Conflicting views on force revealed during Webster trial

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A dashcam video released in May 2015 of a suspect being kicked set off a firestorm of controversy. (Dover Police Department photo)

DOVER — Was the use of force excessive or appropriate?

It’s complicated, to put it simply.

Experts on police defensive tactics had vastly divergent views of a dashcam video crucial during testimony in the recent trial of Dover Police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV.

Cpl. Webster IV was charged with assault after an August 2013 apprehension left a suspect with a broken jaw — the result of a kick to the head.

He was found not guilty Dec. 8.

Twelve jurors made the unanimous decision after sitting through approximately 16 hours of trial time and 15 hours of deliberations spanning six days in Kent County Superior Court.

While one expert witness each for the defense and prosecution testified the actions amounted to excessive force, Cpl. Ricardo Torres, the lead defensive tactics instructor at the Delaware State Police Academy, believed video of a sequence between police and a suspect could be a training tool for incoming law enforcement recruits.

When Deputy Attorney General Mark Denney questioned Cpl. Torres on Dec. 3 regarding whether the actions he viewed were within the scope of a police officer’s duty, the trooper answered, “Yes, sir.”

“Yes,” was the answer to whether to video could be used as a training technique for recruits at the Delaware State Police Academy.

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Delaware Deputy Attorney General Mark Denney Jr., one of the prosecutors in the case, speaks to the media on the steps of the Kent County Courthouse after the verdict. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

During his testimony, Cpl. Webster said he did not intend to kick Lateef Dickerson in the head and was instead aiming for the upper body while attempting to bring the suspect under control.

Cpl. Torres, who trained Cpl. Webster, testified the video presented as evidence at the trial appeared to be within training guidelines in a high-stress, extremely dangerous, potentially lethal situation where decisive, quick action was needed for the safety of officers and the public.

This week, a Delaware State Police spokesman said Cpl. Torres and Superintendent Col. Nathaniel McQueen were not available for interview.

“Delaware State Police was not a part of the Webster investigation, nor was it privy to testimony given by witnesses during the trial.

“Therefore, it would be inappropriate to comment as to whether the application of force in that particular case was justified,” Col. McQueen said in part of a statement issued this week.

Committed to training

Looking forward, Col. McQueen said, “The Delaware State Police remains committed to providing our recruits with quality training based on best practices and in accordance with relevant law. It is our goal that every recruit who graduates from our academy will always exercise sound judgment when utilizing force to affect an arrest of a non-compliant and/or combative subject.”

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Defense lawyer Jim Liguori won the acquittal for Dover Police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Under questioning from prosecuting Deputy Attorney General Denney at the trial, Cpl. Torres confirmed at least three times he believed the video could be used as a training technique for people in state police academy.

When the DAG referenced two earlier expert opinions of unjustified, excessive force supposedly shown in the video, Cpl. Torres responded, “Sir, I don’t know where they were trained. I know where I was trained.”

Cpl. Torres cited training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center as the crux of his approach to defensive tactics, and said any trooper or municipal agency officer teaching at the state police academy must have the same certification.

Tactics are taught the same way at a New Castle County police academy, Cpl. Torres testified, and described law enforcement there as “partners” who also take part in FLETC training.

“ … I don’t think there’s anything better for our officers and for the people of the state of Delaware that they serve,” Cpl. Torres said on the witness stand.

“So I believe in that training. I am very passionate about it. I eat, sleep and breath it. You could bring anybody in here that knows me and knows that I spend countless hours outside of my work training to be better myself and then to better other officers …”

Cpl. Torres testified that FBI studies have shown most officers killed on duty “hesitate because they are not sure what to do at any given time. They don’t make a decisive decision.”

The Delaware State News obtained an excerpt of the trial transcript regarding Cpl. Torres’ testimony.

Contradictory views

While the Dover Police Department said it disciplined Cpl. Webster in an undisclosed manner regarding the August 2013 incident, Chief of Police Paul Bernat believed his training was not at fault.

“I have full confidence in the training provided by the Delaware State Police Academy,” he said this week.

“In this instance, the officer was found to be outside of Dover Police Department policy and was disciplined accordingly. There are differing opinions on the incident which was evident when expert witnesses contradicted one another during the trial.

“However, it has not affected our confidence in the training program run by the Delaware State Police.”

Cp. Torres described the Delaware State Police Academy as teaching “a variety of defense tactics to law

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Cpl. Nathaniel McQueen

enforcement recruits consistent with nationally accepted training standards.

“Those tactics include, but are not limited to, the following: firearms (handgun, shotgun and rifle), ASP baton, Taser, oleoresin capsicum, weaponless defense, and handcuffing techniques.

“In addition to hands-on training, all recruits receive classroom instruction on applicable state laws and state and federal court rulings governing the proper application of force.”

Weaponless defensive training is also part of a state police academy education, and Cpl. Torres said “all recruits are taught various strikes, kicks and control techniques that are used to gain compliance and affect the arrest of non-compliant and/or combative individuals.

