Webster’s actions: Justified or over the line?

DOVER — So what’s it going to be, Kent County?

Were the actions of a Dover Police Department officer accused of breaking a man’s jaw during an August 2013 apprehension a criminal assault or justified use of force?

As the weekend arrived, the jury trial of Cpl. Thomas Webster IV still was scheduled to begin Monday in Kent County Superior Court before Judge Ferris Wharton.

When asked Friday if the Attorney General’s office knew the whereabouts of Lateef Dickerson, the man seen in police dashcam footage being kicked unconscious, a spokesman said the Department of Justice does not comment on pending cases.

Also left unanswered was whether Mr. Dickerson’s location could affect whether a continuance is sought.

Thomas W. Webster IV

Thomas W. Webster IV

Defense lawyer Jim Liguori says his client acted appropriately when confronted by the actions of someone he described as a “criminal.”

Furthermore, he said the state’s prosecution is politically motivated in light of nationwide attention on police officers’ interactions with African-American citizens.

“I am confident that the people in Kent County are going to know overreaching by the state when they see it,” Mr. Liguori said Friday.

Early in the week, Mr. Liguori said the defense, prosecution and judge would all be surprised if the trial does not commence on Monday.

During the pre-trial process, Mr. Liguori submitted 47 questions to the court to be asked of prospective jurors. Included were queries on understanding of law, personal background, family and social connections, past interactions with law enforcement, general opinion of police behavior, knowledge of the case’s publicity, and thoughts on racial discrimination in Delaware, among other concepts.

“That’s the benefit of voir dire,” he said, speaking of the process of a preliminary examination to determine the competency of a witness or juror. “With the guidance of the judge we’ll get what we believe to the right kind of jury.”

Cpl. Webster, who has pleaded not guilty, remains suspended without pay by the Dover Police Department. A previous grand jury opted not to indict, while a second one did after Attorney General Matt, a Democrat, Denn took office in January.

Before directing media to a Dover Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 15 Facebook post for further insight, Mr. Liguori briefly commented on 29 use of force reports involving Webster in just over 10 years.

“I respectfully submit that the AG’s office misrepresents what use of force actually means,” he said.

Question of force

According to Dover FOP President David Gist in the post, Cpl. Webster was on high contact and high-risk units and the use of force reports were not complaints against the officer.

“So, 29 use of force actions, with over 10 years as an officer being on many high-risk units means less than (three) uses of force per year,” Mr. Gist wrote.

“Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t television; people do not always comply with the police. ANY officer who does their job will have a use of force report.

“Let’s compare the amount of arrests Brother Webster has made in 10 years compared to his use of force actions.

“The media does not want to put this information out; they would rather print material that may possibly taint a jury’s decision …”

Lateef Dickerson

Lateef Dickerson

Attempts to reach Mr. Gist for comment this week was unsuccessful.

According to court papers unsealed late last week, the Associated Press reported, prosecutors reviewed the prior use-of-force reports for Cpl. Webster and are seeking to point to three specific incidents, arguing the officer has a tendency to “disregard basic safety concerns.”

Also, the Associated Press reported earlier this week, Deputy Attorney General prosecutor Mark Denney Jr. said in a court filing that the state “adamantly denies” any selective prosecution.

Through spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman, Dover Police declined comment other than to say:

“The Dover Police Department is prohibited from discussing disciplinary matters involving police officers as stated in Title 11, Chapter 92, Subsection 9200.

“Specifically, 9200 (c)(12) states: All records compiled as a result of any investigation subject to the provisions of this chapter and/or a contractual disciplinary grievance procedure shall be and remain confidential and shall not be released to the public.

“While the department prides itself on transparency, any further comment on this matter would be in violation of Delaware law. “

This is Dover

While National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Central Delaware Chapter President La Mar Gunn believes Cpl. Webster committed an egregious assault worthy of conviction, he’s hopeful the populace won’t dwell on the verdict while continuing efforts to draw closer to the police department through improving communication both ways, community outreach and programs that have arisen in the past several months.

“Most people in the black community that I’ve talked to seem to think Webster will get off,” Mr. Gunn said Friday, noting he was “shocked” by what he saw in video footage of the incident.

“My response has been pretty consistent — let’s give the system an opportunity to work.

“Either way, we do understand that as a whole our Dover Police Department is not part” of what’s seen in some areas nationally as systemic duty-related misbehavior by law enforcement.

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La Mar Gunn

“I would say we don’t have that in Dover — our police care.”

Added Mr. Gunn, “I believe he will answer to a jury of his peers and we’re willing to accept that.”

When a resolution to Cpl. Webster’s case arrives, Mr. Gunn said, “What I expect is our community will continue to serve as a model for responding peacefully.

“That’s our track record here. Our leadership is set on getting to the core of the problems even if it doesn’t agree with the decision that may come. They’re focused on looking forward and not into the rear view mirror.”

Saying the climate in Dover is different than in Baltimore, Chicago and New York City, Mr. Gunn said, “The people of Central Delaware don’t want to be odds with the police.

“The police are saying ‘We don’t support what Officer Webster did’ and the black community is not saying all officers are bad.”

Believe in the system

Speaking for 2,600 municipal members of Fraternal Order of Police of Delaware, President Fred Calhoun said law enforcement in general believes in the justice system; with a first grand jury choosing not to indict in the Webster case, Mr. Calhoun said FOP trusts citizens will once again make what they think is the correct decision.

Mr. Calhoun said he took no position on Cpl. Webster’s guilt or innocence, but wants the public to know officers are trained to react a specific way when enforcing the laws of the land.

Regarding national trends and public responses involving police and the community, Mr. Calhoun said, “My fear is that officers will tend to hesitate before taking action and not react as quickly, which will get them and/or members of the public seriously hurt.”

The indictments alone already have had a significant impact on police perception of how they are seen by the public, Mr. Calhoun said.

He said he believed the second action was “purely political” and treated police as a different class of society based on a follow-up attempt to achieve an indictment.

The ACLU of Delaware filed a lawsuit against Cpl. Webster and the city of Dover on behalf of Mr. Dickerson on Sept. 29, 2014.

According to the Department of Justice, Mr. Dickerson is facing felony firearms charges in an unrelated case connected to the Middletown area.

A trial is scheduled for Jan. 12, 2016, and includes two counts each of possession of a firearm by person prohibited and receiving a stolen firearm, and one count of second-degree conspiracy.

After reviewing coverage of the case on Friday and viewing footage of the sequence of events, Lance LoRusso, author of “When Cops Kill and Peacemaking,” said the incident appeared to be a textbook case of taking down a possibly armed suspect until the kick.

Mr. LoRusso, a former law enforcement officer who has appeared on CNN and the Fox News Channel while commenting on other issues, said it’s then unclear whether the officer was warranted in the use of force administered.

Mr. LoRusso said he wanted to know more about developments leading up to the act captured on dashcam video, whether the officer might have known of a reported weapon or criminal history, whether the person on the ground lifted or turned his head before the kick, and what the officer was targeting, among other details.

“What matters is the reasonable perception of the person using the force,” Mr. LoRusso said.

Based on a quick look at the video, Mr. LoRusso said, “I can’t tell what he was actually trying to do.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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