Dover police chain of command questioned

 

Police Chief Paul Bernat, left, and Mayor Robin Christiansen during a press conference at Dover Police Department.  (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Police Chief Paul Bernat, left, and Mayor Robin Christiansen during a press conference at Dover Police Department. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Following more claims of unrest within the Dover Police Department, one city council member believes an alternative command structure is warranted.

Fourth District representative Roy Sudler Jr. advocates a police force that reports to city council.

“Especially since every time there’s a major incident we are pulled into executive session,” he said.

As an example, Mr. Sudler said, council was called into executive session on June 14.

Mayor Robin Christiansen billed that executive session, according to council agenda, as a strategy session for potential litigation involving the police department.

Dover’s city charter mandates the police chief — currently Paul Bernat — reports to the mayor.

After conducting what he described as “extensive research” on the city’s current form of municipal government, Mr. Sudler said a modified city council/city manager would bring benefits, including

• General administration, making policies and setting budgets;

• Mayor chosen from among the council on rotating basis and;

• City council hiring chief of police.

The structure with a mayor having weak power and duties “would be conducive to the taxpayers and constituents of Dover to have the Dover PD under city council’s leadership,” the councilman said.

Mr. Sudler said he’s spoken with some senior citizens and property owners who are uncomfortable with the high profile squabbles and controversies within Dover Police Department. Moreover, he has wavered in his belief that a strong mayor/city council form of government works best.

“[With] recent cases such as the Webster case and how some Dover constituents I spoke with were very upset with the amount of taxpayers’ dollars being spent for a severance package and now this new issue, I — as a taxpayer and councilman for the city of Dover — am truly concerned about the direction and future of the Dover Police Department and its internal beefs,” Mr. Sudler said.

Past police issues

The mid-June council executive session in Dover followed public disclosure that attorney Jim Liguori described morale within Dover Police Department as being the lowest he’s seen in 41 years of regular interactions with the agency.

The concern was voiced in a May 24 letter to the Delaware Department of Justice questioning Chief Bernat’s actions as a major while handling an investigation into the actions of then-Cpl. Thomas W. Webster IV during an August 2013 apprehension in which a suspect suffered a broken jaw when the officer kicked him.

Mr. Webster, found not guilty at trial, was disciplined internally before any criminal charges were filed and entered a severance agreement including a $230,000 payout from the city over six years following the verdict.

In the letter, Mr. Liguori described Chief Bernat as surrounding himself with a “small coterie of sycophants” in leadership positions.

The Department of Justice said it was reviewing the contents of the letter, and Chief Bernat declined comment when it was acknowledged publicly.

Mr. Liguori’s letter also referenced a purported Dover Police Fraternal Order of Police no-confidence vote of former Chief James Hosfelt. The FOP has earlier declined comment on the matter.

Then there was a personnel matter in which Dover Police Master Cpl. David Gist, also Dover Fraternal Order of Police lodge president, chose to make public while describing a falling out with Chief Bernat fueled in part by a perceived slight at a department Christmas party and other internal issues.

Calling the ongoing struggle between the FOP and Chief Bernat “unfortunate,” Mr. Sudler said, “In my opinion (it) has an adverse affect on the constituents of Dover.”

Chief Bernat’s tenure began with a controversial appointment of then-Lt. Marvin Mailey, an African-American, to second-in-charge deputy chief, which resulted in the city paying $300,000 to five high ranking officers (four white, one bi-racial) claiming they were more qualified and unfairly bypassed for promotion due to their race.

While then-mayor Carleton Carey — who selected Chief Bernat for the top position — denied that he influenced the deputy chief promotion process, he resigned soon afterward under pressure of city council.

The fallout from that case included some officers making public their contentions that a stressful, toxic atmosphere existed within the Dover Police Department under then Chief Hosfelt.

Answering to constituents

At this point, Mr. Sudler believes council has “no influence on the current day-to-day operations” of the police department.

“But,” he said, “Council is often called into executive session whenever there is a lawsuit pending.”

While the mayor has final say on decisions, lawsuit settlements and/or severance packets regarding Dover Police, Mr. Sudler says in most cases “the district council persons are left to shoulder the blame or justify the mayor’s decision.”

Exhibiting great leadership, Mr. Sudler maintains, current council president Tim Slavin often reminds “council to allow the mayor to deal with the police issues without council interfering unless requested by the mayor or a Dover constituent.”

In its current form of police department oversight, “this concept has manifested a neutral respect between the mayor’s office and city council,” according to Mr. Sudler.

At this moment, Mr. Sudler isn’t planning on holding a forum to address specific issues.

“However, I would like to say for the record that since I have conducted a community forum at the Hamlet Shopping Plaza in late 2015, according to Dover PD statistics,” he said, “There has been a decrease in the crime rate not only in the plaza, but the Hamlet residential development as well.”

Unity within law enforcement is critical to Dover’s present and future, Mr. Sudler maintains.

“I know that we have really good officers on the force, but the internal beef [stuff] needs to stop … we have at-risk youth and seniors who rely on the leadership of the Dover PD and officials to step up and do the right thing by working together for the best interest and well being of this great city of Dover, Delaware,” he said.

The mayor’s viewpoint

Mr. Christiansen believes “public safety by committee doesn’t work,” and that he was elected after running a campaign touting the importance of a strong police department and other safety-related entities.

While interacting with citizens on a daily basis, Mr. Christiansen said he’s received nothing but positive reviews of the role of the mayor in the police department’s direction and commitment to protecting the approximately 38,000 citizens of Dover and its visitors.

“The voters expressed their confidence in me,” Mr. Christiansen said, adding he’s driven to uphold their belief in him.

The mayor pointed to other cities with the same reporting structure — police department to mayor — including Wilmington, Baltimore and Philadelphia and said the structure is the only one feasible.

“People know if there’s one person responsible to them, then they feel more comfortable with it,” Mr. Christiansen said.

“The buck for that responsibility should stop at the mayor’s office. Naturally that is the way it should be because the mayor is ultimately responsible to the citizens.

“In time of crisis,” he said, “the citizens expect the mayor to provide for the safety of their families and communities.

“As mayor along with the [police] chief we have reviewed policies to benefit of the citizens we serve and craft our policies to be proactive.”

City council impacts police department operations through its decisions on funding, Mr. Christiansen said, and “their recommendations and concerns are always welcomed by me.”

According to councilman Fred Neil, 40 percent of the city council-approved budget goes to the police department.

The mayor believes he has “great moral support from council” and he’s focused on keeping members updated on issues in a transparent, trusting culture.

Regarding publicly aired discord within the Dover Police Department, specifically toward the chief, Mr. Christiansen said, “There’s a small minority of [the police force] that has issues with Chief Bernat.”

Mostly, according to the mayor, Dover Police is loaded with team-oriented officers dedicated to providing the highest level of public service.

“I would not [want them working] any other way,” he said.

Despite some claims to the contrary, “morale is generally very good across the board” within the city police force, he said.

Thoughts from council

Several council members strongly support the current form of police oversight, including David Anderson.

“The police chief should be taking orders from only one person, and that’s the mayor,” he said.

If need be, Mr. Anderson said, council has authority to remove a police chief if circumstances such as malfeasance arise.

Mr. Anderson described the current system as “efficient”; he believes new procedure on hiring of a police chief allows a committee of city officials opportunity to present a recommendation to the mayor confirming proper procedures were followed and the right candidate is found.

“I could never tell the chief to do anything,” Mr. Anderson said, and added there’s a direct line to the chief to express his concerns and needs.

“I always [copy] the mayor in the e-mail as well,” he said.

Recounting his time on a Washington, D.C., police force that reported to the mayor, Councilman Brian Lewis said the form of government “seemed to run rather smoothly.”

Larger cities nationally have historically operated in the same way as Dover, Mr. Lewis said.

“In my opinion the mayor being in charge of the Dover Police Department frees up individual council members’ time and makes one person accountable … to report back to council with any police department matters, plus serv[e] as a liaison,” he said.

Count Mr. Lewis as one elected official believing in the current system.

“In my opinion there are checks and balances built into this form of governance and I don’t believe there is a situation that exists now that merits a change in this governance,” he said.

Council President Mr. Slavin said he “focuses on outcomes and thinks re-organization talks can waste a lot of time and energy.”

With a strong communication network between council, mayor and police currently in place, Mr. Slavin said he’s relying on Mr. Christiansen to be a “good day-to-day manager.”

A wide range of challenges related to Dover’s public safety exist, Mr. Slavin said, but he’s happy with the course the police department has taken.

“I’m in the legislative branch trying to be a good legislator,” Mr. Slavin said. But he also said watching out for any claims of internal police department angst.

“But I’m not going to micro-mange it,” he said. “I’m going to rely on the mayor and chief to address those issues.”

He expects them to do so in a manner that benefits the city and its citizens.

One person accountable

Noting that his viewpoint is framed by the past experiences of being a newsman in his native Baltimore, a governmental press officer and elected Dover official, councilman Mr. Neil said he’s “comfortable with the current set-up” with the mayor and police department.

“The chief has one person to respond to in the mayor,” Mr. Neil said. “The chief has been sensitive to the concerns of the council, but doesn’t have to worry about having to answer to nine different voices or follow nine different locations.”

Mr. Neil acknowledged Chief Bernat or Deputy Chief Mailey’s presence at all council meetings.

“The mayor and council work in harmony for the benefit of the citizens in Dover.”

While Mr. Neil said he’s a “big fan” of Mr. Christiansen, in general terms he’s wary of a strong mayoral system of government.

“If the person elected himself, or herself, has been elected to be a czar or czarina, a personality cult could shut down transparency, and suffocate the role of the council as representatives of the public,” Mr. Neil maintained.

Changes in the mayor’s role and form of town government were discussed before the current council was elected in 2015, Mr. Neil said.

“The previous council flip-flopped, and flipped again on changing the form of government in the city,” he said. “I believe that created concern in the minds of the public.

“I also believe that stability has returned under the current form of government.”

“The current system works for Dover,” said Councilman Scott Cole, “as the [police department] chief, mayor and council members work together to respond to the needs, concerns and issues of the citizens of Dover in a transparent and timely fashion.”

Taking it further

Councilman Hosfelt, who served as Dover’s police chief before retiring in April 2014, would like to see the mayor also oversee the city’s fire department and ambulance service.

“Placing all the city’s public safety departments under the direction of the mayor would mean uniformity in leadership and consistency to residents,” said the chairman of the Safety Advisory and Transportation Committee.

Expressing a belief in the current structure, he asked, rhetorically, “Why change what is working?”

Mr. Hosfelt is positive the city’s current leadership and officers are providing top-notch public safety.

“Contrary to what a few people would have you believe, the men and women of the Dover Police Department continue to excel in all areas of police work under the leadership of Chief Bernat and his staff,” he said.

Mr. Hosfelt pointed to the results of a spring 2015 citizen survey of the first district he represents.

“A large majority were in favor of the current form of government …”

He added, “The last thing our police department needs is nine experts — council — dictating what they should and shouldn’t do.”

Looking elsewhere

Camden Police Department Chief William Bryson said he serves at the pleasure of, and reports to the mayor and council.

“My contract indicates the mayor is my first point of contact,” he said.

Many smaller towns have the same format, Chief Bryson said.

“However, some have a police commissioner, who is a member of council, and the chief reports to the commissioner,” he said.

There’s a potential pitfall to reporting to just one elected official, Chief Bryson believes. “The problem with reporting to and serving at the pleasure of one elected official can mean the one disagreement could cost the chief his job,” he said.

While describing his “good working relationship with town council” so far, Smyrna Police Department Chief Norman Wood said “with reporting to council one always has to convince at least four.”

Nearly seven months into his arrival in Delaware, Milford City Manager Eric Norenberg said he oversaw the police and fire departments in Oberlin, Ohio, while in the same position. He said all the city managers he knew in his native Ohio oversaw the police and fire operations, with similar systems prevalent in California and Arizona.

Now retired, Richard Carmean served as Milford Police Department Chief from 1973 to 1997 under the direction of city council.

“It worked fine for me,” he said. “I won’t say that I didn’t have head-butting contests with some council members and a couple of mayors.

“Yes, it’s not easy working for eight people but that’s government. My personality, and people who know me will back this up, is speaking to a group of people and trying to get a consensus among them is what I like to do.”

Mr. Carmean said the presence of a three-member committee of council members focused on the police department was critical to his efforts as a law enforcement officer.

“Any problems that came up were typically caused by elected officials who interfered with police operations,” Mr. Carmean said. “If you have a civilian who can pick up the phone and believe that he or she can start ordering you around, then it’s a concern. That’s why the committee was so important to serve as a type of go-between when things came up that needed to be addressed.”

City of Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams pointed to the history of the Wilmington Police Department [being] led by a chief, who is appointed by the mayor.

“While the department falls under the mayor’s leadership,” he said, “City council is charged with holding the police department accountable for operation and management strategies.

“This is similar to the reporting structure at the state level, where Gov. Markell oversees the Department of Safety and Homeland Security which includes the State Police,” he said.

“This structure allows for checks and balances.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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