Will the Delaware General Assembly grant protesters' wishes to change policing laws?

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Protesters in Delaware are calling for more accountability and transparency in their police departments.

A lot of that change would have to come from the state's 62-member General Assembly, which has the power to change laws in Delaware, including those dealing with police.

Legislators can change how officers are disciplined for bad behavior, double down on officer training and force departments to be more transparent by lifting the numerous protections that they enjoy under the state's public records laws.

But will they?

The so-called "Delaware Way," the bipartisan tradition in which First State politicians make decisions and work out tensions behind closed doors, could hurt that effort.

Activists worry that the several ex-officers and police-affiliated lawmakers in the Legislature, more than one of whom are in leadership, will be an obstacle to meaningful change.

On Wednesday, the state's Black Caucus lawmakers announced a list of bills in response to the numerous protests in Delaware against racism and officer killings of Black people. The bills have support from state and local officials, but some groups say they don't go far enough in fighting systemic racism in the state.

Delaware Governor John Carney (podium) was joined by other elected officials Wednesday afternoon in Dover in calling for new legislation to address police brutality and racial injustice in the state.

There is another obstacle. Lawmakers' schedules have been consumed by a drastic drop in revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic that has forced them to rework their multibillion-dollar state spending plan before the June 30 end of session. After that, the Legislature goes on hiatus until January.

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Meanwhile, Delaware police unions will be lobbying lawmakers to avoid drastic changes.

Fred Calhoun, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police, said he's asking lawmakers to "be educated" before they change laws and to involve police in the process.

"We don’t do the things that you’re seeing on TV," Calhoun said. "All of our police departments have advanced training on a lot of these topics. ... Once those in leadership positions in the community realize what we do, I think those changes won’t be as extreme as they will other places because we already do them."

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House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, who controls the 41-member House chamber's schedule, said during an interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal that he isn't going to "line up with the cops just because they’re cops."

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, voices support at a Wednesday press conference announcing the Legislative Black Caucus' proposed reforms to Delaware police departments.

But the top-ranking Democrat, who voiced support for the Black Caucus' proposed reforms at a Wednesday press conference, warned during the interview that proposed regulations such as body cameras aren't going to become laws without police approval.

"A legislator writing a policy is not going to get the approval of the law enforcement officers, I’m going to tell you that right now," Schwartzkopf said.

How much change is needed?

Activists, the attorney general and Delaware's Legislative Black Caucus agree that now is the time to fix systemic racism in the First State. Those groups are pushing for a slew of law changes to combat systemic racism, and each is proposing its own wish list.

The most viable proposals for now are likely those from the Black Caucus, whose members on Wednesday announced they are pushing for every officer to have a body camera and to ban kneeholds and chokeholds unless deadly force is necessary.

The lawmakers also plan to create a task force of police, victims of police use of force and other stakeholders to study some of the activists' demands, such as more community oversight and increased police transparency, before deciding whether to file individual bills.

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The task force will be headed by Black Caucus member Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle, a former police officer, who thinks some of the proposals his group will consider "might need tweaking."

“We have to compromise,” Cooke said. "It's not going to please everybody, but it's at least stepping forward."

Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle, speaks in Dover's Legislative Hall during the 2020 session.

The caucus' eight-item agenda, which also includes protections for juvenile defendants and more investment in African American communities, has earned support of Senate and House leadership, as well as the governor. Those officials, flanked by a bipartisan group of state officials on Wednesday, pledged to make real change.

But activists and civil rights groups aren't satisfied.

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The organizers behind the peaceful protests in Delaware, in a joint statement, criticized the Black Caucus' agenda items. The statement said the task force risks becoming "another empty promise" and the proposals "do close to nothing to address the systemic problems which give law enforcement such an outsized and unwarranted power to begin with."

"We're not saying 'get rid of the police altogether,'" said Garrison Davis, one of the organizers. "If we're going to increase trust between the two parties, then that means holding the police accountable. And that means the police giving up some of the power that they've held onto for so long."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware is asking the state to divert funding from its police departments to pay for schools, health care and other programs in Black communities.

Proposals to defund police are being talked about across the country, and multiple cities have already taken action. It wasn't among the Delaware lawmakers' proposals released Wednesday, and Cooke said it's not on his task force's agenda.

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"This legislation that they're submitting, it doesn't sound too aggressive; it doesn't sound too progressive," said Democratic Statehouse candidate Larry Lambert. While there are officials in the state who are committed to accountability and justice, others ultimately "answer to who bankrolls their campaigns," he said.

