Delaware's Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force makes progress

By Noah Zucker
Posted 4/29/21

DOVER — The state legislature’s Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force — formed in response to nationwide protests around police brutality last year — moved forward Thursday with 20 proposals made by three of the group’s four subcommittees.

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Delaware's Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force makes progress

Posted

DOVER — The state legislature’s Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force — formed in response to nationwide protests around police brutality last year — moved forward Thursday with 20 proposals made by three of the group’s four subcommittees.

Those recommendations will be sent to the rest of the General Assembly, which will decide how to move forward.

Discussion of and a vote on recommendations from the Transparency and Accountability Subcommittee, which there wasn’t time for, will happen in the coming weeks.

“The Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force’s subcommittees included dozens of stakeholders, officials, advocates, community members and law enforcement representatives to do a deep dive and discuss, review and recommend improvements across the law enforcement system,” said Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle.

“Taken together, these recommendations could have a transformative positive effect on law enforcement to ensure that it works for all residents, regardless of race, color or socioeconomic status,” he said.

“I hope the General Assembly will take up these recommendations in the coming weeks.”

Those recommendations include making significant changes to the Law-Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, establishing a standard statewide use-of-force policy and mandating the universal use of body cameras, in addition to encouraging a greater focus on de-escalation, other changes to the way officers are trained and much more.

After the 20 recommendations moved forward Thursday, Delaware Legislative Black Caucus Chair Rep. Kendra Johnson, D-Bear, and Vice Chair Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington, issued a joint statement.

“We thank Rep. Frank Cooke and all the members of the task force and subcommittees for their dedication and tireless work during these past several months,” the statement said.

“We also know that a task force’s work is only worthwhile if those recommendations are turned into actions, and the Black Caucus will work to advance the recommendations we received today and pass meaningful legislation in the coming weeks that will address law enforcement accountability and fulfill our commitment to all Delawareans.”

But Haneef Salaam, who runs the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware’s Campaign for Smart Justice and spoke at the Thursday meeting, took issue with the task force’s slow pace.

“Today’s Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force meeting made one thing critically clear: Delawareans want increased police accountability and transparency reforms, and we want them now,” he said in a press release.

“We can no longer wait for task force red tape and meetings that don’t meet the promises they make,” Mr. Salaam said. “Our lawmakers need to move ahead with the recommendations that were made today.”

Activists support the task force

Before the subcommittee chairs presented their conclusions, a slate of activists and concerned citizens had the opportunity to share their thoughts. Most were in favor of the proposed reforms, particularly efforts to put civilian review boards in place and amend the Law-Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

“I’m here today to urge you to make two important recommendations: to change (LEOBOR) so that police officers’ misconduct records are public and community review boards can be created,” said Kristin Bricker, the secretary of Progressive Democrats for Delaware.

Lykeisha Nix, whose brother, Lymond Moses, was shot and killed by the New Castle County Police Department in January, agreed.

“I support amending, if not abolishing, LEOBOR,” she said.

“There’s a trend in (police department) mission statements and philosophies that acknowledge a goal of community partnership and trust,” she said. “LEOBOR, on the other hand, conceals records of misconduct from the public amidst subjective policies and investigation processes.”

LEOBOR only helps bad officers, she said.

“LEOBOR doesn’t protect good officers who have genuine compassion for the communities they serve. It doesn’t lessen the assumed risk of injury or damages in the line of duty,” she said. “LEOBOR only protects the bad apples of the bunch. It gives said officers a safety net to hide behind when they commit unjustified and unlawful acts against citizens.”

Ms. Bricker said reforming LEOBOR would allow for effective citizen review boards to be formed. She said that for those boards to work, they need subpoena power, the authority to review union contracts and a broad mandate to investigate low-level complaints.

“Investigations into daily violations could also reveal systemic problems about how cops interact with the communities they police,” Ms. Bricker said. “Research shows police discourtesy is linked to later police violence.”

