The Delaware General Assembly on Thursday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at addressing address systemic racism, curb police brutality and bring accountability to our police departments.
Dover (DE): The measures – a bill explicitly banning law enforcement officers from using chokeholds, knee-holds and other techniques that can cause injury or death from a lack of blood or oxygen flow, and a constitutional amendment explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin – are part of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus’s Justice for All Agenda, which was announced earlier this month to address the systemic racial injustice and police brutality that has impacted people of color.
The issue of officers using chokeholds most recently gained national attention and outrage after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while he was in custody, killing him. More than 130 others have died in police custody from “asphyxia/restraint” in the past decade alone, according to the Fatal Encounters database.
According to a news release, the bills were sponsored by Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha and Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, House Bill 350 would create the crime of aggravated strangulation. Under the bill, a law enforcement officer acting in their official capacity would be prohibited from using a technique intended to restrict a person’s airway or prevent their breathing, or intended to constrict the flow of blood by applying pressure or force to the carotid artery, the jugular vein, or the side of the neck of another person.
The bills pass the house exactly one month following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while he was handcuffed and on the ground.
“As a Black man, as a law-abiding American, I can’t begin to express the hurt I’ve experienced in interactions with law enforcement. I have been pulled over countless times, harassed by officers, but I have not had a single traffic ticket in over 20 years,” said Rep. Chukwuocha, D-Wilmington North. “That is my personal experience, and I know it’s an experience countless other Black men have endured.
“We have seen what happened to George Floyd and Eric Garner, and what we’re saying by passing this bill is that here in Delaware, there is no need for a law enforcement officer to use a chokehold. This is about restoring public trust, and it is about saving lives. This is a very necessary first step, building the conversation as the task force begins its work to review law enforcement accountability.”
Aggravated strangulation would be a Class D felony unless the law-enforcement officer using a chokehold causes serious physical injury or death to another person thereby elevating the crime to a Class C felony.
“These techniques are not sanctioned by police departments in Delaware specifically because they are tantamount to torture and frequently lead to death,” said Sen. Lockman, D-Wilmington. “The use of chokeholds and knee-holds is antithetical to both good policing and every citizen’s right to an assumption of innocence, due process and a fair trial. With passage of this bill, they also will become a crime – a move that hopefully will result in the rogue officers who use them being held accountable for inflicting the kind of excessive violence that sows the seeds of fear and hatred in our communities.”
HB 350 passed the House unanimously and the Senate 16-5 on Thursday, sending the bill to Governor John Carney for his signature.
Also on Thursday, the House unanimously passed Senate Bill 191, the first leg of an amendment to the Delaware Constitution, which would add race, color and national origin to the equal rights section of Delaware’s Constitution first created by the 150th General Assembly in January 2019.
Equal protections under the law are already guaranteed in Delaware under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but their absence from the state Constitution remains a glaring omission. Today, Delaware and more than 30 other states still lack provisions in their own constitutions that prohibit the denial or abridgement of equal rights under law on the basis of race, color or national origin.
“Today was the first step to changing the course of history in the State of Delaware by adding People of Color as a protected class to the state’s Constitution. Passing SB 191, the first piece of legislation set forth by the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus’ Justice for All Agenda, speaks volumes to the shift in our state’s culture regarding the Equal Rights Amendment,” said Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, vice-chair of the Legislative Black Caucus and the lead House sponsor of SB 191.
“Upon passage in the 151st General Assembly, People of Color will finally be added to the State Constitution. I sincerely thank my colleagues in the General Assembly for their willingness to work together to bring about Justice for All.”
Proposed amendments to the Delaware Constitution must be passed by two consecutive General Assemblies – and two-thirds of the members in each chamber – before becoming law. The amendment would need to be reintroduced in identical form and passed in 2021 to become part of the state constitution.
“Dismantling systemic racism in Delaware must begin with our founding document from which all other laws in our state are derived,” said Senator Darius Brown, chairman of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus and the prime sponsor of SB 191.
“Once this process is complete, our Constitution will state clearly, once and for all, that all people – no matter their skin color and no matter their backgrounds – are guaranteed the basic rights and dignity that have been promised to us for generations,” said Brown, the second Black man elected to the Delaware Senate. “America’s original sin can only be addressed through acts of social justice and this is only the first step in the long road to redemption that lays ahead.”
Delaware has not wasted any time with making change and Wilmington is leading the state in being more transparent with addressing racial injustice initiatives, and making their policies more public.
On Wednesday June 24, 2020, Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, and Wilmington Police Chief Robert J. Tracy released additional sections of the Wilmington Police Department’s Policy and Procedures Manual. Earlier this month, the Mayor and Chief Tracy released the WPD Use of Force Policy for public review.
“Today, the sections of the manual being released are Chapters One, Five, Seven, and Eight. These sections relate generally to the organization of the police department, duties, and responsibilities; probation, resignation, retirement, and reinstatement; procedures; general conduct; and the administration of discipline.”, said city officials.
At the time, officials said, “These and other portions of the WPD Policy and Procedures Manual, as they are released, can be accessed at this link to the Wilmington Police Department’s (WPD) webpage. Mayor Purzycki and Chief Tracy said the ongoing process of public review of policing policies is an effort to create more transparency and understanding of policing and therefore promote more support and cooperation among City police officers and residents.”
“We will continue to support reforms that are focused on promoting more mutual respect and understanding, and adopt policies and actions that produce racial justice,” said Mayor Purzycki.
On Thursday, Governor John Carney signed Executive Order #41, which bans the use of chokeholds by State of Delaware law enforcement agencies, including Delaware State Police and Capitol Police; increases community engagement; requires additional de-escalation and implicit bias training; and increases the availability of crisis intervention services for law enforcement officers.