Hometown Healer

Chief of Police Bobby L. Cummings ’02, G’03, draws on deep community ties to fight crime in Wilmington, Del.

Chief of Police Bobby L. Cummings ’02, G’03, draws on deep community ties to fight crime in Wilmington, Del.

By Abe Loomis | Fall 2015

“Everything that I dealt with on the street as an officer were things I had experienced in my own life … My mother had very little schooling. We were on welfare. We moved through many different areas of the city. So I understood the environment I was dealing with as an officer, and I could relate to a lot of the situations.”

His resume reads like an ABC of police work. Or maybe an encyclopedia.

Anti-Violence Crime Unit, Baton Instructor, Criminal Investigations, Evidence Control, Hostage Negotiator, Organized Crime Division, Polygraph Examiner, Pressure Point Control Tactics, Special Operations, Spontaneous Knife Defense Instructor, Street Supervisor, Traffic Unit, Undercover Officer.

The list goes on.

Bobby L. Cummings is a graduate of the 206th session of the FBI National Academy, a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement, and a proud veteran of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. He has earned numerous professional awards and held positions of leadership throughout the Wilmington (Delaware) Department of Police.

“Everything that I dealt with on the street as an officer were things I had experienced in my own life … My mother had very little schooling. We were on welfare. We moved through many different areas of the city. So I understood the environment I was dealing with as an officer, and I could relate to a lot of the situations.”

For years he watched the credentials accrue, and he hung some of them on his office walls. But he always felt that there was one missing.

“I had been policing for 13 years, and I was training new recruits,” he says. “I had certificates on my wall for being a physical fitness instructor, a polygraph examiner, and a bunch of others. But I didn’t have a college degree on my wall. I said, ‘I have to finish this up.’ ”

At the urging of his wife Simone, Cummings—who by then was a lieutenant—applied to Springfield College Wilmington, completing a Bachelor of Science degree in 2002 and a master’s degree in human services with a concentration in organizational management and leadership the following year.

Those degrees opened new doors, and, in 2014, after almost 30 years on the force, Cummings was appointed chief of police in Wilmington, a city that aspires to livability but that has also been ranked among the most dangerous municipalities in the United States, a characterization Cummings disputes.

His experience at Springfield College has been one important catalyst for his success, but another critical part of Cummings’ education was informal: growing up poor in the city he now serves.

“Everything that I dealt with on the street as an officer were things I had experienced in my own life,” Cummings says. “My mother had very little schooling. We were on welfare. We moved through many different areas of the city. So I understood the environment I was dealing with as an officer, and I could relate to a lot of the situations.”

Cummings was born in Millen, Ga., in 1963. When he was three years old, he moved with his mother and siblings to Delaware, where they lived with family, including his uncle and his grandmother, who he describes as the family matriarch. They lived all over Wilmington: in Little Italy on the West Side; in the Riverside housing projects on the East Side; in the West Center City neighborhood, near where I-95 crosses the northernmost tip of Delaware on its route from Miami to Maine; and on the North Side, a few blocks from Haynes Park, where Cummings spent hours playing basketball with his friends after school.

In the summers, Cummings sometimes returned to Georgia to visit his father and other family. Through it all, he says, he respected the law—and the strict standards set by his uncle and grandmother—even as he watched friends turn to drugs and crime.

“I wasn’t someone who got in trouble,” Cummings says. “I could have ended up that way, because of the environment I was in, but I just didn’t do those things.”

“What Springfield opened my eyes to was that everything that I was doing in policing was basically being an advocate for people.”

In the frequent moves with his family, Cummings gained a deep sense of what makes Wilmington tick—and made friends all over the city. “I was always someone who smiled at people,” he says. “I got along with all different kinds of people really well.”

In high school, Cummings and many of his peers were bussed miles out of Wilmington as part of what they called “de-seg,” the federally-mandated integration of schools that previously had been segregated. There were tensions, but Cummings says he managed to avoid them.

