Panel highlights issues with policing, ways to build community trust

DOVER — Until police view themselves less as an occupying force and more as equals of individual civilians, particularly people of color, a substantial portion of the public will continue to distrust law enforcement and otherwise avoidable shootings will remain common, members of a panel on police accountability agreed Wednesday.

The Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force, a body established in the summer after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, has been holding meetings aimed at tackling police reform. Wednesday, a special panel convened to discuss criminal justice reform and hear public comments. After the panelists spoke for about an hour, listeners offered their thoughts, nearly all agreeing that police need to take significant steps to build community trust.

Held over Zoom, the meeting featured Bryan Allen Stevenson School of Excellence founder Alonna Berry, Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League President and CEO Eugene Young, former Wilmington police officer Daniel Selekman and National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives President Lynda R. Williams.

The panelists, three of whom are Black, spoke passionately about the need for reform. The onus should be on law enforcement to do more to connect with the residents of the communities they are policing rather than view themselves as superior and civilians as inherently suspicious, they said.

“We need to introduce ourselves first. We are strangers, and we are also guests in their neighborhood,” Mr. Selekman said. “That’s what we often forget. We go there, and we have this image that we’re there to occupy or we’re there to take care of them because they can’t take care of themselves. This is what police say.”

Greater transparency would do wonders for building public trust and confidence, speakers agreed, with Mr. Selekman advocating for mandating officers to spend part of their shifts walking through neighborhoods to get to know residents. He would know — as a Wilmington police officer for more than 20 years, he focused on getting to know Wilmingtonians and helping them.

Before his retirement, he was assigned to West Center City, one of the city’s poorest and most violent areas. Despite that, Mr. Selekman, who acknowledged that he was at a disadvantage in the majority Black area because he is White, helped drastically reduce crime there without making a single arrest over a period of 13 months.

Instead of acting as a military presence, police need to be trained to connect people to social services, he said, with officers being judged not based on how many arrests they make but on how many people they assist.

Better training is necessary, so officers view themselves not as warriors but as helpers with knowledge of ways to assist individuals seeking employment, housing, addiction treatment and more, Mr. Young agreed.

“There’s an obligation to know the very people that you’re protecting, that you’re not to be afraid of them just because they’re different than you. There’s more that holds us connected and in common than different,” Ms. Williams said.

“But we have to know that culture. We have to know that this is the lifestyle of some communities versus others,” she added. “But we have to respect that. We have to put a human face and deal with people.”

Public protests against law enforcement will continue until police “strangers” stop shooting unarmed Black individuals and stop insulating themselves, Mr. Selekman said. Speakers agreed that the “thin blue line” that protects officers and creates a culture of silence within police departments must be eliminated.

“This isn’t one or two bad apples. I wish people would stop saying that,” Mr. Selekman said. “Do you think there would be a global movement for change because there’s a couple bad cops? No, it’s because the culture, our community, realizes the culture in policing, the culture in law enforcement, is corrupted. It’s corroded.

“Not that there’s (only) bad cops. There’s wonderful police out there. There’s great human beings that wear the uniform. What we’re saying is the culture itself is broken,” he added.

During the public comment session, numerous individuals called on police to do more to get to know civilians, to not be so quick to pull their guns and to truly hold officers who misbehave accountable.

One woman cited Tom Webster, a Dover police officer who was acquitted in 2015 after kicking an unarmed Black man in the jaw while making an arrest. Prohibited from seeking employment with the city of Dover again, Mr. Webster was hired by the Greensboro, Maryland, police department. While there, however, he was involved in the death of Anton Black, a Black man arrested on spurious grounds, said LaToya Holley, Mr. Black’s sister, to the panel.

His hiring with the Greensboro agency came despite about 30 use-of-force complaints not disclosed to the state of Maryland, she said.

Maren Bertelsen, a member of the public, urged lawmakers to amend the police bill of rights to offer greater transparency to the public, as well as stop protecting bad cops and cease civil asset forfeiture, which enables law enforcement to keep proceeds seized during arrests even without convictions.

Systemic racism pervades law enforcement, several people said, highlighting the country’s long history of discrimination — often legally — against Black men and women.

“Law enforcement was built on capture and control. That narrative has not changed,” Pastor Frank Burton told the audience.

The Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force, which includes lawmakers, police, the attorney general, the public defender and civilians, is expected to issue a report in January, with final conclusions coming by July.