She added that an adequate budget and disciplinary power would also be important.

“CRBs need meaningful disciplinary power, such as requiring a police disciplinary authority to apply preestablished discipline guidelines in every case when a CRB finds misconduct,” Ms. Bricker said.

Opposition

There were a few who were opposed to most of the task force’s recommendations.

“I have heard repeated requests for law enforcement accountability because, quote-unquote, ‘the people’ ask for it,” Sherry Long said. But she felt left out of this definition of “the people.”

“Should you hear more voices who do legally present their thoughts in support of our officers? Will you actually take that into account?” she asked, implying that the task force has prioritized the views of activists on one side over the other.

“If you remove an officer’s rights, they get no second chance, and subsequently, they end up in our corrections facilities, and it is considered a death penalty,” she said of removing LEOBOR. “Do we intend to give a death penalty to those who take the life (of) an officer, as well?”

Richard Harpster had a more nuanced take.

“I think that you’ll find agreement that everyone is all for transparency of misconduct,” he said. “I’d like to see more transparency with our top law enforcement officer in the state, the attorney general.”

Mr. Harpster took issue with what he regards as “activist behavior” on the part of Attorney General Kathy Jennings. His sole example was the “Camden 22,” a group of activists arrested last year for action they took at a protest, then ultimately not charged.

The attorney general was present at the meeting. She served as the chair of the Use of Force Subcommittee and was responsible for presenting that committee’s 10 recommendations. She did not respond to Mr. Harpster’s comments.

Lynne Kielhorn, a member of the Community Policing and Engagement Subcommittee, said that in her view, there is still a lot of distance between law enforcement and community members asking them to change.

“There are fundamental disagreements about what exactly is the problem that is being responded to,” she said.

“On the one hand, many community members view the violence across the country as reflective of a problem that also exists in Delaware policing and must be addressed,” Ms. Kielhorn said. “On the other hand, Delaware police disagree and believe they are being maligned and unfairly grouped with non-Delaware departments and blamed for misconduct they have nothing to do with.”

There’s even serious disagreement about the framework the conversation has taken place in, the activist said.

“Topics such as systemic racism, which are accepted without a doubt by one side, are at most viewed with skepticism by some police,” Ms. Kielhorn said.

Minimal disagreement

Despite this assessment, members of the committee — including members of law enforcement — did agree to move forward with most of the subcommittees’ recommendations, often with unanimous consent.
Still, there was very limited interest in eliminating qualified immunity.

“This is basically to allow for a civil liability without qualified immunity,” said Michelle Taylor, chair of the Community Policing and Engagement Subcommittee and CEO of United Way’s Delaware branch. “This is one of the recommendations from the group I was not in favor of, but the group really felt like they wanted to (do).”

Mr. Harpster was also not a fan of eliminating qualified immunity, which gives government workers immunity from civil suits in most situations.

“I think it’s important to note that qualified immunity does not indemnify police from criminal acts. If your goal is to demoralize and dismantle the police, then by all means, dismantling qualified immunity is the way to do it,” he said.

“I want to know who is engaging in misconduct, but we’ve got to be careful about whether we’re looking at a complaint or misconduct. By ending qualified immunity, what you’re going to find is it’s going to open up all police officers to be sued for everything under the sun.”

Ms. Jennings and eight other members of the task force voted against moving this recommendation forward. Three members abstained, while just five voted in favor of the measure. This was the only recommendation discussed that didn’t get approved.

Initially, the task force had planned to vote on each individual subcommittee’s recommendations wholistically, but some members of the committee expressed concerns about that.

“It’s going to be tough to vote yes if I feel no to just two or three points in there,” said Chief Patrick Ogden of the University of Delaware police. “If I’m against one of them, my vote may be no to the whole thing.”

Ms. Jennings had similar concerns.

Ultimately, it was decided that each recommendation should be read off and voted on individually, which took longer but led to a more nuanced voting process.