Few promises fulfilled more than 8 months after Delaware lawmakers vowed police reform
More than eight months ago, Delaware officials promised to heed the calls of protesters demanding an end to police brutality.
They promised change. They promised it would be bold, and they promised it would be soon.
The calls for action intensified in June after a wave of peaceful protests against police turned violent in Wilmington and Dover. Windows were smashed, and some businesses were looted on Market Street and in the Dover Mall. The unrest followed the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Ten days later, state lawmakers unveiled an eight-item list of law changes they vowed to pass to ensure better policing and more racial equity.
At the time, the rawness of the protests was still palpable. Officials, some of whom are retired officers, held a press conference outside Legislative Hall to make it clear that they understood the urgency.
Many were skeptical from the start. Over the summer, protest organizers and activists lambasted those eight promises as not going far enough to fix the secretive nature of policing in Delaware.
As of February, lawmakers have fulfilled only four of those eight promises, including a police accountability task force that has yet to issue a single recommendation to the General Assembly.
And now, protesters and the families of people who have died in officer-involved shootings are even more disappointed. They say lawmakers have done little to address the root causes of police brutality.
Lashonnah Nix, whose brother Lymond Moses was fatally shot by police in Wilmington last month, is one of them. Because of the state's lack of police transparency, her family says they are blocked from knowing exactly what happened to her brother the night he died.
"At the end of the day, we count on our lawmakers to make sure that we’re safe and that stuff like this doesn’t happen to us," she said. "They let us down. ... When are we ever going to get that closure and that comfort that we need in knowing that things like this won’t happen to us?"
'We can't wait on this'
Lawmakers insist they are still working diligently on police reform. But as they inch toward the goal that they set in June, they can offer few details on when they will pass the laws they promised. Reform advocates are left wondering what happened to the zeal they appeared to have over the summer.
Javonne Rich, a policy advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, said she fears that, as time passes, officials' sense of urgency will wane.
She said lawmakers should make clear exactly when they plan to pass police reform measures to show the public that they value the “bodily integrity and mental integrity” of people who are experiencing police abuse.
“We can’t wait on this,” Rich said. “We need that same transparency and accountability from our lawmakers, too.”
About two weeks after unveiling their police reform agenda, lawmakers checked their first item off the list when they passed a bill to ban police chokeholds unless the officer thinks it’s necessary. They checked off two more items shortly afterward when they created two task forces to come up with more policing laws and address racial disparities.
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Then the legislative session ended, and lawmakers went on a six-month break as those task forces held meetings. Lawmakers returned to work last month and then fulfilled another promise to add anti-discrimination protections for people of color in the state constitution.
But they have yet to fulfill their promise to make police agencies video record interrogations of juveniles except under certain circumstances or their promise to require all officers in the state to wear body cameras or their promise to bar police from releasing mug shots of juveniles.
They also haven't yet fulfilled their promise to allow lawyers of criminal defendants access to internal affairs records of police wrongdoing.
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Gov. John Carney has asked lawmakers to spend $3.6 million next year for the proposed statewide body camera law, though his gradual spending plan would mean the program won’t be fully funded until 2025. Lawmakers have yet to introduce a bill to make that plan a reality, and it's unclear when it will be filed.
Most police support body cameras, indicating that a bill could pass by the end of this session to make Delaware the first state in the country with a statewide mandate. But it's not clear how much of the footage will be made public despite the cost to taxpayers.
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In late June, Carney issued an executive order detailing new requirements for the few law enforcement agencies under his purview, including Delaware State Police, Capitol Police, and Alcohol and Tobacco Enforcement. Those requirements included more training for officers on how to respond to people in a behavioral health crisis, as well as implicit bias and deescalation training.
The order also required those agencies to publish their use of force protocol on their websites, and for state police to increase community outreach in the hopes of building better relationships with residents. Carney's order also required the Department of Safety and Homeland Security officers to participate in national databases on use-of-force incidents and decertified officers.
Some neighboring governors have taken more aggressive steps. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for example, issued an executive order in June requiring every local government in New York to adopt their own police reform plan by April in order to get future state funding.
