New chief of police speaks with downtown stakeholders on crime and homelessness

Published 12:05 am Thursday, July 27, 2023

SALISBURY — This past Monday was Patrick “P.J.” Smith’s first official day as the chief of police for the Salisbury Police Department. One of the immediate goals he made for himself was to listen to his fellow officers and residents about the best practices to confront any problems that are happening to the city.

On Wednesday morning, Smith spoke during Downtown Salisbury Inc.’s quarterly stakeholders meeting to share updates about what current measures are being taken to help combat crime and the increasing homeless population. Many local business owners and residents voiced their concerns about what homelessness has done to negatively affect the community and how it personally relates to them by what they see outside their businesses and in the downtown area.

City Manager Jim Greene stressed that homelessness is a priority for Salisbury, mentioning the city’s homeless advocate Dennis Rivers as a figure who is on the frontlines by speaking with organizations and homeless individuals to get their perspective on how to handle matters.

“We continue to invest in addressing the issue, but we’re going to do it in a humane way and work with our partners,” Greene said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this issue, but enforcement is a part of the process. We do have rules, we do have ordinances that our police department and code enforcement division are working hard to address.”

Other groups in Salisbury like Rowan Helping Ministries are contributing by investing in transitional housing for people who are in the process of getting their lives back on track. The fact that the homeless population is so high may have to do with what Salisbury can offer compared to surrounding municipalities. The Salisbury VA Medical Center receives many homeless veterans who need care, but when they are ready to leave, they may not have the capabilities to, so they have no choice but to stay in Salisbury.

The camp site near the Fisher Street bridge made people in attendance worried for the city’s overall safety. Greene said they are aware of these growing locations and that there will be federal funding available in the future to help with the Fisher Street bridge once they get the project’s details are straightened out. Other funds are going towards homeless veterans and the county will also be getting money to tackle the rising opioid epidemic.

Chief Smith pointed out that it can sometimes be a struggle to reach the the homeless and to meet them halfway on this. Where he sees those gaps is where he wants Salisbury’s attention to be focused on.

“Some people take resources, some people don’t want the resources. Some people don’t understand that they have the resources and how they get them and that’s what we’re working on doing,” Smith said.

Right now, Smith says his three main objectives for the department are retention, recruitment and diversity. “I want to build diversity, keep inclusion in my department. Build diversity in my command staff, we have a very diverse department, but what we’re lacking is we have a huge generational gap. Fifty-five percent of our department has less than five years of experience and the rest has more than 15 to 20 years experience. That middle gap that’s missing is our challenge,” Smith said.

Smith went into how the department internally meets on a regular basis with as well as with other local and federal partners, to discuss crime analytics, statistics and trends going on in the region and in the state. The department’s Rowan Regional Crime Information Center acts as a hub for other agencies and Salisbury to access this kind of information. Salisbury has been collaborating with the State Bureau of Investigation on regional crimes, too.

Business owner and DSI board member Samantha Haspel Ring has lived in New York City and San Francisco, so she is familiar with how homelessness can hinder a city’s potential. Even though she wants to see it solved, Ring has gotten to know a person who sleeps outside her business and thinks Salisbury has the correct mindset to overcome these obstacles.

“Homelessness involves a multi-layered approach. It can’t just be, ‘Where do we shift these people who are a nuisance?’ In reality, that’s not all there is, there’s so many more layers and I think often we have to look further upstream at homelessness as to, ‘What are the reasons that people end up in the situations they are in?’ and ‘How do we meet them where they are?'” Ring said.