Lambert, who is Black, is running as a progressive to unseat Rep. Ray Seigfried, D-Brandywine Hundred, after coming 86 votes shy of beating the first-termer in the 2018 primary.

Lambert remembers more than one time when he had a tense interaction with a police officer. He remembers as a preteen carrying a baseball bat on his way to play ball in the Claymont area with friends when a police officer stopped him and questioned whether the bat was going to be used for something besides sports.

Larry Lambert is a Democrat running for the state House of Representatives, District 7.

He remembers being in his early 20s helping his white friend repair a broken-down car on Governor Printz Boulevard and looking up to realize an officer was pointing a gun at him. 

And he remembers being a film student and driving home late at night after a film festival only to be stopped and questioned by a police officer and wondering to himself, "What if he shoots first and asks questions later? Am I going to make it out of this thing?"

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And like many Black men, he remembers his parents teaching him at a young age how to interact with the police to avoid being a victim of police violence.

"That talk is so mandatory in Black homes that we literally reference it as 'The Talk,'" Lambert said. "There’s not even another adjective we need to put on it."

These experiences explain why Lambert wants to see serious police reform in Delaware, including community police review boards made up of non-police who would have the power to investigate and discipline officers for misconduct.

He said most officers are doing their job correctly, and there should be faster and harder consequences for officers who do wrong.

"When they mess up things for other cops, we need to hit them and impact them in a way that would discourage them from doing it again," Lambert said.

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Attorney General Kathy Jennings is also pushing for civilian review boards to review officer misconduct. She said she hopes police-affiliated lawmakers in the General Assembly won't be an obstacle for the efforts, which include changing use of force policies and giving the public more access to information about officer misconduct.

Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings speaks at a press conference about the need to pass legislation to address police brutality and address racial injustice in Delaware.

She said there are police departments in Delaware that are doing an "outstanding job," and law changes should make those standards uniform across the state.

"This is not a yearslong process," Jennings said. "There's a lot of good things that the police are doing, and so that ought to make these changes pretty simple to do."

'It’s just straight-up racism' 

Lack of transparency has long been a source of heartburn in Delaware, where police reports and arrest logs aren't publicly available under state law. How police departments in the state internally handle officer misconduct is not publicly disclosed, either.

Even officer training isn't transparent enough, according to Gov. John Carney.

"Certain aspects of it is something that’s not shared very publicly because it, in some ways, exposes methods and what have you," Carney said during a press briefing on Friday. "But to get confidence with situations like this, transparency is important."

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Some lawmakers want to shed more light on law enforcement, and they don't just want it to be about training. One of them is Black Caucus member Rep. Stephanie Bolden, D-Wilmington East, who said she wants to require police officers to report in writing every use of force on a person and for those reports to be public.

Black Caucus member Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, D-New Castle, who is a nurse and chairs the House Corrections Committee, wants to push legislation related to police accountability and health care.

Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown, (D) District 17, at work Sunday, June 30, 2019, during the last hours of the session at Legislative Hall in Dover.

For her, the protests and police brutality incidents across the U.S. hit close to home.

"I haven’t cried this much in a while," Minor-Brown told Delaware Online/The News Journal shortly after the first weekend of protests. "I sit in the bathroom, I cry. I’m in the shower, I cry. I hug my son, I cry. … For him to come in a room and see this on TV, and I cannot turn the channel because I cannot hide him from the reality, is hard."

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She said the systemic issues in society that were "strategically created to oppress communities of color" have come to the forefront during the pandemic. 

"A lot of it has to do with oppression," Minor-Brown said. "It has to do with lack of quality health care, lack of quality education, availability of healthy food."

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Minor-Brown said she wants to see changes beyond extra training, which police departments around the country have implemented in recent years following officer killings of unarmed Black men.

"Training is always the response," Minor-Brown said. "No, let’s provide accountability. ... Forget the word ‘implicit bias,’ OK? It’s just straight-up racism."

Police union president Calhoun doesn't think racial bias is uniquely a police problem.

Fred Calhoun

"I don’t believe the law enforcement community has an overwhelming level of implicit bias towards African Americans," Calhoun said. “If it does exist, it’s not something that just exists in the police department. It exists everywhere."

Calhoun, who said he supports the peaceful protests, said the Minneapolis incident was a "tragedy" but does not warrant "tearing and burning these cities to the ground."

“Do I think race had a huge role in all that up there? No, I think it was poor policing and poor decision-making," Calhoun said. "It cost that gentleman his life, and that officer’s going to pay for that, as he should."

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can contact her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.