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Delaware Senate Democrats

Legislature should advance transparency, accountability in policing

April 1, 2022

By Sen. Marie Pinkney and Rep. Paul Baumbach |

We hear a lot about “bad apples” in our law enforcement community.

When a Wilmington police officer guns down a paraplegic man, he’s a “bad apple.” When a Dover police officer kicks an unarmed man so hard it breaks his jaw,  he’s also a “bad apple.”

When police officers are charged with sexual solicitation of a child, excessive force, abusing narcotics on the job and operating a phantom traffic ticket scheme, we are told they too are “bad apples” whose misconduct does not represent the majority of good, upstanding officers dutifully fulfilling their oath to protect and serve our communities.

Maybe, but the truth is we have no way of knowing.

For more than a quarter century, Delaware has kept a law on its books that’s specifically designed to shield police officers from public scrutiny, no matter how many times a tribunal of their fellow officers determines they used excessive force, tampered with evidence, or falsified police records. As a result, we have no way of knowing whether our local police departments are properly holding officers accountable, or how often they’re putting “bad apples” back on the streets until their misconduct is captured on camera.

Delaware’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (LEOBOR) is one of the most opaque and regressive police disciplinary laws in the country. Right now, the residents of Florida, Alabama and South Carolina have more rights to police misconduct records than our communities here in Delaware.

Over decades, that lack of transparency and public accountability has eroded public trust in law enforcement, making it harder for police to conduct investigations, making victims less willing to come forward and making cooperating witnesses harder to find. More than once, it also helped contribute to tense situations turning deadly.

Two years ago, the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus made a commitment to bring transparency and accountability to LEOBOR – a task many believed impossible. After months of work by the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force, Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman was the one legislator who seemed committed to stepping up to the challenge.

Last spring, she put forward one of the most progressive police transparency bills introduced anywhere in the country – legislation that both set a vision for the future and successfully forced activists on both sides of the debate to the table.

Upon learning her original bill would not garner the support necessary to become law, Sen. Lockman dedicated the next year of her life to searching out common ground and workable reforms through an open and transparent process that included two community listening sessions and five public workshops – the last of which was overrun by young men hurling racial slurs at the participants.

When so many would have given up and walked away, Sen. Lockman dug in and kept working.

Yet, before she even filed a new bill, activists accused her of rolling over for police. At the same time, law enforcement supporters insisted she was fomenting lawlessness and attempting to defund the police. Of course, neither is true.

What Senate Substitute 1 for Senate Bill 149 would do is provide the first step toward meaningful progress – a half measure to some and a bridge too far for others.

First, the bill would open serious and substantiated police disciplinary records to public view. That means our communities could – for the first time – see the results of completed investigations and proven cases involving excessive force, sexual assaults, witness tampering and other sanctions resulting in an officer being fired or suspended. Put simply, if this bill became law a decade ago, we would know whether the officers mentioned earlier had a history of misconduct that was overlooked or ignored.

Second, the bill would create a new system of public oversight with checks and balances to ensure our police departments are making sound disciplinary decisions, while also protecting the due process rights of officers whose internal investigations are not yet completed. Each town and county in Delaware would be empowered to create local community review boards that could examine misconduct records available to the public, as well as redacted and de-identified records of unproven accusations, giving them a birds-eye view of how each department is handling all misconduct cases. A statewide community review board also would be created to hear complaints and concerns raised by the local boards, and issue reports that agree or disagree with a police department’s findings.

The truth is we cannot in good conscience allow police misconduct to be brushed under the table for one more year as the number of families impacted by officer-involved killings continues to grow. We cannot afford another case of an officer beating someone on video, only to be told we don’t have a right to know whether their police department had ample warning that such an incident was likely.  We cannot accept an army of armed public servants accountable to no one but themselves.

Through her hard work, tenacity, and stakeholder engagement, Sen. Lockman has taken LEOBOR reform further than any elected official in decades. She deserves our thanks and respect.

Marathons are not won in a single stride. SS 1 for SB 149 represents a significant step forward today that will give us firm footing for future progress. That is why we support Sen. Lockman and the legislation she has put forward.

Sen. Marie Pinkney, D-New Castle, is chair of the Senate Corrections & Public Safety Committee. Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, is a member of the House Health & Human Development Committee.