Questions remain as Wilmington advances civilian police review board

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Wilmington City Council members introduced legislation late Monday to create a civilian review board that would investigate complaints against the police department, even as state law severely limits police access. such a commission to police records and interviews with officers.

Sponsor Chris Johnson said he wanted a council to go further than just being advisory, but he is pushing to create one, even with the restrictions – and to fund it – as a “first step”.

Then, for the council to have the full investigative powers of other councils across the country, Johnson said he would ask the General Assembly to relax the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights. state next year.

“We need to take the cloak of secrecy away from law enforcement,” he said.

This law prevents any non-law enforcement officer from questioning the police on a civil complaint and severely restricts public access to police records on internal investigations and discipline.

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In the past, these restrictions — and opposition from police unions — have prevented the creation of similar civilian commissions in Delaware. A statewide version of a civilian review board was one of many demands made by activists this summer who staged protests against police brutality.

Under Johnson’s proposal, a council would have its own investigator but would not be able to demand that an officer be interviewed about an incident, or obtain police records, unless the department voluntarily shares them.

“I definitely want a board that has full subpoena power. I definitely want a board that can discipline officers,” Johnson said. “Our state doesn’t allow us to do that. The state of Delaware is handcuffing the city of Wilmington.”

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The bill gives the board broad powers to review police department models and policies, allowing it to “conduct investigations, hold hearings, make findings, and issue reports, including any or part may be public, private or confidential as the case may be. [board] determines in its discretion based on the circumstances of the case and the requirements of the law. »

That work would include, Johnson said, obtaining racial and demographic information about the complainant and the officer.

Making changes to the police bill of rights is sure to be an uphill battle in the pro-law enforcement General Assembly, with former Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, returning as chairman. from the room.

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But that might be easier than past attempts to create civilian review boards. The Statehouse will also see several new progressive lawmakers and a Democratic supermajority in the Senate, which has just elected more left-leaning leaders.

Some changes may also need to be negotiated with the police union. Johnson said he had not received comment from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, which represents Wilmington officers, on the bill.

Lodge 1 President Greg Ciotti has said in the past that he would “entertain” the idea.

Mayor Mike Purzycki said he does not support a review board with full powers to fire on police officers and said any other type of review board would be difficult to implement under state law. and union contracts in place.

Experts told Delaware Online/The News Journal in July that police review boards need not have full investigative or disciplinary power to reform police departments. Those that are effective, they said, need full access to records to examine police practices, and they need cooperation from the departments.

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In a statement, Wilmington police spokesman David Karas did not say whether the department would provide records or participate in a review board’s investigations.

“Our department will provide as much support as possible within the limits of the law,” Karas said. “Although our agency was not involved in the drafting of this legislation, we look forward to hearing the results of the Council’s legislative efforts and how they will complement the strong system of checks and balances already in place for the forces of the ‘Order of Delaware.’

The bill will be presented to council on November 19.

Another outstanding question is who would sit on the review committee.

The bill would create a nine-member council with one member employed from the mayor’s office, three city council members and five members nominated by local civil rights groups.

Preference would be given to appointees with legal, civil rights and law enforcement experience, but no appointees could be former Wilmington police officers.

On Monday, council members passed an amendment to the bill so that a majority of the council could not have law enforcement experience.

There was disagreement over whether board members should be on the board, with members Michelle Harlee and Yolanda McCoy advocating it. Bud Freel said he was concerned that board members would have conflicts of interest serving on the board.

Members left the issue unresolved, adding language that allows all three council seats to be filled by members of the public instead.

Contact Jeanne Kuang at [email protected] or (302) 324-2476. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneKuang.

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