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Politics & Government

Wilmington City Council pushes policing and racial justice reforms before summer break

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Sophia Schmidt
/
Delaware Public Media
Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy speaks with protesters in Wilmington in May

Wilmington City Council considered an agenda Thursday that consisted almost entirely of legislation related to policing reform and racial justice. Some members questioned the effectiveness of the measures.

Council members voted to allow the Wilmington Police Department to release its policies and procedures manual to the public with redactions. But the police department has already released four of the manual’s eight chapters in the past month and plans to release the rest by the fall. 

Any policies dealing with safety and welfare of Wilmington police personnel and anything exempt under the Freedom of Information Act or the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights may be redacted, under the ordinance sponsored by Councilman Chris Johnson. 

Police Chief Robert Tracy said at Council’s Public Safety Committee hearing Monday the delay in releasing the rest of the manual is due to the redaction review process.

Johnson called the ordinance authorizing the release a “big step” in Council’s reform agenda.

“This has been a struggle,” he said. “This has been something that’s been debated for years. This something honestly we should have had years ago. Many departments, especially big cities throughout the nation, already have this. The fact that no department in Delaware has this and that Wilmington is the first makes it that much more historical.”

ACLU of Delaware director Michael Brickner sees it as a “great first step” toward informing the community about Wilmington police practices. 

“What I would encourage the City and police department to do is once that information is made public to take that a step further and to proactively engage with the community through public forums and other mediums to get feedback, to generate ideas and recommendations from community stakeholders and our friends and neighbors here in Wilmington around what they would like to see around policing in the city,” he said during Monday’s Public Safety Committee meeting.

Councilman Sam Guy expressed outrage over the process Thursday, noting he has been pushing for the manual to be released for years. 

“Now it's going to be out— but guess what, public, it’s not going to be out,” he said. “Because they haven’t finished redacting it yet. And they haven’t responded to my FOIA [request].”

Persistent efforts by civilians and council members to get Wilmington police to wear body cameras also came one step closer to fruition Thursday. 

Councilman Charles “Bud” Freel, chair of the Finance and Economic  Development Committee, introduced an Administration-backed budget amendment to supplement a federal grant the City has applied for to fund a police body camera program. 

The amendment would increase the Wilmington Police Department’s Fiscal Year 2021 budget by nearly a million dollars. It would take $400,000 from the City’s tax stabilization reserve to pay for four new positions the police department has said it needs to administer the body camera program. The rest of the budget increase — $542,388—would pay for the first year of a five-year contract to purchase 319 body cameras and “related services,” and would be covered by the federal grant. 

The City of Wilmington should hear whether it received the grant by the end of September, according to officials with the U.S. Office of Justice Programs. The police department failed to secure the same grant last year.

Some council members have criticized the administration’s unwillingness to fund the cameras entirely through the city budget. 

Councilman Ernest “Trippi” Congo introduced a smaller budget amendment that aimed to fund the entire program last September. The measure received support from council members including Council President Hanifa Shabazz and Freel, but ended up stuck in the Finance and Economic Development and Public Safety Committees. A City spokesperson told Delaware Public Media months earlier that the Mayor’s Office was looking at options other than a budget amendment to fund the body camera program. 

The Mayor’s proposed FY21 budget and the slimmer version Council ultimately passed did not include funding for body cameras. 

Mayor Mike Purzycki announced support for the latest budget amendment amid protests in the City last month. Purzycki said in a statement Thursday that if Wilmington does not receive the federal grant, the City is committed to “immediately” identifying the funding to implement the program. 

He and Chief Tracy say they hope to implement the program sometime this fall. 

 

Councilman Johnson also introduced an ordinance that would create a Citizens Complaint Review Board to investigate citizen complaints against members of the Wilmington Police Department.

Council also appointed members to the City’s lapsed Civil Rights Commission Thursday and passed a resolution encouraging the state to review public school textbooks and curriculum around the history of African Americans and other Americans of color. 

Shabazz admitted the state is already making an effort to “correct the history books” — but argued for Council’s support.

“This is definitely letting the state know that we here at City Council … think that it’s essential that our young people know the history of their ancestry and their contributions to history,” she said. 

Councilwoman Linda Gray doubted the efficacy of the measure. 

“Usually textbooks are purchased from vendors, and vendors are the ones that write the books. This has been attempted in other jurisdictions in the United States, and it turns out that basically you have to write your own textbook,” she said. “It’s a good idea, but I don’t know how the state is going to rewrite a textbook.”

One police reform measure did not make it to a vote Thursday. Councilman Johnson held a resolution encouraging the General Assembly to repeal the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — a portion of state code that keeps internal investigations into police misconduct hidden from the public

The measure saw mixed support at Monday’s Public Safety Committee meeting, largely around the issue of whether the resolution would be effective. 

Gray noted several legislators in the General Assembly, including Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf (D-Rehoboth) and chair of the newly formed Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force Rep. Frank Cooke (D-New Castle), are retired police officers. 

“I don’t think this bill is ever going to be repealed, but we can discuss with them what we want,” she said. “Even moreso, Wilmington is the largest city in the state. We can set an example. We can pass ordinances that chip away at the Bill of Rights.”

Councilwoman Yolanda McCoy agreed. 

“If we actually identified the things that we really needed to make certain we had change on and really singled those out, I think that we would have a better chance,” she said. “I’d rather see something move than nothing move at all.”

 

Council's next meeting is Aug. 20.