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Powerful ex-policeman in the General Assembly

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Delaware’s most powerful House Democrat will be a key player in the push for police reform.

House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf is one of several retired police officers in the General Assembly. He controls when, and sometimes if, the 41-member chamber debates and votes on bills.

The Rehoboth Beach Democrat was one of several officials who spoke last week in support of an eight-item agenda of proposals that Black lawmakers introduced to reform police departments and fight systemic racism. The proposals are in response to the killings of Black Americans and protests across the state and country.

Schwartzkopf is one of three House Democratic leaders affiliated with the police. House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear, is the executive director of the Police Athletic League of Delaware. House Majority Whip Larry Mitchell, D-Elsmere, is a retired officer.

During his podium speech, Schwartzkopf said he can’t fully understand what it is like to be targeted by police for the color of his skin and that there are inherent problems in law enforcement that need to be addressed.

“When police put on a badge and a uniform, we as a society give them tremendous power,” Schwartzkopf said. “But it is supposed to be limited, and it is not supposed to be abused.”

During an hour-long interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal one week before that Wednesday press conference, the speaker shared his thoughts about racial inequality, the recent protests, potential changes to law enforcement and the role that Delaware’s legislative branch has in policing the police.

Schwartzkopf, who was a state trooper for 25 years before becoming a lawmaker in 2002, said that a lot of different issues need to be examined to address systemic racism in Delaware, and legislative reform won’t be enough. He said “community reform” and “cultural reform” will also be necessary.

“A lot of this is going to be how we treat each other,” he said.

Schwartzkopf continued to say that he recently had a conversation with a Black member of the General Assembly who explained some experiences she had, including being denied a job because of her race.

Schwartzkopf told her, “I can’t understand what you went through. But I can tell you that I’ve experienced some of the same things myself.” He explained that when he worked for the state police, he was denied a promotion despite doing well on his evaluations.

“They bypassed me twice to promote a person of color,” he said. “So I do understand that side of it. … I know how I felt. I worked hard for the promotion. I ultimately got the promotion eventually. But I also, when I got done feeling sorry for myself and feeling bad and thinking I was treated unfairly, I also understood. Because we didn’t have sergeants of color, we didn’t have a lieutenant of color in Sussex County. The hardest thing to work on and to make decisions on is when you see and understand both sides of the problem.

“And in this particular case, I have a lot that I can share with our caucus mates from the Wilmington area, those of color, because I have experienced some of it. I came from a very, very poor background. A lot of them did, too. And while I didn’t experience some of the cultural things, I did experience some of the socioeconomic problems that they’ve had along the way.”

Later in the interview, when discussing the recent protests in Delaware against racism and police brutality, the speaker said activists who decide to peacefully protest should be “held accountable if something bad happens” because protests could turn violent.

Citing an online video that showed such an incident, the speaker said that outside groups are driving crime after protests by slipping people “a few dollars” to be violent.

“Somebody (is) manipulating their anger, pointing them in the right direction, ‘Go smash that glass, that’ll get their attention. Here’s 10 bucks, go hit that door,’” Schwartzkopf said. “If they go do something stupid, two or three of their friends are going to go with them, and then two or three of their friends are going to go with them, and then you end up with a mob mentality. And that’s what’s been going on.”

The protests have caught the attention of politicians across the state, who are promising real change and are about to head into talks about police accountability and transparency.

But it is not clear whether state lawmakers, who take pride in bipartisan compromise through the so-called “Delaware Way,” will end up siding with protesters or the police. They lawmakers are known for making decisions behind closed doors, often before proposals are even announced to the public.

Delaware’s Legislative Black Caucus members on Wednesday released an eight-item agenda that includes putting body cameras on all police officers and banning knee holds and choke holds unless deadly force is necessary.

The agenda also pledges to invest in historically Black communities and adds protections for juvenile defendants.

Some anti-racism groups, including local protest organizers, said it isn’t enough.

Schwartzkopf, when pressed about what changes police departments can make to increase transparency and accountability, said he doesn’t oppose body cameras but the officer needs to have certain circumstances where they can turn the camera off, such as talking to a rape victim.

He then warned that civilians will struggle in their renewed effort to police the police.

“As a cop, we don’t go in to tell somebody how to operate on somebody because we don’t know anything about it,” Schwartzkopf said. “It’s very difficult to ask people that don’t know anything about policing, who’ve never been a cop, how they should fix policing. They can tell them their side of how they feel on the other side of the policing, which is very important.”

That’s apparently become the mindset of the rest of the General Assembly. The Black Caucus’ agenda also includes a task force made up of police, victims of police use of force and other stakeholders to study proposals for police reform.

The will look at proposals such as restricting police use of force policies and making police departments more transparent.

It’s unclear how much the task force will end up watering down the proposals that protesters are demanding. The leader of the task force, Rep. Franklin Cooke, D-New Castle, is a retired police officer. He said activists and police will have to compromise, and proposals might need to be tweaked before they’re enacted.

During the interview, Schwartzkopf said he is open to “any discussion” on law changes.

“I’m not going to stand up for the cops; I’m not going to stand up for anybody but trying to do the right thing,” he said. “But you have to understand, there are always more than two sides to an issue.”

When asked what responsibility the General Assembly has in addressing issues in police departments, Schwartzkopf said police departments should act on their own to root out bad officers, and legislation will probably be necessary if departments resist. He said lawmakers will do “whatever legislation we have to” in order to “try to make things better.”

“We need to get back to understanding that when you’re a police officer wearing that uniform, you’re not God,” Schwartzkopf said when asked specific ways he wants to see police departments change. “And the flip side of that, I think the people out there should respect the police officers for what they are. … The deep respect between police and the public is damaged.”

He said during the interview that very few police officers cause the majority of problems and that he didn’t understand how the Minneapolis officer’s murder of George Floyd happened.

During his Wednesday podium speech, Schwartzkopf said that House leadership will not “hide behind the badge” and will “do the right thing.”

“We can fix all the laws in the world, and we’re not going to fix this,” Schwartzkopf said. “We need to have a cultural shift and a mentality shift and just a human nature shift. I mean, it’s time for the people of color to quit feeling like they’re less of a person than we are.”

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard