Bill opening up police internal records clears committee

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A Democratic-led Senate committee voted Wednesday to advance a bill making police disciplinary records accessible to the public and mandating their disclosure in any civil or criminal court proceeding.

The legislation also authorizes state agencies, counties and municipalities that operate law-enforcement agencies to establish community review boards that would have the authority to issue subpoenas and to hear and decide police disciplinary matters.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to release Senate Bill 149 for consideration by the full chamber after a public hearing lasting almost two hours.

The vast majority of speakers, many representing various social justice and racial justice groups, spoke in favor of the legislation, saying it would strengthen trust between communities and the police agencies charged with protecting them.

“The relationship between the public and law enforcement officers is damaged. I believe that the way forward is through transparency and accountability,” said Stephanie Thompson of Newark.

The legislation also has the support of the Delaware attorney general’s office and public defender’s office, but it is opposed by the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police and the Delaware State Troopers Association, which represent rank-and-file police officers, as well as the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council.

Law enforcement officials are concerned that the bill eliminates the protections afforded to police officers currently enshrined in Delaware’s Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights, or LEOBOR. Among other things, LEOBOR establishes guidelines for internal investigations and questioning of officers that could lead to disciplinary action, demotion or dismissal. It also prohibits public disclosure of all records compiled as the result of such investigations.

“One of the fundamental problems we see with this current piece of legislation is the idea of an elimination of due process for our police officers in their internal investigations,” said Lt. James Leonard III, president of the Delaware Fraternal Order of Police.

“One of the major issues we have with this is that the bill currently would allow for the dissemination of unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct,” Leonard added.

Supporters of the bill, meanwhile, note that Delaware is one of only a few states that bar access to police misconduct records, which typically are disclosed only in civil lawsuits.

“We have the dubious distinction of being the only state that specifically codifies this level of confidentiality from public scrutiny,” said Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, D-Wilmington, the bill’s chief sponsor.

Lockman nevertheless acknowledged the concerns expressed by law enforcement and said it was “inevitable” that the bill will be amended, perhaps to narrow the scope of records access and to address issues related to community review boards.

Patrick Ogden, chief of the University of Delaware police department and chairman of the Police Chiefs’ Council, said making some modifications to LEOBOR might be warranted, but that his group is “adamantly opposed” to the legislation as written.

“Publishing the names of officers who are accused of misconduct, especially when the incident is investigated and found to be unsustained, is not reasonable,” said Ogden, who noted that most of the recommendations made by the council did not result in revisions to the bill.

Ogden urged lawmakers not to try to fast-track the bill before the current legislative session ends on July 1.

“We won’t get it right if we try to rush it through,” he said. “Let’s take a breath and get it right.”