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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf in July used his executive power to create a state citizen advisory commission to review police practices, as well as police-involved shootings and use-of-force incidents. People in Delaware have called for a similar commission. But police in the state are resistant, citing fears that non-officers on the board will not have the expertise to properly tell an officer how to do their job.
Carney's spokesman, Jonathan Starkey, said the governor plans to review recommendations from the police task force.
"We will not be defunding police departments," Starkey said. "In many cases, local police departments may need more resources to help rebuild trust in their communities."
It's not clear when the state task force will send recommendations. The group released an 18-page report in January detailing what issues its four subcommittees, which focus on different police-related issues from use of force to transparency, have identified so far.
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Officials say it will take time to get the right buy-in from government officials and law enforcement.
Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle, who co-chairs the task force, said the first round of recommendations could come by late March.
“Nothing’s concrete right now because we’re still working,” Cooke said. “I don’t want to say (what) is going to happen because it could change.”
Task forces like this one are often criticized as a stopgap for real change by watering down and delaying politically contentious reform.
Cooke said that the process is a "tortoise race" because he wants the final recommendations to have "teeth," and it has not been easy balancing activists’ calls for reform with the desires of police unions whose members enjoy the protections of collective bargaining agreements.
Across the country, police unions are considered by law enforcement insiders and criminology experts as one of the most powerful forces standing in the way of reform. Delaware's own police union was clear about its resistance to reform proposals in the wake of Floyd's death last May.
While the new union leadership ushered in this fall has publicly taken a softer, open-to-compromise approach, its members are making sure concerns about transparency and accountability proposals are known to officials.
“They really are looking for a change,” Cooke said about police leaders. “They are not giving me a pullback. They’ve got an open ear, and they’re listening.”
Some police agencies and local governments have started to make their own changes, such as creating local civilian review boards to investigate complaints against officers and review law enforcement practices.
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Attorney General Kathy Jennings has made changes within her agency including publishing more evidence related to police use-of-force reports, such as photos or body camera footage.
But their efforts can go only so far until the General Assembly addresses Delaware's secrecy laws that limit police accountability.
Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki criticized one of those laws after the City Council in November created its own civilian review board because state law significantly limits the board's investigatory ability and power to obtain certain records.
Shortly after its passage, Purzycki in a statement said the board gives “only the illusion” of effective oversight because it will run "full speed into an insurmountable wall of state laws and labor agreements which will stymie its efforts."
It's frustrating activists like Coby Owens, one of last year's Black Lives Matter peaceful protest organizers who watched officials such as Carney, Jennings and Wilmington Sen. Darius Brown march alongside peaceful protesters over the summer.
"I understand the research that has to go into it, but as a community, we live this every single day,” Owens said. “We don’t need a task force to tell you what the issues are. … We know what needs to be changed, and we are calling on our elected officials to change it. And we haven't seen that."
Roadblocks in fight for police transparency
Lawmakers are ultimately responsible for increasing transparency by amending public records laws and the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, a section of state law that dictates how officers are disciplined and how much the public is allowed to know about that discipline.
But they will likely have the hardest time coming to a consensus between progressive lawmakers and police on making changes to that law.
“I do think that police chiefs are willing to look at the transparency piece of it,” said Patrick Ogden, head of the Delaware Police Chiefs Council that includes police chiefs from all 48 departments in the state. "We’ve got to figure out some way to maybe be more transparent without getting into specifics."
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The Delaware Fraternal Order of Police president, Jamie Leonard, is open to considering potential changes to the law, including publicizing arrest logs and police reports.
“We’re not trying to hide police officers that don’t deserve to be police officers or police officers that have problems,” Leonard said. “We are trying to ensure that there is due process in the investigation of police officers.”
The task force includes a subcommittee that is focusing on potential changes to the Bill of Rights law, but its members have yet to come to an agreement on what to recommend to lawmakers.
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Fred Calhoun, former president of Delaware Fraternal Order of Police who sits on that subcommittee, said his own mind has not been changed since the task force started meeting and isn't sure that anyone else's has changed either.
“Everybody has their idea and their philosophy of where they want to be, and everyone wants to stand their ground,” Calhoun said.