“I was a sports guy, and I just fell right into place,” he says. “I was not an A student, but I passed my classes. I knew that [racial] issues did exist, but I just never had problems.”

Cummings also was something of an artist. He liked to draw, and he practiced, a habit that would come in handy later on when, as a homicide detective, he would sketch crime scenes.

But when he graduated from high school, police work was the last thing on his mind. He got a job as a bagger at an Acme Supermarket, and considered joining the military. He got along well with his managers and coworkers at the market, and he thought about a career at Acme. As it turned out, police officers often worked security details at the market and, sure enough, Cummings got to talking with them. They liked the athletic, affable kid with the easy smile, and they told him he’d make a good cop, and that he could earn more money that way than at the supermarket.

“Come to find out, I actually took a pay cut when I left the supermarket,” he says with a laugh. “I was pretty naïve back then.”

His ideas about the realities of police work were also pretty green.

“When I applied to the department,” he says, “I thought all you did was go down to the city, apply to be a police officer, and they give you a gun and a badge and they put you on the street. I didn’t know that you had to go through an academy, that you had to write reports, that you had to testify in court. Had I known that up front, I don’t know that I would have applied. It wasn’t that hard work scared me, I just didn’t think I expressed myself well—especially in writing.”

Cummings’ current role requires communications of all kinds.

“Springfield College put me in a position where I had to speak publicly all the time,” Cummings says. “And we had to write, to justify our opinions. Springfield made us think critically. Now I’m constantly preparing documents, looking at policy, and evaluating programs. I’ve presented to the governor, and to senators. Springfield taught me to do a lot of that.”

The tone Cummings sets with his department also aligns with his experience at Springfield, where considering others’ perspectives was part of the program. As an advocate of “community policing”—an approach endorsed by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing—Cummings sees seeking out other voices, and fostering opportunities for them to be heard, as a big part of his job.

To that end, his department has focused on building relationships. He likes to do what he calls “park and walks,” strolling through Wilmington’s neighborhoods with other department brass, pausing to talk with residents on stoops and porches, refreshing his ties with the community and, he hopes, encouraging confidence in the police. He’s been known to hand citizens his business card, which includes his cellphone number, and to tell them to call him directly.

“We are guardians, not warriors,” Cummings says, echoing the language of Blue Courage, a federally sponsored community-policing training program he has scheduled for the Wilmington force. “And we are not separate from the community that we represent. It’s about building partnerships and building trust.”

One way he does that is by opening lines of communication with Wilmington’s citizens—and not only with traditional community leaders. Cummings meets regularly with a citizens’ advisory group he created composed of clergy, community activists, and business and political leaders. But the group also includes young people who, he says, have rarely had a voice in official city circles.

“We’re always meeting with the younger kids,” Cummings says, referring to police visits to elementary schools. “But that area in between 14 and 20 years old—we miss them a lot. So that’s why we’re trying to get more and more of them at forums where they can express themselves to us. “

The purpose of the advisory group, Cummings says, is to provide a direct link between leaders in the community and leaders on the police force, and to make sure communication is a two-way street. “It’s for them to bring issues that we need to take a look at,” he says. “How can we improve? How can we do things differently? But we also know that not every issue in the community is a police issue, and in order to get a lot of these things addressed, we all have to come to the table.”

Cummings’ work as a coalition builder is a far cry from his early years on the force, when he worked as a beat cop, went undercover to buy drugs, and performed surveillance on gangs and drug dealers. Occasionally, he says, situations could go “a little bit sideways.”

School of Human Services Gets New Name

Dean Willey, Who Led Expansion, Retires

Beginning July 1, the Springfield College School of Human Services became known as the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, a change aimed at including a broader range of degree and certificate programs while sustaining the School’s helping mission. The School also announced the retirement of Dean Robert Willey, PhD, who presided over an expansion of the School’s programs and promoted consistency in its offerings across campuses in 13 years of service to Springfield.

