. He went in at 4 p.m. He was supposed to get off at 2 a.m. He worked by himself from from 7-2 a.m.,” said Bond.

Some serious calls came in around midnight, she said, and he was out working by himself until 7 a.m. handling those calls.

“You say slow, it’s a process, but for the wives that our husbands are out there every day, how slow is this process going to be?… If you lose [more officers], and they decide to go somewhere else, your citizens are going to suffer because that department’s not going to be able to function when they start leaving,” she said.

Keith Heacook’s son, Matthew, and Matthew’s mother, Tracy, were both present. Tracy asked what the end goal of the mediation was, how they would ensure this wouldn’t happen again. “Look at my son and tell him,” she said. “This could have been fixed a long time ago.”

Mayor Houlihan said that he did not mean they weren’t working as fast as they could, but that it was still a process. He said they would come together, as a police department and a town, so that this would not happen again. He explained that they would take input from each side, but he did not know what the answer was.

The council is currently in the middle of repairs to the caboose on Pennsylvania Avenue; it was argued that this was an example of money that could be better spent elsewhere, such as for the police department. Houlihan countered that the fire department wants a brand new ambulance, which is $400,000; the library wants support and provides programs. “I can’t funnel everything from every other place to one,” he said. “And it’s not me, we have 10 people who make these decisions.”

The public comment session continued. For many citizens at the meeting, what it came down to was that 45 days after Cpl. Heacook’s murder, nothing tangible had changed. There were no more officers, there were no raises, and there was no timeline for things to get better.

The chief’s wife had some insight to offer. “I think some of the frustration that everyone has is because all of the surrounding departments have made and published in the newspapers, on the news, everywhere, that they have made immediate changes to the existing officers,” she said. The Wicomico Sheriff’s Office was an example she cited. “Wicomico gave their guys something immediate, and they’re getting something in July… Nobody wants this to happen to them. Nobody wants their guys to leave… if there is anything in the budget, something to do for the existing officers, then perhaps the guys and the wives at least can feel like you’re working… Perhaps if there is some type of peace offering, it’s not going to fix the problem, but it can at least say we are trying to do something.”

Missie Jones took the podium after nearly an hour of public comments. She began by recognizing that the position everyone was in was difficult. She brought up that nothing was discussed in very much detail at the budget meeting as far as expenditures, while at her job, she essentially had to prove and justify every nickel spent. “I would dig a little deeper into [some expenditures],” she advised the mayor. “You could find some ways to save money, trust me. What would [a six percent raise] cost the town right now? Quick math: 10 officers, six percent, average salary [of] $50,000. Thirty-thousand dollars. Is that doable right now?”

Mayor Houlihan responded that he couldn’t give her an answer, and she acknowledged that she wouldn’t want to be in his predicament of speaking for half of a town. “I like your input,” he said. “I’m not going to say that we can do that; I don’t know what we can do yet.” Though a budget was passed and will go into effect July 1, he explained, they can amend, and this would be a good discussion to have with the joint council.

Jones continued with several questions, and not all were answered, but every question was asked with respect and understanding, shifting the tone of the meeting almost imperceptibly from one of blame and deflecting to one of accountability and problem-solving.

One comment previously made by the council, however, she maintained was condescending: that it was up to the department heads to come to the mayor to point out their own deficiencies.

“I’m a leader as well, and I don’t always wait for my staff to come to me to tell me there’s a problem,” Missie said. “I see the problems, and I work with them to bring it up to where we need to be. Can I do that all the time? No. But that needs to happen. You guys have eyes and ears, you see it – make it happen. It’s been pointed out time and time again, and it can happen with the right minds and the right moving forward.

“I know this is a hard meeting for you,” she said. “You can be the person to make that change and move forward. It would be awesome to have somebody step up and be that leader that we need for this town. And I see it in you. You mentioned a goal,” she reminded him. “What is that end goal? What are you looking for?”

“Unified between the town and the police department,” the mayor said after a moment. “Respect between the officers and the town council. Friendship.”

Houlihan said that he could be a leader, but people had to give him a chance. “God is helping me through this… I see Keith’s sisters – I see her at mass,” he said, looking at the family and holding back tears. “I want to go up and talk to you.”

“Mike, I wish you would,” was the response. “I don’t hate you, I just want to talk to you… I just don’t understand what happened…”

The two agreed to meet one day after church and talk. When the meeting ended two minutes later, members of Cpl. Keith Heacook’s family surrounded, and some hugged, Mike Houlihan as they spoke privately.

The packed room dispensed slowly as people spoke and offered comfort to each other. Though emotionally charged, there was a feeling of hope that perhaps answers could be found.