Delaware Legislative Black Caucus sees progress on racial justice

By Craig Anderson and Rachel Sawicki
Posted 7/11/21

DOVER — Banning chokeholds by police, along with prohibiting of knee-holds.

Law enforcement officers required to utilize body-worn cameras.

A mandate to record custodial …

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Delaware Legislative Black Caucus sees progress on racial justice

Posted

DOVER — Banning chokeholds by police, along with prohibiting of knee-holds.

Law enforcement officers required to utilize body-worn cameras.

A mandate to record custodial interrogations.

An Equal Rights Amendment designed to thwart discrimination.

No more publishing juvenile mugshot photos publicly in most cases.

The Delaware Legislative Black Caucus pointed to those reformative strides and more made during the last General Assembly session.

At its core, the Justice for All Agenda was focused on addressing systemic racial injustice and police brutality, the DLBC said.

“The Black Caucus, our General Assembly colleagues and state officials stood shoulder-to-shoulder last year and pledged to take strong, decisive action to address issues of police brutality and accountability, as well as revamping our criminal justice system,” said DLBC Chair Rep. Kendra Johnson.

“We have spent the past year engaging all stakeholders — advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and lawmakers — to craft and pass several reforms that will improve police accountability and transparency, make our criminal justice system fairer to all residents, and tackle other injustices Black and Brown residents face on a daily basis.”

Through legislation, a slew of the agenda’s aims were met, the DLBC said when it publicly released a review of the accomplishments immediately following the GA’s conclusion.

The reform goals were announced in June 2020 shortly after the murder of George Floyd and other prominent deaths involving Black Americans, the DLBC said.

The DLBC detailed priorities and reforms that passed in the GA, including:

• Prohibiting police from using chokeholds and knee-holds (HB 350 from 150th GA).

• Passing an Equal Rights Amendment preventing discrimination based on race, color and national origin (SB 31).

• Adding hair texture and protective hair styles in the definition of race used in Delaware code to protect people of color from discrimination (SB 32).

• Requiring law enforcement officers to wear and use body cameras to record interactions with the public (HB 195).

• Ending the practice of publicly disseminating and publishing juvenile mugshots for most offenses (HB 243).

• Requiring law enforcement to electronically record custodial interrogations when they relate to a crime allegedly committed by an adult or a delinquent act allegedly committed by a child (HB 215).

• Raising the minimum age of prosecution for juveniles to 12 (HB 115).

• Making Juneteenth a state holiday (HB 119).

• Automating Delaware’s expungement process for thousands of adults and juveniles and expanding the eligibility for mandatory expungements (SB 111 and SB 112).

• Creating an objective use-of-force standard for Delaware police officers by stipulating that the use of both lethal and non-lethal force is legally justifiable only if that belief is determined to be reasonable (SB 147).

• Expanding the power of the Department of Justice’s Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust to review police use-of-force incidents that result in serious physical injury in addition to the office’s existing mandate to review all deadly-force incidents (SB 148).

• Requiring the publishing of integrity reports with complaints made against police officers and a list of decertified police officers (HJR 4).

On the issue of chokeholds and knee-holds, Rep. Johnson said, “Those types of maneuvers were already unacceptable to begin with. So having the legislation simply further clarifies that this is unacceptable, under any circumstances.”

Rep. Johnson sponsored SB 32, regarding hair textures and styles. She said this legislation was important to her on a personal level.

“It gives me a sigh of relief,” she said. “I have learned to navigate a world that says to me that my natural black hair texture is inappropriate.

“Now whenever I look at my 17-year-old daughter and other Black and Brown little girls, I know they won’t have to endure that type of stigma as they grow older and go into professional settings.

“It’s going to be OK for you to rock your crown, however you see fit.”

DLBC Vice-Chair Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha sponsored the bills related to juvenile prosecution.

“It allows children to be treated as children,” he said. “Our Division of Rehabilitative Services is working to set up alternative reentry programs that will help clear their records and provide them with the support they need.”

Rep. Chukwuocha added that the justice system is hard to get out of as a child or an adult, but ending up in the prison system as a child doesn’t give kids the opportunities and chances they deserve.

“We want to recognize the conditions of our communities, ways that we can be better, improving our schools, our overall culture of our community, our quality of life, to give our children what they need to truly be children,” he said. “So many of our children walk around with adult problems inside of their book bags every day, and as a society we can do better.”

Rep. Chukwuocha said a lot of new agenda items will be reviewed by DLBC subcommittees. He leads the Safety and Justice subcommittee and plans to spend the summer engaging in conversations with constituents through workshops and town halls about community violence. Several subgroups will address issues such as mental health and illegal guns, he said.

