Delaware House committee releases legislation to address racial inequality in special hearing

A special hearing on legislation was held Monday at Delaware Technical Community College in Dover. (Delaware State News/Katie Rederfer)

DOVER — After hearing public comment, the state House Administration Committee voted unanimously Monday to release Senate Bill 191 and House Bill 350 from committee, moving two bills designed to address racial inequality closer to passage.

Those bills, two of the five on the agenda, are part of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus’s Justice For All effort in the wake of demands for police reform and equality spurred from George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

HB 350 criminalizes the use of “aggravated strangulation” by law enforcement officials, meaning police officers cannot use chokeholds or kneeholds unless the officer believes it is necessary to protect the life of a civilian or law enforcement officer. Aggravated strangulation would be considered a Class D felony, while aggravated strangulation resulting in death or serious injury would be a Class C felony.

Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha, D- Wilmington, who sponsored the bill, shared his encounters with racism Monday during a special hearing at Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus in Dover.

“As a Black man, words fail me in trying to find the words to explain the hurt and disappointment in my nation. Repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly, I’ve seen the loss of life, loss of Black males, their lives,” Rep. Chukwuocha said.

“Me, myself as a former city councilman, I have been pulled over repeatedly. And I emphasize that fact by saying I haven’t received a mere traffic ticket in over 20 years. Yet I’m being pulled over, harassed. If this is happening to someone with my credentials and background, can you imagine what’s happening to a 17- or 18-year-old?”

Rep. Chukwuocha emphasized that law enforcement officers in Delaware are not trained to use a chokehold, therefore the state should have a law in place to punish officers who go against his or her training.

“There isn’t a law enforcement agency in our state that trains officers to utilize a chokehold. They should not be using it. So all we are saying is if an officer chooses to do so, he or she will be punished under our law. That’s what we’re saying. If they want to violate their own training, then they’re going to be punished for it.”

SB 191 was first introduced in February and passed the state Senate last week. The proposed bill sponsored by Sen. Darius Brown, D-Wilmington, would amend the state Constitution to prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Last year, the state passed a similar equal rights amendment which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, but does not mention race.

“It[SB 191] achieves two goals. First, it makes clear that Delaware values the equality of its residents, regardless of their race, color, or national origin. Second, it ensures that any unequal treatment of or discrimination against Delawareans based on race, color, or national origin, is subject to the strictest constitutional scrutiny,” said Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker, D-Wilmington, a member of the Delaware Legislative Black Caucus.

After Reps. Walker and Chukwuocha spoke on behalf of the bills, the committee opened the floor for public comments. Seats were filled with people waiting to comment, all overwhelmingly in support of the legislation.

The hearing — the first in-person meeting of the House of Representatives since COVID-19 precautions began in Delaware — was held at Delaware Tech to allow input with social distancing. People in the audience sat in designated chairs placed 6 feet apart, masks were required to be worn, and the microphone was disinfected after each person spoke.

Committee members said they considered hosting the hearing remotely at first, but decided to host the event publicly because of increased public interest in SB 191 and HB 350.

Many of those who spoke claimed to be part of the 22 protesters arrested in Camden earlier this month.

“I am a part of the Camden 22, the group of individuals who fell victim to police brutality while simultaneously protesting against it,” said Martina Jackson. “Amongst the group of those detained was a minor, an innocent bystander, and a news journalist with a press badge. We are a diverse group of people who come together every day to make our voices to be heard. We are here to fight for awareness education, and action on the issues of oppression and systematic racism.”

Deanna Talley spoke in support of SB 191, mentioning how outdated current laws within the state Constitution are regarding Black Delawareans.

“In Delaware, our state Constitution still views African Americans as three-fifths of a person. And that’s a Black man — so if a Black man’s life is valued less than a white man’s, then how is a Black woman viewed? How about a Black child?” she said.

As the meeting came to an end, meeting chair and House Majority Leader Rep. Valerie Longhurst said she expects both bills to pass by the end of this week.