‘We need to see it now’: Delaware activists unhappy with police reform process

Coby Owens leads marchers through Wilmington during a protest that was peaceful from start to finish. (Courtesy of Coby Owens)

Coby Owens leads marchers through Wilmington, Delaware, during a June 2020 protest. (Courtesy of Coby Owens)

After Wilmington residents marched in protest of the killing of George Floyd last year, state lawmakers created the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force (LEATF) to develop changes to policing in Delaware.

But nearly a year after Floyd was murdered, community members that are part of the task force’s subcommittees are frustrated by the lack of action.

“The George Floyd case was an important step in police accountability, but I can’t call that justice,” said Haneef Salaam, manager of the ACLU of Delaware’s Campaign for Smart Justice. “We won’t see justice until all police are held accountable for their misconduct.”

Salaam has worked for 15 years to improve conditions for people reentering society after serving time in prison. He’s also a member of the LEATF Transparency and Accountability Subcommittee.

“Initially, I was pessimistic about a task force,” he said. “There are a lot of people who informed me, and I’ve come to believe now watching this, that a task force is a place where a bill goes to die.”

Salaam and eight other subcommittee members sent a letter of no confidence in the task force to legislative leaders.

“As advocates, we were unsure how effective a task force would be in addressing community concerns around police violence. However, we placed our hope on the expectation that it would produce real results for the people—and in a timely manner,” the letter said.

But that hope was unfounded, the group said. In addition to the amount of time the task force has spent discussing issues with no legislation being brought forth, the group is also unhappy that more of an effort wasn’t taken to include more communities in the process.

“Members have not done enough to engage individuals who have experienced police violence, over-policed communities, or communities of color in the public meetings,” they said in the letter. “Meetings were held during common working hours and publication of meeting dates and times were difficult to find, alongside information on how to access the virtual platform.”

The task force leans too heavily on members from the police perspective too, the group says. Six of the task force’s 18 members are associated with the police, either as retired or active officers or part of the Department of Justice. Out of 72 subcommittee members, 21 were associated with police, the group said.

Earlier this week, state Rep. Franklin Cooke (D-16), who co-chairs the task force, announced that the committee would discuss its recommendations on April 29.

Salaam said lawmakers should have acted long before Floyd’s death. He pointed to the 2015 shooting death of Jeremy McDole, a man in a wheelchair who was shot by Wilmington police.

McDole was shot and killed just two seconds after Wilmington police officer Joseph Dellose ordered him to show his hands. At the time, then-Attorney General Matt Denn wanted to file a felony assault charge against Dellose. That effort was unsuccessful as their investigation determined that his actions “did not constitute criminal conduct under Delaware Code.”

Denn called Dellose’s actions “extraordinarily poor police work” that put both the public and fellow officers at risk.

But the state’s inability to prosecute Dellose because of the state’s high level of protection for officers should have led those laws to be changed, Salaam said.

“We’re sick and tired of being sick and tired. We’re tired of being disappointed and we’re tired of expecting the norm,” he said. “Really, for a lot of Black people in Delaware, it’s the norm that police can do whatever they want and they will not be held accountable.”

Following last summer’s marches for social justice, members of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus put out its Justice For All agenda to reform policing in Delaware. Only a few items on that list have been enacted.

Last June, lawmakers outlawed chokeholds and kneeholds like the tactic used to kill George Floyd. The General Assembly also approved the second and final leg of a constitutional amendment officially barring discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin.

Among items that remain undone from the Justice for All agenda is a change to the Delaware Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights (LEOBOR). Members of the Legislative Black Caucus want to see that amended to allow criminal defendants’ legal counsel to receive internal affairs investigation records of police officers accused of wrongdoing. Currently, internal affairs investigations are protected from public view.

The city of Wilmington approved a civilian review board in November, but advocates say the  LEOBOR privacy rules will prevent that board from being effective.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal