DSU hosts forum on police-community relations

City of Dover police chief Paul Bernat (center) making his opening statement during a town meeting at Delaware State University Tuesday night. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

City of Dover police chief Paul Bernat (center) making his opening statement during a town meeting at Delaware State University Tuesday night. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Perhaps the most telling exchange came about 90 minutes into a town hall-style discussion on diversity and tolerance Tuesday night.

Jaquan Romeo, a 22-year-old African-American man from New Castle, asked why it took the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers weeks ago to bring about the “Building a Community of Diversity, Tolerance, Accountability and Trust” gathering at Delaware State University.

Retired DSU administrator Don Blakey presents opening comments during a town meeting on police-community relations Tuesday night at Delaware State University. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Retired DSU administrator Don Blakey presents opening comments during a town meeting on police-community relations Tuesday night at Delaware State University. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Organizers had earlier pointed to the ambush on July 7 as the prompt to schedule a community meeting in Dover with local and state law enforcement, community members, legislators and religious leaders.

Mr. Romeo asked why the string of shooting deaths of African-American men by police before Dallas hadn’t spurred any calls to gather.

Sitting in the middle of a 12-member panel before a crowd of approximately 250, state Rep. Lyndon Yearick, R-Dover South, called the question fair and wondered aloud why he hadn’t been concerned earlier.

The Caucasian lawmaker reasoned that his “lens” had focused on the police tragedy, while Mr. Romeo held another reasonable perspective.

“Any of those situations should have led us to the start of the process (of coming together),” Rep. Yearick said.

Challenging questions must be asked if the local community is to figure out solutions to ongoing stress between police and residents, Rep. Yearick said. More people should examine their own perspective and consider where others are coming from as well, he said.

Dover resident Phil Hill asks the panel a question on hiring practices within area police agencies. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Dover resident Phil Hill asks the panel a question on hiring practices within area police agencies. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

Dover Police urged community members to report officers they feel violated by, and Chief Bernat counseled to “Listen to what an officer says. If what an officer says is wrong, deal with it later in court (and through official complaints),”

City Councilman Roy Sudler said he was disturbed by the lack of other council members at the meeting, since the elected officials are residents’ best contact to express concerns to.

Also, Mr. Sudler said, “I know as a fact that minority officers are intimated by Caucasian officers. That may be a learned habit, but that’s a culture that needs to change.”

Chief Bernat, Delaware State Police Supt. Col. Nathaniel McQueen and Delaware State University Police Chief Harry Downes Jr. spent much of the first 40 minutes explaining hiring processes and attention to officer bias while lamenting the lack of minority candidates who could better mirror their community’s makeup.

Bernice Edwards of forum sponsor First State Community Action Agency believed all talk and no action would make Tuesday night’s event irrelevant.
“We need to act now,” she said. “We’re losing too many young people. We can no longer stand to have this happen. We need to leave with a plan tonight.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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