Commentary: Police chief controversy shows racial healing still needed in Dover

The city of Dover once again finds itself at the center of a controversy having to do with race. A distinguished, long-serving Caucasian police officer claims in a recently filed lawsuit that he was unfairly passed over for the chief of police position when it came open in 2017; the position subsequently went to an African-American officer. Unfortunately, Dover is still dealing with its bigoted background.

From a long-term civil rights perspective, Dover mirrored the laws and views of the state it was a part of. Not until the mid-1980s was the at-large voting procedure for selection to Dover City Council replaced with a district election system, ensuring minority representation in local government.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

In the mid-1990s, Delaware’s General Assembly deliberated on eliminating affirmative action provisions in laws and policies, thankfully rejecting what was then part of a national trend. Over the 2007-2010 period, the Dover City Council received two slavery apology resolutions from its Human Relations Commission, but passed only the second; it took six more years for the state of Delaware to ratify the slavery apology resolution.

Conversely, a series of actions involving the selection of the last two Dover police chiefs could be interpreted as “reverse discrimination,” whereby it is alleged that a minority candidate was unduly promoted to the deputy police chief in 2014 and to police chief in 2017.

On its face, the 2014 charge seemed to have merit, as the then-mayor resigned and the city of Dover settled equal employment grievances with five Caucasian officers stemming from the matter. The current lawsuit emanates from the 2017 elevation of the deputy police chief to the top position.

Viewing the ongoing disputes trailing the selection of the Dover police chief from a political vantage point, the structure of Dover city government could be blamed. That is, the city continues to operate a council-manager system but with a full-time mayor, itself a contradiction.

By not imbuing the mayor with any powers except choosing the police chief, then weakening that authority by requiring the mayor to follow the recommendation of a police chief selection committee, the Dover City Council has created a convenient foil to fault when times get tough.

Clearly, Dover’s challenging past and current structure help explain the lack of equilibrium in how contemporary racial issues are treated. But, too, there is a lack of trust apparent in these skirmishes. Despite the aggressive approach of Dover’s Human Relation Commission in confronting bias issues in the 2005-10 time frame and well-attended events such as the African American Festival, racial healing is still needed in Dover.

Whether the present lawsuit perpetuates that goal or makes it more problematic, one has to agree with Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen’s observation that “[t]his is America and everyone is entitled to litigate when they feel wronged.”

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University. He chaired the Dover Human Relations Commission from 2005-2010.

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