Dover Police chief outlines police reform changes

Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson talks about the increase the accountability of the Dover Police Department during a press conference in Dover on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Police Chief Thomas A. Johnson Jr. discussed an array of initiatives designed to increase officers’ accountability and improve performance during a 50-minute news conference Thursday afternoon.

The Dover Police Department’s biggest priority, he said, was spurred by the late George Floyd’s three words uttered in Minneapolis — “I can’t breathe.”

The chief is pushing to train officers to better understand “the physiological and anatomical issues in play and the response off the human body when resistance is offered and an officer is attempting to overcome that resistance with police use of force.

“The officers need to know about the impact on the body so they can factor that in to their decision making in a critical moment.”

The entire PowerPoint presentation is available online at doverpolice.org.

Assembling a police force that more resembles the community it protects and serves is another upcoming priority, according to the chief who arrived in Dover in mid-February.

“Clearly if you did a mathematical equation there’s not enough black officers yet in the Dover Police Department to be where we’d like if to be,” Chief Johnson said.

“… [B]ut at the end of the day sometimes I have to remind folks that I have responsibilities to everybody so I got to go and look and make sure that, hey, there might be a Latino component here, there might be an Asian component here … I have to look at males and females.

“There’s a lot of demographic areas that I have to be attentive to but I think it’s pretty plain to state that I need more African American officers and people of color.”

Upcoming planned policy improvements presented included, among others:

• Chokeholds/strangleholds – Are currently considered outside of department policy with an exception for extreme circumstances. Policy revision will clearly define that they remain outside of department policy with the rare and extreme exception of an officer fighting for their life.

•De-escalation – Currently, de-escalation training is required during initial police academy training with refresher training required on an annual basis. The department is committed to maintaining this standard as a minimum with goals of expanding the scope of the training.

In addition, the department will continue to employ de-escalation techniques as a required primary strategy during escalating circumstances and encounters.

• Warning before shooting – The Use of Force Continuum in current policy includes verbal warning and commands. A warning before shooting is to be delivered unless the behavior of the aggressor makes this impossible.

• Exhaust all other means prior to lethal force – The Dover Police Use of Force policy includes a continuum that requires use of force proportionate to the actions of a suspect and requires exhausting all alternatives prior to discharging a firearm. All available “less lethal” options, time permitting, will be employed prior to using deadly force/firearms.

Trust within community

Before the news conference, Chief Johnson met with state and local NAACP leaders in excess of an hour and said the overarching theme was trust between the community and law enforcement.

“There are trust challenges right now in policing,” he said. “There are trust challenges right now in Dover policing and … the more that I’m able to hear about the causes of these trust issues and variables that play into these trust issues through the kind of meetings we had this morning we’re going to break those things down.”

Mayor Robin R. Christiansen and Deputy Chief David Spicer were also in the conversation and Delaware NAACP State Conference Second Vice President Fleur McKendell said de-escalation strategies and improved community policing were the paramount issues.

“We think it is important (when involving) any PD, but specifically in Dover because we do know there has been past history in situations where excessive use of force has been a problem and those officers were dealt with,” she said.

“But (it’s critical) now that we see a rise across the country in situations where unfortunately there is an exponential rise of black and brown lives that are being subjected to the use of excessive force at the hands of police officers.”

Ms. McKendell said NAACP has met with Delaware State Police on the issues and was scheduled to later meet with Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings.

Also coming is a police chief’s advisory committee made up of “the biggest cross-section of stakeholders I can find,” Chief Johnson said. He wanted to be challenged professionally by the group of likely nine, whose formation has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The committee would meet to “informally discuss community needs and police-community relations,” according to the PowerPoint slide.

“Advisory groups of this type have proven to be extremely successful in many American police departments.”

Also, the department will seek funding opportunities for a body worn camera program, which has been a publicly referenced priority before. Dover PD has participated in trial programs and studies, but it said budget constraints remain challenging.

The department will also push for government funding to support a camera program.

As staffing allows the community policing unit is targeted to expand and community outreach programs is described as already successful.

The capacity to monitor officer conduct will increase with new internal affairs software, along with the Personal Early Warning system. Implementation is expected by August, police said.