According to the School’s Director of Recruitment and Admissions Marisol Guevara, Willey upgraded facilities, expanded programs, and worked to establish stability among the school’s branches. Campuses in South Carolina, Texas, and Southern California were established under Willey’s leadership.

“He has improved the quality of the program, and the consistency across campuses,” Guevara says. “And he has far upgraded the facilities. Structurally he made changes that have provided the school with more stability.”

Associate Dean David Rudder is serving as the interim dean until the School names Willey’s successor.

The School’s name change also heralds a new degree offering: an MBA in nonprofit management, which launched in the fall semester at the Tampa Bay, Fla., campus.

“This MBA is for individuals who already work in the nonpofit sector,” Guevara says. “They have experience in this area, but don’t have a master’s degree, and are working to develop leadership skills.”

Changing the name of the School, Guevara says, reflects plans for a wider array of concentrations and programs.

“We will not be taking anything away,” she says, “but will be looking at other areas in which there is a need for degrees.”

Possibilities already in the works include an introduction to college for older students that could serve as a feeder course for other degree programs, and additional certificate programs, Guevara says.

The school now known as the School of Professional and Continuing Studies has long helped adults continue their educations, with class schedules that accommodate working hours and credits offered for professional experience. According to an internal history by an early professor of human services, Stephen D. Berger, the School was founded in 1976 as part of Franconia College in New Hampshire, moved to New Hampshire College in 1978, and landed at Springfield College 10 years later. From the beginning, the School’s philosophy included the idea that older students with work experience could learn from each other as well as from their professors and that part of the School’s mission was to work for social justice.

Wilmington, Del., Police Chief Bobby L. Cummings, a human services alumnus whose story is featured in these pages, says, “At Springfield, I was in an environment where everybody came from a different perspective, we all came from different backgrounds. It really made me look at people and realize that everyone should at least have a fair opportunity and be given a chance.”

Graduates of the school have built careers in advocacy, administration, youth services, case management, rehabilitation, developmental disabilities, criminal justice, gerontology, hospice care, and many others, Guevara says. Of note, she adds, is the “Action Research Project,” a three-semester process where students work to discover and address real-world institutional needs, is a cornerstone of the program.

In the course of the project, she says, “Students work in their own organizations and in partnership with community organizations, and they start making changes before they graduate from the program.” Through a process of assessment, team-building, and action, students learn how to identify and solve problems in collaboration with colleagues.

“This is the highlight of our curriculum,” Guevara says. “They’re learning by doing. Whatever they learn when they come to school on the weekend can be immediately implemented when they go to work on Monday morning. They learn to be more confident about creating change, whether in their own community or in their places of employment, and they end up feeling more confident about being professional in the field.”

“I remember being in a surveillance vehicle once,” he says, “and for some reason our cover was blown. People were coming by and we could hear them talking, saying they knew there were police officers in the vehicle.”

When the crowd started shouting and rocking the van, Cummings radioed for backup. He made it out unscathed, but he never forgot the experience.

In those days, Cummings says, he had an advantage over some of his fellow officers: He knew people in every corner of the city, and even more people knew him. It could cut both ways—it’s hard to buy drugs undercover if the dealer you’re trying to bust knows your name and that you’re a police officer—but the trust he had built over the years worked in his favor more often than not. He was able to get information where others couldn’t, and when Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams appointed Cummings chief of police, he cited Cummings’ ties to the community.

The personal danger to Cummings may be less palpable than it once was, but the stakes for his officers and the citizens they are sworn to protect are just as high, and the Wilmington department is operating in a national policing climate that seems to become more charged by the day. Part of Cummings’ job is to grapple with some very difficult questions.

In meetings with the community, he says, “we talk about the issues that we’ve seen going on around the country. And when we look at our city, we believe that we’re in a pretty good position, because we got out in the community having these conversations and having these forums where we’re able to talk about these issues,” he says.

“I’m not going to say that we’re perfect.”
But, when Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014 in Ferguson, Mo., that progress was briefly tested.

