Smyrna Police union frustrated by officials’ response to concerns

SMYRNA — At least one Smyrna police officer continues to wear an expired ballistic vest as ordered — which could potentially bring deadly consequences, the town law enforcement agency’s union claims.

“The FOP to the best of my knowledge still has one uniformed member with an expired vest,” FOP Lodge 22 President Cpl. Brandon Dunning said this week.

“This individual was ordered to continue working under these conditions when he made supervisors aware, to the best of my knowledge that issue has been addressed and is being corrected.”

More than a year after rank and file officers went public with concerns associated with Chief Norman Wood and department operations, the union believes questions remain unanswered.

Equipment concerns were raised as part of a “no confidence” vote the union held about Chief Wood on July 18, 2016.

“The FOP expressed specific concerns regarding expired ballistic vests which uniformed officers wear and their lives may depend on,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“In addition, we expressed concerns about non working radios and body cameras with regards to equipment. With regards to expired vests some took nearly a year to be corrected and we still have one officer not in compliance.”

Mayor John Embert III and Chief Wood have consistently declined opportunities offered by the Delaware State News to comment on the matter in the past year-plus.

While the mayor and town council have promised to speak with the union about their response to a $20,000 taxpayer-funded private company’s investigation into police department operations, there’s apparently been no update yet.

Town leaders approved hiring Protocol Security Partners of Blackwood, New Jersey, following a Delaware Department of Justice recommendation to examine the officer’s concerns further last year. The DOJ determined there was insufficient evidence to warrant a criminal prosecution regarding the FOP’s complaints.

“The FOP has not been contacted and no communication has occurred from the town regarding the report or our original concerns,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“The last communication or dialogue we as the FOP have had with the town was July of 2016. We requested the results of the publicly funded consultants report but were denied by town.

“We strongly feel that the report could potentially contain specific recommendations on improving our operational effectiveness and correcting any organizational issues, but without that important information it’s difficult for our organization to move forward.”

When asked for an update by the Delaware State News last week, town attorney D. Barrett Edwards IV forwarded the request to Haddonfield, New Jersey-based lawyer Laura Link, who provided a prepared statement:

“Town council has engaged in preliminary discussions regarding the findings of the report but is still in the process of evaluating the recommendations set forth in the report,” she said.

In a letter to the FOP on Sept. 19, Mr. Edwards said it was his “understanding that town council intends to speak with the FOP regarding the results of the Protocol Security Partners investigation.

“More information will be forth coming in the near future regarding how and when this will occur.”

Matter remains unresolved

According to Cpl. Dunning the matter remains unresolved and “until our issues are addressed and corrected nothing has changed since July 2016.”

Town leaders declined to release results of the taxpayer-funded investigation by Protocol Security Partners to the public last month.

The police union filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the town seeking the Protocol Security Partners report completed in mid-September. The town denied the request citing the personnel-related nature of the information, which was upheld by the Delaware Attorney General’s Office on Oct. 13 after an appeal.

The police union is frustrated by mayor and council’s response to its concerns, members said.

“The lack of communication and dialogue between our members and the town regarding what we felt as serious issues is disappointing to say the least,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“We took a substantial step in bringing issues to the table nearly a year and half ago and from our perspective nothing has been addressed or communicated to our membership.”

Now, officers describe themselves as under-appreciated by elected town officials.

“We understand that this is a very complicated situation that unfortunately has become a public matter, however, we fully expected the town to take the appropriate action and follow up with our concerns by doing whatever was lawful and just,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“Our issues not being addressed have sent a clear message to the members and officers about our value within the town.”

Asked to describe the FOP’s relationship with Chief Wood, Cpl. Dunning responded “As long as he is our chief we will continue to perform our jobs to the best of our ability within the environment he has created.

“To say that the working environment has been uncomfortable would be an understatement.”

Still work to do

Moving forward, Cpl. Dunning said, “We will remain professional and do our jobs as we have since this issue began and continue to hope that our issues and concerns are addressed by council appropriately sooner rather than later.

“They have spent a lot of time and money on attorneys and consultants now it’s just time to put those things into action.”

The ongoing strife between Smyrna’s officers and their chief has gained public attention and generated a wide response.

“We have received continued support from all over the state and even outside officials applauding our actions and decisions regarding the entire situation,” Cpl Dunning said.

“But anytime there are two sides people inevitably will choose, we have had some criticism for doing what we did but this has become a public matter and one that does not place us in the best light.

“Only the men and women of the Smyrna Police Department know the story from beginning to end. One thing that must be understood is we are expected to do what is right and stand up for our citizens in the face of adverse situations, that requires unbelievable courage by the men and women in our career.

“When that adversity is within our own walls nothing should be handled differently, we are not perfect, we make mistakes and we need to admit those mistakes and improve for the benefit of our citizens.”

During the stretch, Cpl. Dunning said officers have strived to maintain solid protection and service for their community.

“We have continued to perform the best job with what we are provided and the environment that is created for us,” he said. “Our men and women regardless of what we face internally walk out those doors and hit the streets committed to our citizens and providing exceptional service.

“Could we do more, be more effective, more professional and organized? Absolutely – that was the point of our issues and concerns in July 2016.”

Describing FOP membership’s morale as “low,” Cpl. Dunning explained, “that is as much our department’s issue as it is individual officers responsibility.

“We all must take personal accountability for our own morale or attitude, but our environment has created a difficult obstacle to overcome that.”
The FOP letter to mayor and council last year claimed:

• The agency has no strategic plans or specific vision

• Often inadequate staffing to meet departmental needs and address safety concerns for the community

• Inexperienced officers being forced to learn the job without adequate training or supervision

• Inoperable/insufficient equipment

• No organization or communication within the department

• Creation of a poor work/hostile environment

• A general lack of adherence to policy and procedures by the chief or neglect to investigate misconduct, violations of policy and citizen complaints brought to his attention, lack of professionalism and biased decision making during promotion processes, among other deficiencies.

Other controversies

On March 1, a former 20-year Smyrna Police lieutenant filed a 10-page federal lawsuit detailing allegations including an officer’s suspected sexual activity on duty, secret recordings, profanity-laced threats and firearms related violations within the department.

Previous Smyrna Police issues have included:

• In February 2015 ACLU of Delaware settled two lawsuits against Smyrna PD regarding three separate alleged wrongful arrests beginning in August 2013.

A court order mandated that Smyrna PD host a meeting with a police practices expert covering how officers interact with the public, among other stipulations.

• A former police chief retired abruptly on Sept. 6, 2010 before the case of an extortion plot against him that included his ex-girlfriend and two others brought convictions.

• In November 2010, the Delaware Department of Justice investigated claims that town officials allegedly violated Freedom of Information Act guidelines connected to the hiring of the chief’s replacement.

• In October 2007, an officer was cleared of alleged sexual misconduct connected to a prescription drug investigation.

• On June 28, 2007, the Smyrna Police Employees union representing sworn officers sent a letter urging the then-mayor to investigate allegations surrounding a chief’s conduct during the investigation of a personal friend.

• In September 2006, an officer was arrested and charged with official misconduct for allegedly interfering in a traffic stop made by Clayton Police early in the month.

• The promotion of a black officer to deputy chief in December 2006 prompted claims of racism when town council members discussed leaving the vacant position open.

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