Why Delaware police are pushing back on transparency, accountability plan in General Assembly
One week before a task force is set to decide on how lawmakers should change policing standards, a top law enforcement organization is pushing back on some proposals to increase transparency and prevent misconduct.
The Delaware Police Chiefs Council, which represents all 48 police departments in the state, sent a letter to the 62-person, Democrat-controlled General Assembly on Wednesday detailing their concerns about recommendations that the law enforcement accountability task force is considering but has yet to send to the General Assembly.
In the letter, police made clear that they are resistant to amending the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights, a controversial section of state law that dictates how officers are disciplined and how much the public is allowed to know about that discipline.
"The repeal of LEOBR will create uncertainty for officers who must make split-second decisions and make it easy for chiefs, management, and politicians to conduct unaccountable meddling in the discipline process for officers," the letter reads.
"Discipline should be ruled by evidence, law, and policy, not politics and emotion."
It's unlikely that Delaware lawmakers are seriously considering repealing the entire document, at least during this session.
Such an action would follow what was done in Maryland, where lawmakers overrode Gov. Larry Hogan's veto to repeal its Bill of Rights, replacing it with new laws that let members of the public participate in the police disciplinary process. Maryland was the first state to adopt one in 1974.
Despite holding a three-fifths majority in both chambers, Democrats in Delaware likely wouldn't have to votes to repeal its police Bill of Rights — especially if it would require a veto from Gov. John Carney — because a handful of them, including in leadership, are either retired officers or have had an affiliation with police.
Thanks to the police Bill of Rights, internal investigations into complaints against police are kept secret in Delaware.
The law also states that an officer accused of misconduct should be questioned within a police agency, and the police themselves are the final deciders of whether that officer is prosecuted.
Some Democrats have been quietly working on a bill to amend the police Bill of Rights to make internal investigation records public, but it's unclear if or when that bill would ever be filed.
Left-leaning advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are seeking more aggressive amendments that would pave the way for civilian review boards of non-police to investigate complaints against officers and review law enforcement practices.
Democrats may also be working on a separate bill to create these boards, but that effort has not been publicized.
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Other concerns in the letter
Police are resistant to the civilian review boards, too.
"There is a potential for board members with personal agendas, and recommendations may promote police policies that cannot or are too difficult to be implemented," the police council letter reads.
"Acts of potential misconduct are best to be investigated by experienced practitioners, and any subsequent discipline should be issued by police executives, not by members of the general community."
The police council also warned against taking away officers' qualified immunity — something else that activists and advocacy groups have called for.
"Qualified immunity protects officers who must make quick, split-second decisions under great duress from what could otherwise be strict liability for their actions, regardless of whether they were reasonable under the circumstances," the letter reads. "We anticipate a mass exodus of officers if this limited protection is taken away."
In the letter, police said they also support a statewide body camera program for police officers, though it specifies that the chiefs council wants it limited to officers on "routine patrol duties and special operation events."
Carney has asked lawmakers to spend $3.6 million next year to fund body cameras, though the program would not be fully funded until 2025. Lawmakers, however, have yet to introduce a bill to make that plan a reality.
Police also want use of force to be judged from the perspective of an officer on the scene "rather than with 20/20 vision of hindsight," the letter said.
The council also supports public access to data related to employment demographics, use of force and decertification, according to the letter.
The council also supports increased training for officers and a more uniform training program across departments.
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Letter comes before task force decides on law changes
The letter comes just before the state's police accountability task force meets on April 29 to decide what to recommend to lawmakers before the legislative session ends on June 30.
Last June, lawmakers and other state officials held a press conference promising to hold police accountable in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes in May 2020. Chauvin was found guilty of murder this week.
They created the task force, which has been meeting since August, to study potential changes to policing laws including use of force, civilian review boards and the Bill of Rights.
The task force will base its recommendations on recommendations from its four subcommittees, which have worked on different topics such as the use of force, community engagement, training and transparency.
The transparency subcommittee's instructions on how to change the police Bill of Rights were vague, recommending only that the General Assembly should "review and amend" the document to "increase transparency and accountability in the police disciplinary process," as well as address how collective bargaining agreements hinder access to public records.
It's not guaranteed that the task force will ultimately follow those or other recommendations from its subcommittees.
But after more than eight months of those meetings, along with officials' promises, widespread protests and calls for reform from the progressive wing of the majority party, the task force's final decisions will prove whether it actually added value to the legislative process as intended or whether police still have the final say in the Delaware Statehouse.
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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.