By Carol Vaughn —
Onancock residents spoke during Monday’s Town Council meeting about concerns over crime and the need for more police staffing.
Police are investigating a series of burglaries in Onancock that happened between Oct. 17 and Oct. 20, according to Accomack County Sheriff Todd Wessells.
The sheriff’s office received reports of burglaries at Mallard’s, the Corner Bakery, Bizzotto’s, and the Roseland Theatre, along with multiple vehicle break-ins in Onancock.
Several young males were seen fleeing from the reported locations, according to witnesses.
Brenda Smith said she and her husband purchased their home in 2009, planning to retire in Onancock, and have lived in Onancock full time for five years.
“In 2018, my husband and I started noticing small changes around town. Beautification had become a priority, while attention to laws decreased,” she said, saying police patrols “became almost non-existent” and “there was a noticeable increase in illegal parking.”
Upon bringing their concerns several times to town officials, Smith said they were told the police department was short staffed and that, after being trained, officers sometimes left for better jobs elsewhere.
“We felt that our taxes were paid for police coverage and also that the character of Onancock was sliding downhill,” she said, adding, “In the last year, I’ve encountered several drunk people walking the streets of Onancock,” including one in the middle of the day in September.
Smith said her purse was taken from her car, which was parked in her driveway, on Sunday evening, Oct. 17, around 8:15 p.m.
“My husband and I saw it as an indication that Onancock was continuing to go downhill,” she said.
“Next comes breaking and enterings and then you get muggings,” Smith said, adding, “Sure enough, Tuesday morning, Onancock had their breaking and enterings.”
Smith said Onancock “has made a great push to make itself a tourist destination and a haven for retirees” and noted Onancock Main Street and the Onancock Business and Civic Association are working hard in those directions.
“But how many retirees will seek out this town if their safety is not of concern?” She asked.
She noted a dog park is being planned for the area behind the former carnival grounds, which is near the location where a daytime fatal shooting took place Oct. 13.
“This is an area where I frequently walk and I’m often pushing a stroller with my granddaughter,” she said.
“The safety of residents as well as tourists needs to be prioritized,” Smith said.
Rick Turner also spoke about crime. “I have seen the police presence dwindle,” he said.
“This is not just something that’s talked about here, but it’s talked about on a very much wider scale and it’s deleterious to the town,” he said of crimes in Onancock being reported by Hampton Roads area media outlets.
“It’s also upsetting, … a very serious situation,” he said.
Turner said the issue of drug-related crimes in particular “is bigger than just the local police force” and those crimes “need to be handled in a larger frame than just the town.”
“I’d like to know that something is being done in coordination with state police and the county sheriff’s office to see this as a larger problem,” he said.
Priscilla Hart said she drove to Monday’s meeting rather than walk from her Market Street home because of concern “after what took place the other morning.”
“It’s just changed,” she said.
Hart asked if federal American Rescue Plan Act money could be spent on burglar alarms for town businesses or if a private security firm could be hired to fill the gap until the police department can be fully staffed.
Another speaker suggested using the town’s existing text messaging/email notification service to alert residents to crimes.
Town Manager Matt Spuck said he and Police Chief eric Williams will create a standard message to send out in those situations.
Finding a way to provide security cameras for businesses is being worked on, as well as a workshop being planned for business owners about safety measures.
Spuck said when he first joined the town, “We put together a three-year plan for the police department so that we would have well-compensated officers that we weren’t going to lose due to competitive marketplace pricing.”
Town Council adopted a budget that includes the first year of that three-year plan.
“So we are starting to get the best compensated officers on the Shore so we shouldn’t be losing them for marketplace reasons,” Spuck said.
The budget is for five officers.
“We have four officers on staff; two are at the (Police) academy,” he said.
Efforts to hire a fifth officer so far have not yielded results, according to Williams.
“We’ve got two in school now; we are still looking for a third,” he said. In the meantime, two officers are rotating shifts and working long hours.
Agencies across the Shore and in Hampton Roads are struggling to hire officers, he said.
“Nobody wants to do this job anymore, as of right now, but we are trying,” he said.
“We are looking at putting out cameras to help with this issue, but it doesn’t replace a person,” he said, adding, “We are trying to fill these positions to the best of our ability.”
Maphis Oswald asked Williams what residents and businesses can do to help prevent crime.
“We can’t do what we did 20 years ago….. The world is changing,” she said.
Williams said locking windows and doors, installing better lighting, and installing alarms and motion-detecting lighting in businesses are steps that could deter criminals.
Additionally, the state has a drug task force, made up of troopers and sheriff’s officers, that works against drug crimes in Accomack and Northampton counties, according to Williams.
Councilwoman Thelma Gillespie said there has been shooting in her neighborhood in the past.
She recently purchased a security camera and has an alarm system, she said.
“At least I will be able to have some evidence that somebody is there. … So I am trying to cover myself,” she said, adding, “We can’t expect the police to be everywhere.”
Mayor Fletcher Fosque said that, while break-ins likely can be deterred with increased safety measures, “We’ve had two murders in town. We’ve had two in the last year.”
“… The question is, are twice as many police officers … going to solve that problem,” he said, adding, “There’s no doubt that we need to get back to five officers and we are going to do that.”
Comprehensive Plan Approved
Councilman Bob Bloxom spoke about the comprehensive plan update during Monday’s Onancock Town Council meeting.
“We actually started this process in 2018,” he said, adding, “…The planning commission has done an awful lot of work on this over the last 15 months and there has been thoughtful comment by the public and by the commission members. Is the document perfect? No. Is it good? Yes.”
Bloxom said there are “significant ramifications for us not having a plan adopted,” including being out of compliance with state law.
Noting the planning commission recommended approving the plan, Bloxom made the motion to approve it as submitted.
The council approved the plan unanimously.
The town has distributed around $300,000 to around 30 businesses from the small business recovery grant program, according to Spuck.