Wilmington lawmakers approve citizen review board for police department

Police officers patrol Market Street in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday, March 26. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

Police officers patrol Market Street in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday, March 26. (Saquan Stimpson for WHYY)

City residents who have a grievance with a Wilmington police officer could soon have a new way to get that problem addressed.

“This is why, around the nation, folks have marched and protested not only this year, but for decades, because citizens want to sit at the table,” said Councilman Chris Johnson.

He sponsored the ordinance that would create the Wilmington Citizen Complaint Review Board as a way to give residents a bigger voice in how their neighborhoods are being policed. In addition to receiving complaints, the board would be able to investigate allegations and make their reports public. It could also recommend changes in the way the department operates.

Johnson said Wilmington’s board would get training and advice from other major cities that have had similar boards for years. “We aren’t the first state in terms of police oversight boards,” Johnson said. “Every major department has a civilian review board… We finally need to get it right in Delaware and it’s time for us to start.” Wilmington would be the first city in the state to establish such a board.

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The ordinance was approved Thursday night in a 10-1 vote. The only Republican member, Councilman Ciro Adams, voted against it, calling the board unnecessary.

“There is no pandemic of police misconduct,” Adams said. “This civic review board is far outside our domain. To say we’re going to have a board issue subpoenas and discipline officers is far, far overreaching and not appropriate or needed.”

He said the citizen board would be redundant, with the department’s internal affairs investigations and the Attorney General’s office already investigating reports of police misconduct.

“I don’t think he understands what’s going on,” said Councilwoman Zanthia Oliver in response to Adams’ comments. “The ‘good old boys’ days is over. People are paying attention now, people are more aware and we need a review board here like yesterday.”

While Councilwoman Loretta Walsh said she supported the effort to establish the board, she worried that residents might get a false sense of how much the group would be able to accomplish. “We are giving false hope to citizens and our entire community,” she said. “As long as the police Bill of Rights stands where it does right now, there is absolutely nothing we can do about [the lack of transparency].”

Delaware police are protected by the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which is part of the Delaware Code. Among other protections, the statute keeps most records of investigations into police misconduct private. In most cases, police personnel files and internal investigation files stay out of the public eye as well.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers created a panel to explore police reforms in the state, including possible amendments to the police officers’ Bill of Rights.

The nine-member board will include a member from the Mayor’s Office and as many as three members of City Council. Other members will be nominated by the mayor with approval from City Council. Those members will be recommended by the ACLU, NAACP, the Wilmington HOPE Commission, the Latin American Community Center and the clergy of the city of Wilmington. Group members will serve three-year terms. They’re expected to meet nine times per year.

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