Wilmington City Council Approves Civilian Police Review Board

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Wilmington City Council on Thursday approved a civilian board that would investigate complaints against police officers and review Wilmington police practices.

The State Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights Act would severely limit the council’s investigative ability and its power to obtain certain documents, which most council members said was less authorized than they wished.

Still, members widely viewed the proposal as a “first step” in police transparency and reform that they were eager to take in the meantime, after a year filled with protests over these issues.

The bill creating the nine-member council is now before Mayor Mike Purzycki for approval. Asked before the nightly council meeting whether Purzycki supported the bill, a representative said his office would review the version that passed.

It was opposed by the Wilmington police union, which “reserves every right to contest it,” Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1 president Greg Ciotti said during the meeting.

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The review board — a feature of many large cities for decades — would be responsible for releasing data on complaints it receives, as well as data on Wilmington police use of force and trends in crime. police practices.

“We have a huge data deficit in Delaware; it’s very difficult to get information,” said Councilman Chris Johnson, sponsor of the bill. “The idea of ​​this council is to remove that veil.”

The only ‘no’ vote on Thursday came from Councilman Ciro Adams, who called the proposal ‘very, very over the top’, unnecessary and ’emotionally driven by distorted and distorted cases’ of police killings across the country. .

“There is no pandemic of police brutality,” Adams said.

The council would also have the same power as the city council to subpoena records and witnesses, but only to the extent permitted by the police bill of rights.

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.

Essentially, the board under current state law could not demand an interview with an officer accused of misconduct — as the officer would have to in internal police or attorney general investigations.

Councilor Sam Guy said it was not necessary.

“You may not have access to all the interviews, but you can collect the best information you have,” Guy said. “We also know of instances where community members knew more about what had happened than the police and government initially knew.”

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It’s the same workaround Guy proposed in the late 1990s, when civilian review boards were last seriously considered in Delaware. They were defeated by opposition from the police unions.

Experts told Delaware Online/The News Journal in July that the ability to question an officer about any incident is essential for a review board that aims to conduct investigations, but said review boards can be effective in police reform in purely advisory roles if police departments cooperate with council recommendations.

Still, in hopes that state lawmakers will amend the police bill of rights next year, which could give new powers to a council, council members added a provision on Thursday requiring the date of the first meeting by January 2022.

Some members said it was not soon enough.

“If we look up and something changes, great,” Guy said. “But I won’t let him hold you back.”

A statewide civilian review board is a stated political goal of protesters who staged marches against police brutality in Delaware this summer, and state Attorney General Kathleen Jennings.

But making changes to the police bill of rights is sure to be an uphill battle in the pro-law enforcement General Assembly, with former officer Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, returning as Speaker of the House.

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A number of other questions remain for the Wilmington board, including how much the board would cost.

Johnson, who sponsored the bill, said he wanted to ensure a well-funded and well-staffed board for investigations. He estimated it would cost no more than $100,000 a year.

The amount allocated will be discussed during next year’s budget deliberations.

The council will consist of five members nominated by local civil rights groups, one member from the mayor’s office and three members who are members of the city council, according to the bill.

Johnson has previously said he prefers city council members appoint nominees to positions, and some council members have raised concerns on the public safety committee that council members should not be on the board. of an inquiry committee.

The bill that has passed still places council members on the board, although Johnson said at Thursday’s meeting that the board would not include public servants.

“We leave it flexible,” Johnson wrote to a reporter on Thursday. “However, the intention is not to have elected officials on the board.”

All members must have legal, law enforcement or civil rights experience, the bill says, and the council cannot have a majority of former law enforcement officials.

Jeanne Kuang, journalist from Wilmington

Jeanne Kuang, journalist from Wilmington

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

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