Delaware police chiefs pitch reform plan
Letter supports body cams, questions scrutiny on officers’ bill of rights
Posted Friday, April 23, 2021 6:14 pm
DOVER — Major changes to police operations and oversight may be coming as pending legislation and recommendations regarding law enforcement in Delaware continue to formulate.
On Friday, State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, filed House Bill 185, an act which would “(require) certain law-enforcement officers to wear and use a body-worn camera to record all interactions with a member of the public,” according to its synopsis.
“The act also requires law-enforcement agencies to retain body-worn camera recordings for at least 90 days following the interaction unless the agency has received a request or a court order to preserve the recording for a longer period of time.”
The pending legislation was assigned to the House Public Safety and Homeland Security committee, where a hearing must occur within 12 legislative days.
In a letter sent to Delaware General Assembly members on Wednesday, the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council indicated support for “implementing a statewide requirement for use of body-worn camera devices for all police officers assigned to routine patrol duties and special operation events, to include Department of Correction officers assigned to the Governor’s Task Force and Operation Safe Streets.”
Also in the works are findings by the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force, created by legislators on June 20 and spurred by George Floyd’s death at the hands of a police officer in Minnesota that sparked an eruption of social unrest. The task force was established at the urging of the Delaware Black Legislative Caucus.
The Delaware Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights has come under heavy scrutiny as many seek to increase the amount of public information available on officers, regarding their work history and performance.
Among the legislators pushing for major systemic change is State Sen. Tizzy Lockman, D-Wilmington, who said, “While it would be improper of me to comment on any future legislation before the task force’s imminent final report is released, I will say my position has not changed.
“I believe there are reforms we can make this year that will provide greater accountability and transparency while also helping to restore the public’s faith and trust in the dedicated law enforcement officers of this state.”
The DPCC said in its letter that it “has serious concerns about preliminary recommendations made by Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force members regarding qualified immunity, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and Citizen Review Boards with subpoena and decision-making authority.”
Offering its views on the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, the DPCC provided bullet point examples of its concerns and key details including, among others:
- Under Delaware law Title 19, Section 731 Definitions, the definition of “personnel file” includes discipline information. Most municipalities have policies in place prohibiting the release of an employee personnel file without a signed release from the specific employee.
- The repeal of the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights 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.
- Discipline should be ruled by evidence, law and policy, not politics and emotion.
- The Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has no bearing on criminal investigations. Police officers have the same rights as any other citizen under a criminal investigation.
Also of concern is a proposal by some LEATF subcommittees that citizen review boards “will have subpoena and decision-making authority.”
The DPCC did express support for police advisory councils in every police jurisdiction across the state. Citizen review boards, however “may not be effective at assisting with reform and could potentially become divisive.
According to the letter, “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 inability to implement recommendations could degrade the public view of the agency.”
Among its other points, police described qualified immunity protection as “essential because it considers officers’ good-faith actions based on their understanding of the law at the time, not if the actions are later deemed unconstitutional.”
Also, according to the DPCC, qualified immunity “does not protect officers from misconduct or from criminal prosecution if it is warranted. Officers who break the law are criminally prosecuted.”
There is no “civil liability protection for an officer who knowingly violated constitutional rights,” the DPCC maintained.
At the conclusion of the letter, the DPCC said it “is committed to providing quality, contemporary, and constitutionally sound police services in our respective jurisdictions.
“The Delaware law enforcement community is special and much different than what is portrayed nationally. Our unified system of policing enables us to coordinate and communicate with each other across our state to ensure we are aligned and consistently employing the best practices in our profession.
“We respectfully ask our elected officials to strongly consider our positions on these important issues, to exercise prudence, and to work with the DPCC to draft legislation that best serves our communities.”
The DPCC letter was signed by Chairman Chief Patrick A. Ogden and Executive Director retired Chief Jeffrey Horvath.
In response to the letter, Brendan O’Neill, Delaware’s chief defender at the Office of Defense Services said, “Delaware is one of the most secretive states in the country when it comes to police misconduct, and that needs to change.
“Lawmakers in the General Assembly can, and should, amend the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights to make misconduct records public and to empower effective civilian oversight. Elected officials in other states have taken thoughtful and decisive action to amend their versions of the LEOBOR within the last year.
“The sky hasn’t fallen there, and it won’t fall here either. The time for change is now because there is no justice without transparency.”
Matt Marshal, a spokesman for Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings, maintained that “The Police Chiefs Council has been a terrific partner on several of (AG Jennings’) police reform objectives. We aren’t going to agree on 100 percent of the issues, and that’s OK.
“Reasonable people can have principled differences and still work together on shared goals.”