Smyrna Police union: ‘No confidence’ vote in chief remains unresolved

Norman Wood

SMYRNA — Town police officers don’t necessarily want a new chief.

They absolutely desire a change in direction, however.

After nearly 10 months, the Smyrna Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 22’s “no confidence” vote against Chief Norman Wood remains unresolved.

“A vote of no confidence is a very serious matter, one that we did not enter into quickly, emotionally, or without justification,” FOP President Cpl. Brandon Dunning said Tuesday. “We need change, our officers deserve better and those we serve deserve better.

“The change can come from our current leadership, but that control does not rest in our hands.”

Asked specifically if Chief Wood should remain in his position, Cpl. Dunning responded: “Who is or is not our police chief is not our decision to make, that decision rests in the hands of the Smyrna mayor and town council members.

“We feel as though we have presented them with the information necessary to make an informed and educated decision.”

The mayor and council addressed issues Monday in closed executive session. No information was publicly disclosed.

The FOP had a mixed reaction to the private discussion by town leaders at the otherwise regularly scheduled, open monthly meeting.

“We understand the complexities that surround any personnel matters or issues; we fully support the individual officer rights and protections, including that of the chief,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“We also know it is very important to be transparent with our citizens and provide them with as much information necessary and legally possible. Our mission and obligation as public servants is to serve the public’s best interests even when that may not serve ours.”

On Tuesday, Mayor Joanne Masten, Chief Wood, a town attorney and town council members declined to comment on ongoing issues.

Mayor Masten referenced her impending departure at the end of April as reason for not speaking, explaining “because my term is up at the end of this month. I did not file for reelection so it makes it hard for me to discuss the future.”

The mayor would not discuss whether any police-related information will be made public in the coming days.

Hoping some difficult matters can be properly addressed, Cpl. Dunning said, “Our members believe the issues at hand can be resolved, should be resolved and deserve to be resolved.

“We have an opportunity and a duty to improve ourselves to better serve the public. Our officers fully acknowledge that doing the right thing is not often the easy thing.”

Town leaders notified

The FOP said it notified the mayor and council of the negative vote in a letter on June 23, 2016. The group “then requested to meet with Chief Wood to discuss and attempt to resolve our issues and concerns internally,” Cpl. Dunning said.

The letter came the day after a no confidence vote.

According to the union, “Chief Wood, however, declined to meet with our FOP leadership and made no attempt to hear our concerns or inquire as to the direct nature of our ‘no confidence’ vote.”

The FOP letter to mayor and council 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.

“The internal issues, morale, and general lack of leadership are making our primary focus of protection and service to our community increasingly difficult each day,” FOP Vice President William Wilson wrote.

The Delaware Attorney General’s Office investigated allegations by the FOP against Chief Wood and determined insufficient evidence existed for a criminal prosecution.

In a letter dated March 27, though, the Attorney General’s Office took no position on whether the chief had violated any departmental policies or procedures and described allegations as “legitimate concerns about the operations of the Smyrna Police Department.

“We believe these allegations should be scrutinized by the Town Mayor and Council.”

Regarding the AG Office’s direction for town leaders to evaluate the police concerns, Cpl. Dunning said, “We take great pride in working with our law enforcement partners within the Delaware Attorney General’s Office and appreciate them including us in their response and giving clear and concise direction to our elected officials.”

Concerns, specific examples

FOP membership reportedly voted no confidence of the chief 15-0 with six abstentions last year. The union described the vote as unanimous.

Unsuccessful in meeting with Chief Wood following the vote, the FOP said it “was forced to take our concerns to the next level and formally speak with our elected officials who are directly responsible for the Chief of Police.”

Punctuating an executive session meeting with the mayor and council on July 18, 2016, the FOP said it presented an 18-page letter “documenting our concerns and citing specific examples which ultimately led to our decision and no confidence in Chief Wood.”

Since that meeting, “We have seen little to no direct action, correction or change of behaviors,” according to Cpl. Dunning.

The FOP said it did not present its concerns to the AG’s Office. It believes Chief Wood met with town council on July 25, 2016 to discuss allegations, though hasn’t learned of any results.

“Since July 18, 2016, we, the officers and members of the FOP Lodge 22 have not officially heard back from or been contacted by Smyrna Town Council regarding anything that was presented to them during our July 18 meeting, even after attempts to follow up on the issues and concerns which have still been unaddressed and unchanged,” Cpl. Dunning said.

Referencing a process “which has nearly dragged on for almost a year now,” Cpl. Dunning maintained “we, the FOP and our officers have remained nothing but professional throughout.”

The FOP entered the process with high hope of addressing the issues with town leaders and having concerns remedied.

“Our members were very grateful for the opportunity to express the concerns within our agency to the members of town council,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“We felt optimistic at that time the necessary changes would be made and the correct procedure would be followed thereafter. To this day, we the FOP/officers, have not received any response from the mayor or Smyrna Town Council regarding any of the documented issues are concerns, including reported misconduct within our agency.”

The FOP wasn’t seeking publicity on the matter, and “our hope was to police ourselves and take immediate corrective action to get back to providing our citizens with the most professional and courteous service possible.”

In early October 2016, though, the FOP’s letter to town council was “inappropriately leaked to outside sources,” Cpl. Dunning said.

“It was not until this time that Smyrna Town Council took any action, after the public and media was made aware and they then turned our letter over to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation.”

Throughout the controversy, Cpl. Dunning said, “[a]s professional law enforcement officers, we continue to dedicate ourselves to providing the most efficient and effective services to the citizens of Smyrna and our visitors as possible under our current circumstances.

“We have a very demanding and difficult job to perform and do our best regardless of our internal concerns. The last year has been a very difficult year for the majority of individuals in our agency and I commend each and every officer for battling through our internal issues and not sacrificing our external duties to the community.

“Could our morale be improved? Absolutely.”

Since June, two FOP members have left the police force and two have joined.

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.

Plaintiff Phillip Klink claimed he resigned under pressure on Oct. 21, 2016, prompted by a failing relationship between Chief Wood and another officer driven by the no confidence vote and other issues. Chief Wood, two officers (a lieutenant and corporal and the town of Smyrna were named as defendants in U.S. District Court.

Mr. Klink cited protection under the Delaware Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and Delaware Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.

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.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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