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Police union heads: Camden protesters were 'violent'

Isabel Hughes
Delaware News Journal
Smyrna/Clayton Sun-Times

Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings hoped a decision not to prosecute Camden protesters — and to forgo an investigation into complaints about police actions during their arrests — would allow protesters and police to “put June 9 behind” them.

That doesn’t appear to be the case.

On June 25, Delaware police union heads issued a scathing statement denouncing Jennings’ decision, calling it politically motivated. Fraternal Order of Police President Fred Calhoun said Jennings was “caving” to protesters and “pandering for votes.”

Their letter begins, ““Delaware's Law Enforcement is under attack! The leadership of the Delaware State Troopers Association, Delaware Fraternal Order of Police and the Delaware Police Chiefs' Council denounce Attorney General Kathy Jennings refusal to prosecute the 22 violent protesters who were arrested on June 9th in Camden.”

In fact, one “violent protester” arrested but released was a Dover Post reporter, who is Black; another was a Black bystander who was making a video with her phone. She was also released later. The remaining 20 were charged.

The attorney general fired back, saying she has “neither time nor any use for cheap shots.”

She said she had expected to be “demonized” for her decision, but reiterated previous statements that her office does not prosecute “nonviolent, principled acts of civil disobedience.”

“That was our policy on protests against Delaware’s stay at home order, it is our policy on protests for racial justice, and it will remain our policy as long as I hold this office,” Jennings said.

At the heart of the spat between Jennings and the union heads is the fundamental disagreement about whether the protesters arrested on June 9 were, in fact, nonviolent.

The two sides agree that the march along Route 13 demanding justice for George Floyd and decrying racial injustice was mostly peaceful until the evening hours.

That’s when opinions on protesters’ actions diverge.

In videos that the Justice Department made public earlier this week, several protesters are seen shouting at police who were escorting them along Route 13 and yelling at motorists who were trying to get by.

Calhoun said one driver was so upset by the protesters, some of whom were armed, that she was “crying her eyes out” and police had to come to her car to calm her down.

Though officers did not make any arrests then — those came after two protesters blocked a Dover police car from driving along Route 13 — police union heads said that’s when protesters went from demonstrating civilly to breaking the law.

“When they intimidate motorists because of the way they’re walking through traffic, when they try to stop police officers attempting to make a lawful arrest because one of the protesters chose not to get out of the way of a police car ... those are no longer peaceful protests,” said Tom Brackin, president of the Delaware State Troopers Association.

“Now they have crossed the line to violations of the law, and (Jennings) is not making a distinction between that.”

Calhoun said by not making that distinction, Jennings is sending a message that protesters can “run up on police officers, they can push police officers, they can yell on their faces when other officers are trying to do their jobs.”

“Now they think that’s the right thing to do, and she’s actually incentivized them to physically attack an officer,” he said.

Jennings vehemently disagrees. She has repeatedly said the protesters’ behavior was an act of civil disobedience, and that while demonstrators were aggressive, they remained nonviolent.

“We said from square one that we understood this decision would have dissenting opinions on both sides, but I swore an oath to place the public interest above any special interest,” Jennings said Friday. “I have to do what’s right, even when what’s right isn’t popular.”

Justice Department spokesman Mat Marshall said in a separate statement that the department is “not aware of a single chief” in Delaware who signed off on Thursday’s union statement.

When asked, Wilmington Police Chief Robert Tracy said he had “no knowledge” of the union letter until a Delaware Online/The News Journal reporter made him aware of it Thursday night. He added the department does not comment “on matters outside the jurisdiction of Wilmington.”

Neither New Castle County police nor Delaware State Police commented on the letter, though state police said they were “disappointed” with Jennings’ decision.

“These arrests were handled according to the laws of the state of Delaware and under the guidance of the Attorney General’s Office,” said state police Sgt. Darren Lester.

Marshall said Friday the Justice Department has been meeting with many chiefs for weeks regarding police reform, and that “the union leaders would do well to learn from the chiefs’ example and the AG’s: coming together is the only way ahead.”

Brackin said that’s what police do want to do.

“This is not a time for politics,” he said. “We all need to come together and work on ways to solve all of these myriad of problems, whether it’s police brutality, systemic racism — all of these things that have been brought to the forefront and criminal justice reform.”’

ACLU of Delaware disagrees

Law enforcement union heads are not alone in disagreeing with the attorney general.

On June 24, taking a different tack, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware criticized Jennings’ announcement that her office would not investigate potential police misconduct, saying the decision undermines her commitment to police accountability.

ACLU Executive Director Mike Brickner said his agency has heard “concerning” reports about police using excessive force during their arrests, and a day after the arrests, protesters gathered to decry police actions.

One protester said he had a broken rib, while others complained of injured wrists from where they were handcuffed or zip tied. Brickner said investigations into such reports “are really the bedrock of developing a stronger trust and cooperation between the community and the police.”

“We have to have transparency and accountability and a full investigation when citizens allege misconduct against law enforcement officers so that people believe that the system works and that the government will hold law enforcement accountable when there are allegations of misconduct,” Brickner said.

Jennings said earlier this week that after reviewing evidence, “neither a prosecution of these protesters, nor an investigation into the police — both of which have been demanded, with equal volume — would serve a good purpose.”

But Calhoun, the state Fraternal Order of Police president, said the Justice Department’s decision not to investigate police is inconsequential, given that officers are already being investigated by their own departments. Protesters have filed multiple complaints against officers since the night of the arrests, multiple sources have said.

Brickner noted and important distinction: the public won’t be able to access internal investigations because of the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights — a set of statutes that keep complaints against police and their subsequent internal investigations secret.

He said that’s problematic — and added that in light of that, the public should have access to the “underlying documents that led (Jennings) to the decision that she came to.”

“One of the main problems with police-community relations as a lack of trust,” Brickner said. “You can’t have trust without transparency, and you can’t have accountability without transparency.

“If the public isn’t engaged in the process, then they may not have faith that that investigation was done appropriately, and that’s really poisonous for police-community relations.”

Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at ihughes@delawareonline.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_ Craig O’Donnell contributed to this story.

What the departments say

Contacted to find out if the views in the letter represent individual police departments, none was willing to comment directly on the contents of the letter.

  • Chief Robert Kracyla, Middletown Police Department: "I am going to refer you to the Chair of the Delaware Police Chief’s Council Chief Patrick Ogden (Patrick.ogden@udel.edu) for that information."
  • Sgt. Mark Hoffman, PIO, Dover Police Department: "We are familiar with the letter that was sent.  The three entities that are responsible for the letter are separate from the Dover Police Department, so it would be inappropriate for us to comment.  In addition, the primary investigating agency in this case was the Delaware State Police."

    Hoffman quoted a statement issued a week previous: “Chief Johnson and Attorney General Jennings had a discussion on Tuesday afternoon and agreed it was in the best interest of our community to move forward and work together to make positive changes in our community.  We look forward to working with government leaders and community stakeholders to improve our community.”
  • Det. Joey Melvin, PIO, Georgetown Police Department: "The Georgetown Police Department has an excellent working relationship with the Delaware Department of Justice. The DOJ is always responsive to our questions and concerns."