Commentary: House leaders should recuse themselves regarding police accountability

By Jack Guerin
Posted 5/7/21

Police accountability promises to become a major issue during the final two months of this legislative session. The Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force (LEATF) was formed last June in reaction …

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Commentary: House leaders should recuse themselves regarding police accountability

Posted

Police accountability promises to become a major issue during the final two months of this legislative session. The Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force (LEATF) was formed last June in reaction to protests around the state by Black Lives Matter and other groups.

Now, LEATF is recommending greater transparency for police-misconduct issues by amending the Law-Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR). The task force is also recommending a new objective standard of reasonableness for judging police use-of-force cases. A third LEATF recommendation is a statewide use-of-force policy for all Delaware police departments.

So this is a heavy lift for our General Assembly, which has been dominated by the police-to-politician pipeline. There are four retired police officers (Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach; Rep. Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere; Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle; and Rep. Steve Smyk, R-Milton) in the House and two (Sen. Bruce Ennis, D-Smyrna; and Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel) in the Senate, making up about 10% of General Assembly membership.

The greatest challenge is in the House because of the role of police advocates in House leadership. The top three members of House leadership — House Speaker Schwartzkopf, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, and Majority Whip Mitchell — have police affiliations. Below is the criteria for recusal, as stated in Article II of the Delaware Constitution: “Any member of the General Assembly who has a personal or private interest in any measure or bill pending in the General Assembly shall disclose the fact to the House of which he or she is a member and shall not vote thereon.”

The key phrase here is “personal or private interest” in a bill. As a retiree, Rep. Schwartzkopf may get a pass here because his “interest” isn’t directly financial. However, Rep. Longhurst and Rep. Mitchell are currently on the full-time payroll of police organizations, earning significant salaries in addition to their compensation as members of the General Assembly.

Early in 2018, Rep. Longhurst accepted the position of executive director of the Police Athletic League of Delaware, with an annual salary of $75,000 at that time. For several years before that, Longhurst was a member of the PAL board. Current and former members of the General Assembly, including Mitchell, were on the board that selected her as executive director.

As a double dipper, Mitchell has a full-time job as head of security at Delaware Technical Community College, where he supervises the organization’s force of security officers and constables. Mitchell is also a former president and state lodge vice president of the Delaware State Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).

The robust representation of law enforcement in Delaware’s General Assembly has produced the current LEOBOR statute, which, according to the Delaware branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), is “the worst in the nation for transparency, making the state a leader in police secrecy.”

 

While other jurisdictions are implementing changes to improve police-community relations, reformers in Delaware face the “blue wall” of House leadership. Recusal by Longhurst and Mitchell would provide a show of good faith, giving the LEATF reforms a chance to become law.

Jack Guerin is an anti-corruption advocate with fightdecorruption.com.