Here's how proposed Wilmington police oversight would work


@VALUEZTV AM EDITION


Jeanne Kuang


A proposed civilian oversight board for the Wilmington Police Department would investigate allegations of excessive force, attempt to interview all parties and make findings — to the extent allowed by the state's police bill of rights law.


Even the sponsor of the bill creating such a board seemed to think it wouldn't amount to much with the state law in the way.


"If no changes are made we would be looking at a purely advisory board," said Councilman Chris Johnson. "It's not ideal."


On Thursday he still introduced his civilian board legislation, hoping to create the board as well as push for state law changes. Both legislative bodies are now on break, with City Council returning later in the summer and the General Assembly returning next year.


The civilian board proposal "gives us more leverage and more weight behind going down to Dover in January and demanding changes," Johnson said.

Johnson on Thursday also tabled a City Council resolution asking the General Assembly to repeal the law enforcement officer bill of rights.


At the moment that law, fiercely defended over the years by Delaware's police unions, prevents any non-law enforcement officers from questioning police over a civilian complaint, and sharply restricts public access to police records of internal investigations and discipline. 


In the past these restrictions, and the opposition of police unions, have prevented similar civilian boards from being created in Delaware.


Prior efforts to bring civilian oversight to Wilmington police have failed. Will that change?


Wilmington's police union president Greg Ciotti declined to comment on the legislation, saying the union had not had time to review it.


How would it work?


If passed, the bill would create a nine-member board with one member being an employee of the mayor's office, three members being from City Council and five being appointed members.


The appointed members would be from the following groups: the Delaware Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Delaware Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Wilmington HOPE Commission, the Latin American Community Center and the members of the clergy in Wilmington.


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


The bill gives the board broad powers to look into patterns and policies of the police department, allowing it to "conduct investigations, hold hearings, make findings and issue reports, all or any of which may be either public, private, or confidential as the [board] determines in its discretion based upon the circumstances of the case and the requirements of the law." 


But in investigating complaints against officers, asking questions of the department and making findings public, the board would be limited by the police bill of rights. 


Without the ability to question officers, a civilian board has no real investigatory power, experts said.


"If you can't interview the officer you're not going to be able to develop a good case," said Samuel Walker, a national police accountability expert and frequent consultant to police departments. "You have to have full authority to get the relevant facts."


Man hit by Wilmington police car during arrest sues city, officers


But experts said civilian police oversight boards can still be successful without the ability to investigate individual complaints or incidents. Investigative civilian boards around the country are often overburdened and only conclude cases in favor of complainants in a few cases, Walker said.


Another civilian oversight model focuses on investigating broad practices within police departments, using what are known as police auditors or inspectors general. Walker said that's the most effective model for police reform.


"Problems with excessive force ... it's organizational failures," he said. "So an auditor model specifically directed to investigate and change the organization, that's the kind of model that's likely to be the most effective in getting meaningful results."


Both types of boards require the cooperation of the police department to make recommended changes.


Even an auditor model would require more access to police records, said Liana Perez, director of operations for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.


"You have to have that access to complaint records, [such as] 'How many have you received for this type of behavior?' or 'Are there certain categories of complaints?' and 'What are the outcomes of those?'" Perez said. 


The proposed Wilmington board would hire an unspecified number of staff members, to be overseen by the board member who works for the mayor's office.


Walker cautioned that this raises a "definite conflict of interest," saying review boards should be independent of any mayor.


Body camera funding also introduced


Council on Thursday also addressed a handful of other policing and civil rights matters. 


Members approved a bill sponsored by Johnson authorizing the Wilmington Police Department to publish its policy manual, after voting down a similar measure from Councilman Sam Guy three years ago.


In recent weeks, after thousands protested in Wilmington against police brutality, the department has released some sections of the manual, including its use-of-force policy.


Council members introduced a bill, supported by Mayor Mike Purzycki's office, approving the spending of $400,000 to hire four new police employees to

oversee a body camera program, one of Purzycki's promises to protesters.


Wilmington mayor promised body cameras 'without delay.' How soon will it happen?


The spending plan assumes the city will receive more than $500,000 in federal grant money this fall to pay for camera equipment for the program's first year.

That will be discussed when Council returns.


Council also approved the appointment of seven members to the city's reinstated Civil Rights Commission by Purzycki and City Council President Hanifa Shabazz.


Wilmington has made no progress revamping forgotten civil rights commission

The commission, which in the 1990s handled matters of discrimination in city programs and policies including policing, fell off the radar over the years when new mayors failed to appoint new members.


Shabazz two years ago said she would reinstate the commission, but both she and Purzycki said they "failed to follow through" until contacted by a News Journal reporter about it last month.

The new members are:

  • Garrison Davis, co-coordinator of Delaware for Police Oversight

  • Attorney and former deputy attorney general Brionna Denby

  • Freire Charter School Co-Head of School Nate Durant

  • Red Clay Consolidated School District teacher and counselor Luz Maldonado

  • Community advocate John Mitchell

  • Baltz Elementary School Principal Amy O'Neill

  • Kathleen Patterson, past president of the Second District Neighborhood Planning Council

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