DOVER — Legislation recently introduced that would put law-enforcement officers under public scrutiny has received strong criticism from legislators and organizations.
Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 149, sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, D-Wilmington, would publicize all serious and substantiated records of law-enforcement misconduct. It would also allow the creation of community review boards at the state, county, and municipal level to review such records.
On March 22 Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, released an eight-minute video on the Delaware State Senate Republican Caucus YouTube page, voicing his strong opposition to the bill.
“I don’t understand what the review board is about, other than to throw law enforcement to the wolves, to a small group of people that determines what law enforcement did was right or wrong when they have no experience in law enforcement,” he said in the video. “Law enforcement goes to great pains to eradicate the bad ones. No good cop likes a bad cop. They will remove them on their own.”
He noted the volume of applicants to Delaware’s law enforcement as a whole is down by two-thirds, and blames it on legislation like SB149, and unwillingness from legislators to “get out of their ignorant corners” and ride along with law enforcement and see what they do on a daily basis.
In the video, he said “somebody doesn’t like law enforcement, and this is the way to get back at them,” before naming prime sponsor Sen. Lockman, and co-sponsors Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-Bear, and Sen. Kyle Evans Gay, D-Talleyville. On Monday, Sen. Lawson said Sen. Lockman and Sen. Pinkney have a history of creating and introducing “anti-cop legislation.”
“I’m sorry Sen. Lawson feels the only two Black women in the Delaware Senate are not giving him the respect he believes he is entitled,” said Scott Goss, communications director for the Delaware Senate Majority Caucus. “Labeling people who would dare expand transparency and accountability in the name of justice as ‘anti-cop is’ both dangerous and wrong.”
Mr. Goss said the purpose of the legislation is to restore trust in Delaware law enforcement agencies that has been eroded by the secrecy and ambiguity around police misconduct cases. He added that the Delaware Department of Justice’s Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust has brought criminal charges against at least four police officers and one elected public official in recent months.
Sen. Lawson, a retired state trooper with 27 years of experience in law enforcement, said there should be public education, not public review, as to the authority of law enforcement. He doesn’t see any current problems with Delaware law enforcement, and therefore no need for the bill.
“Don’t damn the profession, damn the act,” he said. “Law enforcement needs to quit being the whipping boy for what is going on out there. Everybody wants to come down on law enforcement . … Somewhere along the way, you’ve got to trust that people are doing the right thing, and when there is wrongdoing, then deal with that situation.”
Not strong enough?
Delaware citizen action network Common Cause, however, feels that the community review boards are not enough to truly empower communities. Common Cause Delaware Executive Director Claire Snyder-Hall noted several holes in the bill, where mistrust could still pervade.
“SS1 for SB149 does not significantly increase either transparency or accountability,” she said in a statement. “It would still allow police departments to keep most disciplinary records secret. Requiring only ‘serious and substantiated’ claims to be disclosed does not address the problem of police departments refusing to hold their own accountable and hiding allegations of abuse that they do not deem serious.
“Moreover, while the substitute bill would create a statewide community review board, that board would be under the control of the attorney general, who has close ties to law enforcement, rather than under the authority of everyday Delawareans.”
Ms. Synder Hall added that the bill is not a step forward, but rather a barrier to real reform, and thus “adamantly” opposes it.
Mr. Goss clarified that the boards are not tied to the attorney general, but would be staffed by a deputy AG to ensure they have proper legal representation when it comes to putting their newly created powers into practice. This provision is not meant to be interpreted as “police overseeing the police.”
On Monday, Sen. Lawson said he is disappointed in the lack of bipartisanship, or at least the willingness to have conversations across party lines, in the Delaware General Assembly. He noted that in June of 2021 when the Senate voted on SB147, which implements a “reasonableness requirement” for the use of force, he was ignored by Sen. Pinkney.
“She looked at me and said ‘roll call,’” Sen. Lawson said. “Wouldn’t even debate it, wouldn’t discuss it, just went to roll call because they had the votes to pass it and shove it down our throats… That’s the attitude of the Delaware legislature from the ruling party right now, and I’ll stand in front of anybody anywhere and tell them that and prove it. I’m tired of this.”
In the Senate hearing on June 10, 2021, Sen. Lawson said the definition of “reasonable” was too subjective, while criticizing the behavior of police, but not “criminals.” While voicing his opposition, he said his view is “biased,” but later in his speech said “the bias of (Sen. Pinkney) is showing.” Sen. Pinkney said, however, that the bill had the support of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police, Delaware State Police, the Department of Justice, the Criminal Justice Council, and many others.
John Flaherty, spokesman for the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said he views the legislation as “pro-police” by allowing the “honest” policeman to shine and not be tainted by “the few bad apples that are there.” He thinks the bill will go through many changes, but Sen. Lockman is on the right track.
“I think what her effort really comes down to is that there was overriding public interest in having these records released, which overrides the privacy that law enforcement currently enjoys,” he said. (The bill will) help restore public confidence in our law enforcement agencies around the country, and particularly here in Delaware.”
More access to police conduct records, Mr. Flaherty said, will “increase the public’s confidence that the law enforcement is dealing with these bad apples in a timely fashion.”
SS 1 for SB149 is currently out of committee and on the ready list awaiting a vote in the Senate.