“We had protesters who came out in our city, and they wanted to do a die-in. And we worked with that protest group to make sure that we allowed them to do what they needed to do to get their message out. But, we also set conditions for public safety—here are the things that we need to make sure take place—and we were able to come together, the police and the protesters, and have an event that went off without any issues.”

In 2015, on an American police force, questions of race are unavoidable. In communications with his officers, Cummings addresses the issue both as an ethical and as a practical matter.

“We talk about how we know that there are different cultures in our city, and everyone has a different frame of reference and background,” he says. “Just because you’re used to something a certain way in your culture doesn’t mean it’s wrong if another culture does it differently. It’s about being open minded. And, we bring in instructors to talk about cultural awareness. I tell the officers, ‘you don’t have to like everything you hear, but at least you need to have an understanding of it. That way you can deal with people better.’ ”

Although Cummings believes that Wilmington’s dangers have sometimes been exaggerated, making the city a safer place to live is at the top of his list of priorities—and he sees reasons for hope. He has restructured the department to put more officers on the streets, and he says that Operation Disrupt—a program of increased patrols that followed a spate of killings early in the year—resulted in a significant drop in crimes of all kinds. Early in July, Delaware allocated $750,000 for Wilmington to build a real-time crime center, and Cummings says the community bonds his department has been building have already paid dividends.

“In the past couple months, we’ve been able to solve a number of major shooting and homicide incidents where we wouldn’t have been able to come to those conclusions without those relationships,” he says. “We’re starting to get the trust of the community again.”

According to Cummings, Wilmington’s real-time crime center will include license-plate readers, additional surveillance cameras around the city, and coordination with “shot spotter” gunshot detection systems already in place. Global positioning system (GPS) locators on police vehicles, he says, will allow the force both to deploy officers more effectively and to follow up on citizen complaints with greater confidence. The system will provide troves of data that he and his staff can mine for clues and patterns in their push to reduce crime.

While plans for increased surveillance might raise privacy fears, Cummings believes the benefits far outweigh the risks.

“I try to treat everybody the way I want to be treated,” he says. “Most people just want to be respected.”

“These camera systems have been used throughout the country now for some time,” he says. “They’re usually in public places where you’re just watching general activity and sometimes you capture crime. It’s not connected with any audio monitoring. Sometimes it’s just about a feeling of being safe.”

He sees the use of body cameras by police, on the other hand, as a much more complicated question.

“We have to be careful in how we deploy those because there are certain situations with privacy issues that we don’t want to violate,” Cummings says. “There have to be policies that say when you turn it off and when you turn it on, and there are a lot of questions around the storage of the information. How much can be collected? Who’s going to redact footage if it needs to be redacted when it’s released? There are a lot of issues that need to be discussed.”

The depth of Cummings’ experience in law enforcement has lent itself to another role: adjunct professor at Springfield College Wilmington. Since 2002, he has taught courses on law, citizen wellness, ethics, and, on the master’s level, organizational management and leadership. His teaching draws upon his expertise—expertise that has been honed through years on the street and in the department, and is grounded in his gratitude for the education Springfield College afforded him.

“Sometimes you go through life and you think you understand yourself and what’s happening,” Cummings says. “Springfield made me learn about myself—about who I was and why I was doing what I was doing. It taught me how to get information, be open-minded, and really think critically and ask the questions for myself. What Springfield opened my eyes to was that everything that I was doing in policing was basically being an advocate for people.”

For Cummings, that kind of advocacy is more than just a job. Wilmington is the city he calls home. He and his wife often spend time with their daughter and two grandsons, who also live in Wilmington. The couple will soon celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. He rides his mountain bike down avenues he played on as a kid, commutes to work from his home on the North Side, and jogs through neighborhoods he has known for most of his life. And at the heart of his approach to policing is a lesson he learned in this town.

“I try to treat everybody the way I want to be treated,” he says. “Most people just want to be respected.”