Lawmakers tried for years to increase Delaware police transparency. It’s finally been done
Two major police reform bills that passed the Delaware General Assembly in the final days of this year’s legislative session have been signed into law, culminating a years-long effort to make sweeping changes to police accountability and transparency statewide.
In a room filled with legislators, law enforcement heads, police reform advocates, students and other elected officials at the Wilmington Police Athletic League Monday afternoon, Gov. John Carney signed the two bills: House Bill 205 and 206.
The legislation, which passed the Senate on the final day of the legislative session, establishes local police accountability boards, creates uniform standards for police agencies across the state, requires accreditation for all Delaware law enforcement agencies and mandates that agencies publish information about internal investigations into use-of-force and certain other substantiated claims, among other requirements.
The bills are the final pieces in a series of policy reforms the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus and Attorney General Kathy Jennings first called for in June 2020, about two weeks after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
They also mark a major step forward in a state that, until now, had “the most secretive law enforcement officer bill of rights in the country,” Jennings said.
“These changes will greatly improve transparency and accountability throughout law enforcement,” said House Majority Leader and HB 205 sponsor Rep. Melissa Minor-Brown. “(It) significantly moves the ball forward and opens the door for future efforts.”
Legislators praise bills as first step; advocates argue not enough being done
Members of the legislative Black Caucus introduced the legislation in June and quickly pushed it through the General Assembly, despite pushback from advocates who feel the laws do little to fix transparency and accountability issues.
Though the bills made it out of committee with strong bipartisan support − HB 205 unanimously and HB 206 with a 7-1 vote − advocates said they felt left out of the final bill-writing process. Several organizations, including the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, said they were not aware of the legislation until the bills were filed in early June.
Those items − including requiring all police officers to use body-worn cameras, establishing statewide use-of-force standards, banning chokeholds, changing the way juveniles are treated and expanding the Delaware Department of Justice’s civil rights and public trust unit − have all been codified.
Other concerns from advocates centered on beliefs that the bills don’t go far enough and that police wouldn’t face consequences under the new laws.
Yet law enforcement heads vehemently disagreed, saying the bills represent “impactful” change that the state hasn’t previously seen. Jamie Leonard, president of the state Fraternal Order of Police, also noted that prior police heads wouldn’t have been willing to make the changes that were ultimately signed into law.
“My predecessor wouldn’t sit at this table. He wouldn’t be part of it,” Leonard said in June. “(But) the generation of law enforcement that I come from is ready to move the needle.”
How this ‘opens the door for future efforts’
Though the bills are a big step forward when it comes to lifting the veil of secrecy that surrounds police personnel records, including disciplinary and investigative records, advocates argue they fall short regarding what the public can and cannot access.
Under the new laws, agencies must publish a “detailed narrative” regarding investigations into:
The discharge of a department-issued firearm, even if a person is not struck by bullets
A sustained finding of sexual assault or sexual harassment
A sustained finding of dishonesty related to perjury, false statements, filing false reports, witness tampering and destruction, falsification or concealment of evidence
But while law enforcement agencies looking to hire an officer are allowed to review an applicant’s personnel file in its entirety, the public remains in the dark regarding reprimands or disciplinary action taken against officers that do not fall into the above categories.
Minor-Brown acknowledged Monday that some advocates “feel like this bill didn’t go as far as they wanted it to.” Yet she stressed that HB 205 “makes the first substantial revisions” to the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights “in decades.”
She also noted that under the new law, investigations into claims of misconduct must be completed no matter a person’s employment status. This, she said, means “that an officer cannot avoid having a sustained misconduct made public simply by resigning or retiring.”
The law also applies to part-time or seasonal police officers.
Despite touting the new laws as great leaps forward, legislators and other elected officials emphasized Monday they are just a start.
“The bills … will make our criminal justice system more just,” said Rep. Kendra Johnson, chair of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus and sponsor of HB 206. “It’s not a perfect system and we will keep pushing the issues. But we have accomplished a lot.”
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