Jennings, a progressive Democrat who chairs the task force subcommittee on the use of force, has explicitly called on the General Assembly to amend the Bill of Rights law to help foster public trust in law enforcement.
“I’m trying to make sure that we are not hiding serious findings of misconduct, people who should not be police officers, from the public," she said.
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Jennings is pushing for more than a dozen police reform measures that go beyond the eight promises made by lawmakers over the summer – and which some police union representatives have scoffed at as unrealistic.
They include a statewide civilian board to review misconduct cases and a mandated, public “Do Not Hire” list of officers who have been fired or left the job due to misconduct.
Jennings wants lawmakers to pass all of her proposals by the end of the legislative session on June 30.
But it's not clear whether she has enough support in the 62-person Statehouse.
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Delaware's growing faction of progressives lawmakers might not be enough to pass aggressive reforms still won't be enough. Several veteran lawmakers, including in leadership, are former police officers themselves and could be more sympathetic to police's resistance.
That includes the House’s top lawmaker, Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, a former state trooper who controls if and when bills are voted on in his chamber. While Schwartzkopf supports the police reform measures that lawmakers introduced last year, he warned in June that proposed regulations such as body cameras aren't going to become laws without police approval.
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Black Caucus Chair Rep. Kendra Johnson, D-Bear, said she would not discount people's feelings that the state is not moving quickly enough to implement more transparency and accountability laws. But, she said, lawmakers and the police task force need to be methodical and make sure "all stakeholders are a part of the process."
She said the task force needs to be methodical and make sure reforms don't create "unintentional consequences for people."
"When the work has been completed, we will know that we made informed decisions based upon all the available information," Johnson said.
'They let us down'
To the families who have lost someone at the hands of the police, it all sounds like empty excuses.
Lashonnah and Lakeisha Nix, whose brother Lymond Moses was fatally shot by New Castle County police on Jan. 13, say lawmakers are dragging their feet while people like their brother are dying in officer-involved shootings.
More than a month after his death, Moses' sisters are still in the dark about what happened that night, and the trauma of losing their loved one is coupled with the pain of not knowing why he is gone.
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Police said the officers involved in the shooting were investigating a "suspicious vehicle" on the east end of the Riverside public housing units in Wilmington. Police said that, as the officers approached the vehicle, the car drove off down a dead-end road then made a U-turn and drove at a high speed at the officers, who opened fire. Moses was pronounced dead at the scene.
Police won't release the body camera footage or the names of the officers involved, according to Moses' family. The family also wants to know why Moses' car was considered suspicious or why police didn't initially reveal that Moses' car had been in a crash.
If lawmakers had kept their promise, Lashonnah Nix said, her brother might not be dead and she would not be wanting for answers. She lives close to where her brother died and relives the trauma every time she walks outside and looks down the street where he was shot.
Lakeisha Nix believes the Bill of Rights law holds the police to a different standard than citizens. She said she feels a lack of urgency from officials to change the law.
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“The people that are supposed to be protecting and serving are out here killing," she said. "That’s one of the basic human needs is to feel safe, to feel secure. I don’t feel secure. I feel very unsettled."
The lack of urgency also frustrates Keandra McDole, the sister of Jeremy McDole, a Black man in a wheelchair who was shot and killed by Wilmington police in 2015.
In the months after the fatal shooting, the McDole family sued Wilmington and its Police Department and received a $1.5 million settlement in 2017. No officers were charged.
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McDole said the lack of urgency from lawmakers feels like "a smack in my face, my family’s face, and the community’s face."
"One thing that I know about the government and one thing I know about these people is that, when they want something done, they get it done no matter what," she said. "It’s a stall tactic. ... It’s the same process that Delaware does all the time. It’s the Delaware Way."
Thomas S. Neuberger, whose Wilmington law firm has represented multiple families of people who have died in officer-involved shootings in recent years including McDole, is skeptical that lawmakers and officials will actually follow through on their promises without incessant public pressure.
In his opinion, there is nothing stopping another police-involved death like those of Floyd or McDole. Since 2005, no officer in Delaware has been charged in connection with a police shooting.
"They always promise that they're going to do things," Neuberger said. "They (protesters) should not accept these pie crust promises that are easily made and easily broken."
Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.