Reaction to Dover Police officer’s acquittal mixed

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Central Delaware NAACP President La Mar Gunn of Dover discusses the verdict Tuesday afternoon. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — As the jury announced the verdict a quiet murmur spread through the courtroom.

The judge had ordered spectators to remain silent and there were no outbursts.

But, a few whispers and gasps of disbelief could be heard as the words “not guilty” left the jury forewoman’s lips.

After the verdict was read several people left the courtroom shaking their heads.

Dover Police Cpl. Thomas Webster IV, on trial for felony assault in an Aug. 24, 2013, incident in which he broke a black suspect’s jaw with a kick to the face, had been acquitted.

In a statement, the Dover Police Department said it will soon be decided whether he will return to the force.

“The Dover Police Department respects the decision of the jury and has remained fully cooperative throughout the judicial process,” Chief Paul Bernat said.

“At this time the Dover Police Department will now evaluate the details of the case and will make a determination in

the days ahead regarding Officer Webster’s status with the Dover Police Department.”

Mayor Robin Christiansen said he expects a decision will be made within about a week.

He said he hopes Dover residents can now begin working to better the city and improve relations among themselves.

“We have a system in place that we are to be judged by a jury of our peers based on the information that is presented and so we have to stand by those standards that have been set and we have to accept the verdict of the jury, a jury of Cpl. Webster’s peers, and we need move forward as a city, as a police department, to make sure we do the job charged to us,” he said.

The verdict was welcomed by many in law enforcement. Delaware Fraternal Order of Police President Fred Calhoun called it “a boost to law enforcement.”

“The public believes in the work we do,” said Mr. Calhoun, who was in the courtroom when the verdict was announced. “They understand we are doing it the right way.”

Master Cpl. David Gist, head of the Dover FOP, said he does not expect any riots and has reached out to the local affiliate of the NAACP.

Like Mr. Calhoun, he approved of the jury’s decision.

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Dover’s Tyrone Kemet silently walks in front of Kent County Courthouse Tuesday waiting for the verdict to come in on the Webster trial.

“Something like this doesn’t just affect Dover, it affects all law enforcement in Delaware,” he said. “The current anti-police is trending. People watch too much television and think that the criminal gives up.”

Others had very different reactions.

Several Dover residents criticized the verdict and said they expected a finding of guilty for, if not second-degree assault, then misdemeanor third-degree assault.

Leaving the courthouse, Rose Washington called the verdict an “example of failed justice.”

“This is not a black and white issue,” she said. “Although the black community has been attacked unjustifiably for hundreds of years, we’re not even here on that.

“This is about unjustifiable behavior and disrespecting and abuse of authority.

“If you don’t respect the badge that you have on, then how do you expect the people to respect you wearing the badge, and all it does is create fear and then disrespect and who knows what else.”

Protesters demonstrated in front of the courthouse much of the day Monday and on Tuesday morning.

About 50 spectators gathered in a nearly packed courtroom when the doors were opened Tuesday afternoon, a few minutes before the verdict was revealed.

Ten police and security officers stood around the room as the audience, consisting of reporters, community activists and supporters of Cpl. Webster, awaited the decision.

Afterward, Mary Fleming was in sharp disagreement with the verdict as she walked down the courthouse steps.

“People don’t even kick their own dogs in the head or in the face,” she said.

Across the street, Paul Rivera was handing out fliers for an amateur boxing event this weekend, but he said he was also there to support protesters.

“Hopefully, this’ll bring the community together instead of breaking them apart,” he said.

Standing next to him, Vonda Smack emphasized while she is disappointed with the verdict, she feels many police officers are helpful and do focus on protecting the community.

La Mar Gunn, president of the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP, said there will be demonstrations in the city, but “right now this is one that no one could have prepared for,” he said.

Although he said he was shocked by the verdict, Mr. Gunn said he still believes the Dover Police Department is committed to building a strong relationship with the black community.

Larry Bryant, who runs a group called Men of Vision & Value that works to give community members a voice, was briefly choked up as he spoke afterward.

Mr. Bryant, who wore a sweatshirt that displayed the words “Justice now,” said he had attended all seven days of the trial. He said he planned to organize a community meeting and wanted to push for legislation to provide greater protections for citizens.

“How can you value yourself when a system doesn’t even value you?” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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