Middletown to criminals: ‘We will come at you with full force’

Police chief says efforts to build trust with community, combat crime are paying off.

Recognizing that the city is “one step away” from violence erupting between officers and residents — a dangerous scenario that has played out in cities across the country this year, Middletown Police Chief Rodney Muterspaw said his office will continue to build trust with the community as well as take a hard stance on crime.

In an exclusive interview with the Journal-News, Muterspaw talked about efforts taken in the past year to make the city safer and what he plans to do in the coming year.

Middletown’s crime is down 2.5 percent compared to 2015, according to Muterspaw. Calls for service and arrests have increased compared to last year because of task force-oriented work where repeat offenders and crime-ridden areas are targeted, he said.

The use of these specialized task forces to address crime like illegal drug activity, prostitution and violence in certain neighborhoods will continue in 2017, Muterspaw said, because it’s a system that yields results.

Police officers have made 25 arrests within the past two weeks through these hyper-focused task force groups, Muterspaw said.

“You can’t just have education,” he said. “You have to have enforcement, too. We are pursuing it with everything we got.”

His message to criminals?

“Stay out,” he said. “We will come at you with full force. We are hammering people for drug offenses.”

The police department issued more search warrants and made more drug arrests this year compared to 2015, according to Muterspaw. There have been 315 search warrants, up from the 275 last year. Drug arrests also went from 500 in 2015 to 600 so far this year.

Muterspaw’s goal when he was hired as police chief two years ago, was to “change the culture” in the department, he said.

Some of those changes have been obvious, such as new, brightly painted walls in the department's lobby, hanging historic photos showcasing the department's history, and adding new signage so residents can easier navigate through the building.

But in a less obvious way to create change in the department, Muterspaw has talked extensively with police officers about “doing the right thing and building trust,” he said.

That has played out in more meetings between police officers and city church leaders and by officers participating in school programs more than 50 times so far this year, a trend he sees increasing next year.

The department has also focused on efforts to better communicate with residents and business owners in the community. Its Facebook page has more than 12,000 followers, and is frequently used to alert residents and share information about the department and city events.

“We have sold the community on what we are doing,” Muterspaw said.

But all of those efforts don't mean the city is immune to crime. Over an eight-day period beginning last month, Middletown saw seven shootings in four separate incidents with 50 rounds fired, Muterspaw said. Two people were arrested and arrest warrants have been signed for two more people, he said.

“This is not normal for Middletown,” Muterspaw said last month following a meeting with city leaders after the shootings. “This is not about the city and the police department. It’s about the community…. The message is ‘put your guns down.’”

A better understanding of crime and what causes it is as important as policing efforts, Dora Bronston, the city's vice mayor and president of the Middletown chapter of the NAACP, told the Journal-News.

Bronston visited the Middletown City Jail and talked to one of the alleged shooters of a recent incident. She wanted to know the mindset of the men accused of the shooting, she said.

“You can guess all day long,” Bronston said.

The men disrespect each other and lacked a stable home life growing up, she said, so they “chose a different path in life” that led to drugs and violence.

Bronston said the community has “rallied around” Muterspaw and its police department because “real issues” are being addressed.

“He’s built trust within the leadership of the city and outside the community,” she said.

Muterspaw, she said, is transparent and as a Middletown native, he understands the city and the challenges it faces.

Muterspaw was hired as police chief two years ago at age 45, which made him the youngest police chief in the city’s history.

He has turned down other job offers since, he said, because he wants to be part of revitalizing his hometown. He thinks Middletown is making strides, despite some of the negativity from its residents.

Some credit Middletown’s continuing downtown renaissance to helping to improve police-community relations.

“If people were here 10 years ago and saw downtown, Middletown was awful,” Muterspaw said. “It was a ghost town. Unfortunately, we still have that reputation to some.”

He has brought his friends — those who live in surrounding cities — to downtown Middletown.

“We thought there’d be people shooting at each other,” he said his friends have commented after their visits.

“They were amazed by the change that has taken place the last three, four years. It’s just night and day, the difference,” Muterspaw said.

Much of the credit, he said, goes to City Manager Doug Adkins. He said Adkins challenges him every day and he has all departments in the city collaborating.

“We hit a homerun with that guy,” Muterspaw said of Adkins. “We are doing everything we can to make Middletown better.”

He said when Adkins returned from a conference in Seattle, he told Muterspaw: “We are doing everything right when it comes to community involvement. We’re ahead of the curve.”

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