“Recruits are provided instruction regarding strike locations on or about the body. As such, they are taught that strikes and kicks could cause serious bodily harm or death.

“Thus, strikes should be restricted to non-vital areas of the body, unless the totality of the circumstances determines otherwise (e.g. the use of deadly force is justified).”

Returned to duty

After an apparent hiatus of some sort, Cpl. Webster returned to full duty for Dover Police until a May 2015 indictment on a second-degree assault charge. He was then placed on administrative leave without pay, and now will receive back pay for that time span due to the acquittal.

Chief Paul Bernat

Chief Paul Bernat

Chief Bernat and Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen are weighing options regarding Cpl. Webster’s active return to the force. His $68,398 annual salary at $32.88 hourly was restored Dec. 20.

After watching video of the sequence with command staff, former Dover Police Chief Jim Hosfelt testied he contacted the Delaware Attorney General’s office in October 2013 regarding the earlier apprehension, and a charge against Cpl. Webster was twice sought — once when then-Attorney General Beau Biden was in office, and another attempt after current Attorney General Matt Denn arrived in early 2015.

After a first grand jury did not return an indictment regarding the matter, a second one did in May 2015.

The Attorney General’s office then prosecuted the case that ended with a not guilty verdict in a jury trial.

Through a spokesman earlier this week, the Attorney General’s office said it had no further comment regarding the trial. Regarding state police training in defensive tactics, the office responded with a statement:

“We also have no expertise in what is taught in police academies and couldn’t speak to it.”

This week, a spokesman said Attorney General Denn was not available for interview.

Differing views

After the trial, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Central Delaware President La Mar Gunn said he was troubled by state law enforcement’s apparent approach to teaching defensive tactics.

On Monday, Mr. Gunn said he filed a Freedom of Information Act with the city of Dover requesting background on officers training.

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Central Delaware NAACP President La Mar Gunn has filed a Freedom of Information Act with the city of Dover requesting background on officers training. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

“Please provide via electronic delivery, copies of the city of Dover Police Department’s (“DPD”)
Excessive Force Continuum and all Defensive Tactics related lesson plans provided to DPD trainees,” the request read.

“Should you have any questions, please contact me directly. Thank you in advance.”

Mr. Gunn said he also took his concerns to Delaware State Police Col. McQueen, and believed authorities were at least receptive to his point of view during a meeting of roughly “a couple hours” in Dover. Another meeting is planned for Jan. 6.

He said he’s also requested information on state police defensive tactics training.

Last week, Mr. Gunn said he was contacted by “approximately five troopers” who believed that actions seen in the dashcam video were not within the scope of training. Also making contact with similar views, according to Mr. Gunn, were three New Castle County Police Department officers, one from Wilmington and two retired Dover Police officers. None of the past and present officers wished to be identified publicly, Mr. Gunn said.

Mr. Gunn thinks re-training in police defensive tactics are perhaps in order.

“If our officers are trained that way the public as a whole should be concerned,” Mr. Gunn said.

“I think the police should require a massive retraining in the event that they’re being trained to use that level of force in those circumstances.”

Currently, Mr. Gunn said through his limited experience with such issues he believes a vast majority of police officers have acted appropriately in interactions with suspects. He described the video as “a smack in the face of other officers.”

Interpreting the video

Regarding his interpretation of the video, Citizens for Criminal Justice Founder Ken Abraham released a statement that read, in part:

“[The video] should be used as an indication of what not to do. It should be shown as an example of excessive force; … I do know that City of Dover Police are trained at the State Police Training Academy, and knowing many fine state police officers,

“I cannot even imagine that the Delaware State Police would show this dashcam video as an example of proper or

reasonable behavior. The Delaware State Police are better than that.”

When the dashcam video was first released in early May, Gov. Jack Markell’s office released the following statement.

“The video is disturbing,” Gov. Markell said.

“Now is the time for patience as the justice system considers all of the facts and circumstances in Cpl. Webster ’s case.

“Police agencies and the communities they serve must trust one another. Situations like this can erode that trust, and we need to be committed every day to a dialogue of respect and understanding for the rights of citizens and the challenging jobs we ask our police to do every day.”

Attempts to reach the governor for further comment  last week were unsuccessful.

Earlier this month as the criminal trial was ongoing, officials confirmed a civil suit regarding the matter had been resolved in an undisclosed manner. The ACLU of Delaware sued Cpl. Webster and the city of Dover on behalf of Mr. Dickerson. City officials said a $15,000 insurance deductible had been paid by Dover. There was no confirmation of any signed agreement in early December and no further details were made available.

Mr. Dickerson did not attend the trial of Cpl. Webster, and is sought by law enforcement on unrelated felony charges. He has an appearance scheduled for Jan. 12 in Kent County Superior Court. As of Wednesday, Mr. Dickerson was still at large, according to the Delaware Department of Justice.

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