“We’re going to come up with some great recommendations and by next year, we’ll be ready to have new legislative agenda items coming from this task force geared toward these items of concern,” Rep. Chukwuocha said.

Recommendations will come straight from the community so that their concerns are addressed directly and the legislation is more proactive, Rep. Chukwuocha said.

Rep. Johnson said multiple environmental justice issues will be addressed soon as well, including the lasting effects of 20th century redlining.

“In [Black and Brown] communities where they live in areas with high pollutants, where landfills are allowed to pop up, those folks, over time, suffer from cancer pockets and all types of other health issues come about as a result of those pollutants,” she said.

“We need to evaluate and make steps towards decreasing those types of pollutants that overburden communities.”

The DLBC said it will push for amending the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) and restructuring the Council on Police Training (COPT), among other reform measures. Two task forces “will continue their work compiling, considering and issuing recommendations.”

The reforms met with many stakeholders throughout Delaware, who also said more ample progress is needed.

According to Lisa Minutola, the Office of Defense Services’ Chief of Legal Services, “The legislation passed this year begins to address the systemic issues that have plagued our justice system for far too long, and I applaud the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus’ advocacy.

“These important changes positively impact every stage of the legal process and inject transparency in everyday police interactions.”

Central Delaware NAACP branch President Fleur McKendell said that while the state organization was pleased about the legislative advancements related to the agenda, “the work is far from finished. Mandatory use of police body cameras is a good first step towards police accountability.

"However, there has been no tangible change to laws governing excessive use of force; so, the use of body cameras alone simply can’t bring about the much-needed police reform that we have been calling for.”

Ms. McKendell pointed to the Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches call on May 31 “for a radical shift in police reform.

“In addition to the repeal of LEOBOR and Title 11 Sections 464 and 467, which we believe collectively give police officers extra latitude in the use of excessive and deadly force, we called for Civilian Review Boards with subpoena power, increased diversity in recruitment and hiring practices, the implementation and enforcement of an Imminent Danger policy, and several other sweeping policy and legislative changes.”

Also, Ms. McKendell said, “Elected officials must wholly commit to enacting laws that no longer support and shield police misconduct. The Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches is committed to strengthening our working relationship with the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus and will continue to vigorously pursue the passage of transformative laws and policies that uphold and protect the civil rights of civilians.”

ACLU Delaware Executive Director Mike Brickner highlighted progress toward justice such as “expanding access to second chances by automating expungements through Clean Slate will help 290,000 people who have a record in Delaware.”

Also key, according to Mr. Brickner, were amending the state Constitution to include equal rights protections based on race, color and national origins.

While reforms to use of force and body-worn cameras were good steps forward, Mr. Brickner said that “real justice for all cannot be realized until systemic police reform is a reality, and that starts with amending LEOBOR. ...

“Until we amend LEOBOR, we cannot say that we are anywhere close to ‘justice for all.’”

Regarding advancements made in the last legislative session, Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security spokesman Arshon Howard said, “The (DSHS) has worked collaboratively with members of the General Assembly and our community partners to enhance transparency and accountability while providing increased protection for both law enforcement and the community.

“We will continue to work with all of our community partners to build trust and confidence in our criminal justice system. We look forward to working to reach our shared goal of safety and security for all Delawareans.”

Through the most recent General Assembly session, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said, “We’ve absolutely made real progress on police reform and criminal justice reform in Delaware, including an objective use of force standard, a statewide requirement for police to wear body cameras, stronger bail standards for truly violent offenders and domestic abusers, and automation of the mandatory expungement process.

“I’m grateful to the General Assembly for their partnership and leadership on those measures.”

Use-of-force reform represented “a game changer for accountability,” Ms. Jennings said.

“It closes a legal loophole by which serious brutality or recklessness can be waved away with the words ‘I thought.’

“Mere months after George Floyd’s murderer was convicted — which, unfortunately, was seen as groundbreaking despite the overwhelming evidence against him — we should recognize the real value of adopting an objective standard, which exists in Minnesota and in red and blue states alike.”

Acknowledging calls from others for continued efforts at progress and professing her belief in them as well, Ms. Jennings said, “We need to get LEOBOR reform done. We need to adopt a deprivation of civil rights statute to mirror federal law. We need to act to modernize our antiquated hate crime laws.

“And we need to pass meaningful gun safety reforms, including the permit to purchase legislation that 70% of this state supports.

“There’s no reason we can’t get this done, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that we do.”

Staff writer Craig Anderson can be reached at 741-8296 or canderson@newszap.com.
Staff writer Rachel Sawicki can be reached at rsawicki@iniusa.org.