By Tony E. Windsor

Wayne Hooper is frustrated, angry and extremely heartbroken. He shared his emotions at a recent meeting of the Laurel Mayor and Council where he urged action be taken. Hooper’s concerns stem from what he feels is violence out of control in the Laurel community. 

Chief Grounds Keeper for the Laurel School District, Hooper has been with the district for 23 years, much of the time also spent as a middle school and high school basketball coach. The recent death of one of his players and close friends, Corey Mumford, has left him “heartbroken” and in search of answers and action.

According to police, Mumford, 18, was walking with friends in the Wexford Village apartment complex on Friday afternoon, April 14, when he was shot and killed. Police said he was not the intended target of the shooting. A talented Laurel High School basketball player, Mumford was invited to play basketball for Dundalk Community College after graduating from Laurel High School. He planned to attend college and study sports medicine.

 At the time of Mumford’s shooting, a shooting in Holly Brook apartment complex had occurred just two days earlier, and only hours following his shooting, another shooting incident occurred on Shiloh Road, near Laurel.

Hooper said something must be done to combat the violence that seems to be plaguing the area. “There are two Laurel police officers patrolling on each shift in town,” he said. “This is not enough. We need more police officers on the streets. If taxes have to be raised, so be it. We should not be compromising safety because of money. The violence in Laurel is out of control and unacceptable.”

Hooper said although Delaware State Police are a backup support for the Laurel Police Department and other smaller municipal law enforcement, response time is crucial and oftentimes state police officers are not in the immediate area when an incident arises. 

“The delay in the time it takes for state police officers to arrive on the scene is time wasted,” he said. “We need more officers in our town. There are two or three officers undergoing training at the State Police Academy, but once they graduate, they still must ride and train with a superior officer for six months before being able to patrol on their own. We need police officers available to begin building relationships in the community now.”

Over the years retention of police officers has been a major source of challenge for small police departments like Laurel. Officers sometimes come to Laurel and after a time may leave to take a position with a larger, higher paying municipality or state police agencies.

“Retention is an issue,” Hooper said. “We need police officers to build long-term relationships with people in the community, but how can that happen if officers leave Laurel for higher paying jobs. It’s been my experience in the education field that when employees leave, there may be a variety of reasons, but usually it has to do with the money and you can’t blame people for that.”

Hooper said the town needs to address the police officers’ pay structure and help attract and keep officers. “This is not just about the safety of the community,” he said. “It is just as much about the safety of the officers. Behind those uniforms, badges, bullet proof vests and guns is somebody’s husband, wife, son, daughter, brother or sister. This is a live, human being.”

He said he was left with a “good feeling” from the Mayor and Council after his presentation, during the Monday, May 15, council meeting, but said he will wait and see what is brought back at the next council meeting. Mayor John Shwed expressed to Hooper that “your concerns are very real and were heard by the Mayor and Council.”  

Hooper said that his time standing in the background is over and he plans to ensure he attends council meetings more often and holds the town accountable on the issue of public safety. “Corey Mumford was one of my kids. I coached him in middle school. My heart is broken and I am pissed! We have got to get this under control and I don’t care how it is done. I will not take ‘no’ for an answer. This is where I am at.”

Laurel Councilman Jonathon Kellam said he feels Hooper brought up some very good recommendations and he appreciates the input. However, he is also concerned that additional police is not necessarily the answer to the problem.

“I see nothing wrong in raising taxes to help provide additional resources for the police department,” Kellam said. “We have gone a long while without raising taxes. However, we should also recognize the problems we experience in crime and violence has a variety of causes that the police department cannot necessarily solve. These include a need for everyone to come together to address these issues. We need the schools, the media, the police, the town and parents and families to recognize the facts that things like poverty and a lack of opportunity have long been the source of increased crime. This is in addition to a breakdown in the family unit. Bottom line, there must be an attitude of accountability and responsibility when it comes to how we are raising our kids.”

Kellam said he is particularly disturbed by what he sees as “young black kids killing each other.” He said, “I am afraid that we have a generation of young people who do not subscribe to the notion that ‘black lives matter.’ When you look at communities across the country, you see the majority of shootings occur with black kids shooting other black kids. This is not true, thus far, in the white community. We are committing genocide against ourselves. We have to get through to these young people in any way we can, and we must do it as families, neighborhoods, and communities working together.”

Town Manager Jamie Smith said the town is currently in the FY 2023-24 budget process and the town’s Budget Committee is looking at ways to help with some of the concerns in regards to public and police safety within the police budget.