Would a civilian review board help with police oversight in Delaware?
As nationwide protests put a spotlight on police practices, advocates in Delaware are calling for citizen oversight of law enforcement.
The Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches and others are calling for review boards for law enforcement agencies here.
“We need a policeman review board made up of community folks, some business folks and some preachers,” said State NAACP president Richard “Mouse” Smith, “so we can be able with subpoena power to get what we need and to recommend discharge.”
The group Delaware for Police Oversight (DEPO) started advocating for a statewide community review board last year and has revived its push in light of the protests.
Co-coordinator Garrison Davis said the goal is holding police accountable. “If an officer steps out of line, does something wrong, actually looking at the situation from a fair perspective and then making a suggestion on how that officer should be handled,” he said.
The review board DEPO is proposing would also establish alternatives to police presence in communities, collect and analyze data, and review law enforcement policies. Davis sees this as key to transparency.
“Something as simple as putting the police policies online,” said Davis. “What is escalation of force? How is force escalated? What is a traffic stop supposed to go through? Even something as minute as the officer’s approach to the situation.”
Davis said the review board would be staffed primarily by private citizens from the communities he sees as “overpoliced.” Members would be paid a small monthly stipend.
“The people who are most often affected by policing are poor and low-income people,” he said. “Not only that, but we need to make it absolutely clear that this is a priority of the state.”
Davis said the board would likely be created by the executive branch of state government, and funded through the General Assembly. Details such as the process for selecting board members should be determined through community input.
Civilian review boards in place across the country follow various models. Members of the Police Civilian Review Board in Salt Lake City are appointed by the mayor and subject to a background check. City Council members each appoint one member of the Community Police Oversight Board in Dallas. The Police Civilian Review Board created last year in Charlottesville, Va. must include threecity residents from historically disadvantaged communities that have traditionally experienced disparate policing or who are residents of public housing, one representative of a racial or social justice organization and one non-voting member with policing expertise or experience.
Organizations including Network Delaware, the Coalition to Dismantle the New Jim Crow and the Building People Power campaign have signed onto DEPO’s community review board proposal, which has also taken the form of apetition on Change.org with more than two thousand signatures as of Monday.
ACLU of Delaware Director Mike Brickner cautions that to be effective, civilian review boards must be truly independent — and have the power to dictate rather than simply suggest discipline for officers.
Boards must operate without involvement of the police department, but with the department’s full cooperation, Brickner said. He added there can be no processes in place that “undermine” the board’s ability to hold officers accountable.
“In many cities that have these types of review boards, the review board might come out with a decision that the officer’s actions were not correct and they do need to be punished,” said Brickner. “The police department might levy a punishment on that officer, but then because of the way the police union contract has been put together, they usually go through an arbitration process. Often times ... the officer’s punishment is then relieved.”
Davis acknowledges that a portion of state code known as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights as well as police union contracts may present hurdles to implementing the board his group envisions.
Statewide Fraternal Order of Police President Fred Calhoun opposes the idea of a civilian review board.
“If there are things that need to be addressed, that’s great, let’s address them. Law enforcement is not opposed to that,” he said. “But what we are opposed to is those making decisions before us that are not educated in the field of law enforcement, that have not been part of the environment that understand what it takes to do the job.”
When asked about the possibility of a civilian review board, representatives from the Delaware State Police, Dover and Wilmington police departments declined to address the issue directly.
“Details should always be thoroughly factored into any law enforcement agency decision on the topic of police community review boards,” Delaware State Police spokesperson Heather Pepper wrote in an email. “Policy and oversight of that policy needs to be transparent, be reflective of community values, while ensuring that members of our community are not subject to disparate consequences.”
Wilmington Police Department spokesperson David Karas said the department is already subject to a “robust system of checks, balances and accountabilities,” including its internal Office of Professional Standards, the executive and legislative branches of both city and state government and the United State Attorney’s Office. He said members of the public are able to share feedback with officers at community meetings.
Karas added establishing a civilian review board would necessitate review of relevant state laws such as the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson Jr., who was sworn in in February, intends to establish a “chief’s advisory group” in accordance with a recommendation from the Center for Public Safety Management, according to spokesperson M/Cpl. Mark Hoffman. Through this group, stakeholders such as clergy, business leaders, and community advocates might meet with Johnson on a quarterly basis to “informally discuss” community needs and police-community relations. Hoffman said implementation of this group was delayed by the pandemic.
Several elected officials, including Gov. John Carney, have expressed support for a civilian review board.
“The details will be important, and will require conversations with community organizers, legislators, police departments and others in order to make progress,” said Gov. Carney’s spokesperson Jonathan Starkey in an email Monday.
In a joint statement released ahead of the protest in Wilmington Friday, Mayor Mike Purzycki and City Council President Hanifa Shabazz expressed support for creation of a police review board, “understanding that this is a complicated undertaking given that there are legislative and contract changes that must be agreed to.”
Attorney General Kathy Jennings has expressed support in the past week for changes to the state’s use of force statutes, expansion of the Division of Civil Rights and Public Trust’s power to investigate police misconduct, as well as the creation of a statewide body-worn camera policy.
State Department of Justice spokesperson Mat Marshall declined to comment Monday on whether Jennings supports the creation of a civilian review board. He said she has been meeting with “stakeholders,” including advocates and police, over the past week and expects to announce further plans in coming days.
“The [Attorney General] is focused closely on the need for change and believes there are concrete steps that Delaware can take to enhance transparency, ensure accountability, and protect public safety in accordance with what the people of this state expect and deserve, and in accordance with the practices of our best police officers,” Marshall wrote in an email.
Davis, of DEPO, said the protests have lent a sense of urgency to the issue of police oversight.
“I think that’s the big reason that we see the executives being willing to bring us to the table,” he said. “Before, it wasn’t a priority. However, now we see the way people are reacting, we see the rioting and the vandalism, and [officials] recognize … not just that there really is an issue, but that this issue needs to be addressed immediately— because people have reached their boiling point.”
This story has been updated to include additional information about civilian review board models in place across the country.