Will Dover police officer get his job back?


DOVER — Now acquitted of a criminal assault charge, what’s next for Cpl. Thomas Webster?

On Tuesday a jury unanimously decided the Dover Police officer acted within job duties when his kick broke a fleeing suspect’s jaw and knocked him unconscious during a summer 2013 apprehension.

But, does Cpl. Webster still have a future with the Dover Police Department?

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Thomas Webster IV

If so, will he return to duty patrolling city streets or take a behind- the-scenes role?

The officer with an annual salary of $68,398, or $32.88 hourly, remains suspended without pay as city officials discuss options in the immediate aftermath of a not guilty finding.

Officers who are suspended without pay have coverage under the police Bill of Rights, though details of Cpl. Webster’s situation could not be provided publicly this week.

Dover Police Chief Paul Bernat and Mayor Robin Christiansen will determine Cpl. Webster’s employment fate, officials said. Four times since April 2014, the city has addressed an officer suspended-without-pay situation.

A short time after the verdict was returned in Kent County Superior Court, Chief Bernat said the department was evaluating “the details of the case” and would “make a determination in the days ahead regarding Officer’s status with the Dover Police Department.”

The 42-year-old Cpl. Webster has been in limbo since being indicted on May 4 for a felony second-degree assault charge for the late night confrontation with Lateef Dickerson on Aug. 24, 2013.

Now, the charge that brought suspension is moot and Cpl. Webster has been cleared of any criminal offense.

On Thursday, Cpl. Webster’s lawyer Jim Liguori said the still suspended officer had declined several interview requests from reporters since the not guilty finding. Cpl. Webster had quickly left the courthouse and avoided a media throng after the acquittal was announced.

“He chooses not to say anything about what occurred and what is in store for him,” Mr. Liguori said. “He’s exploring all options.”

Strong opinions

For months, city law enforcement representatives have pushed for more manpower and resources to face what’s been described as an unprecedented string of violent crimes in Delaware’s capital city. Currently, Dover Police Department has one available officer whose contribution is to be determined.

Cpl. Webster, with more than 10 years on the force, is one of 92 sworn officers within the police department, along with nine cadets and six recruits training in the academy. No other officers are currently on any sort of extended leave. At this point, 16 officers are nearing or eligible to retire.

Apparently, fellow officers would welcome Cpl. Webster back in some sort of duty. Fraternal Order of Police President Master Cpl. David Gist said of his 170-member organization that includes retirees, “As far as we’re concerned (Cpl. Webster) needs to be returned to duty ASAP.

“He’s like any other police officer as far as status. He’s been acquitted of a crime and disciplined internally.”

The suspended officer’s return to patrol shifts might cause unrest within the community, Cpl. Gist said, and Cpl. Webster’s assignment should be made with that in consideration.

“Obviously some people disagree with the verdict,” Cpl. Gist said. “We have a dangerous enough job to do already without adding that to it.

“I’m hoping our administration will find a spot for him that’s less visible for his own safety and that of our other officers.”

Indeed, some residents expressed hope publicly at a Dover city council meeting Wednesday that Cpl. Webster wouldn’t return to duty. The issue has been widely debated for months.

On Friday, National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson said that while he expects city decision-makers to note the public response to Cpl. Webster’s employment, there are legal guidelines and protections regarding job status that must be followed as well.

“In the real world administrators will be aware and sensitive of it, but in the legal realm there are legal considerations that must be adhered to,” Mr. Johnson said.

Attorney and former law enforcement officer Lance LoRosso — who authored the books “When Cops Kill” and “Peacemaking” — said the police department’s current relationship with the public will affect how any action regarding Cpl. Webster is received.

“I think he (Cpl. Webster) probably goes back to the department, though he may be kept off the road for awhile for his own safety,” said LoRosso, who has appeared on CNN and FOX News Channel to discuss police-related matters.

“The Chief may reach out to the community, which it sounds like police have a good relationship with, and stress that the officer has been through a very thorough legal process,” that’s afforded to all, and police have extensively considered the rights of the officer and concerns of the community while moving forward, according to Mr. LoRusso.

Dover PD investigated

The Dover Police Department investigated the incident internally beginning in November 2013 and deemed Cpl. Webster’s actions outside of policy; the agency said it “acted accordingly” in its response.

While it would not disclose any possible internal action taken against Cpl. Webster, Dover Police Department said he returned to full duty in June 2014 and was reassigned to the patrol division, authorities said. He was first hired by Dover Police in September 2005.

Also, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware reviewed the matter and determined there was no civil rights violation regarding the interaction between officer and suspect.

In March 2014, the Delaware Attorney General’s Office, under Beau Biden’s leadership, took a case to a grand jury, which didn’t return an indictment. After Attorney General Matt Denn took office in January 2015, the matter was reviewed and presented to a second grand jury, which chose to indict Cpl. Webster.

The City of Dover confirmed this week that it paid a $15,000 insurance deductible for its connection to a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Delaware on Mr. Dickerson’s behalf in September 2014. Cpl. Webster was named as a co-defendant with the city. Travelers Insurance insures the city and would cover any further costs that the lawsuit might bring, officials said.

ACLU and city officials both acknowledged that the lawsuit has been resolved in some way, but no further details were currently available.

Mr. Dickerson is sought by multiple law enforcement agencies on various felony charges, the Delaware Department of Justice said. He did not attend any of the trial proceedings the past two weeks. When asked Friday if the case might have been affected by Mr. Dickerson’s absence, the DOJ said it was declining further comment on the trial.

While saying the Delaware Police Chief’s Council “really doesn’t have a dog in this fight,” organization president William Bryson of the Camden Police Department said the verdict will hopefully allow all who are involved and affected to move forward with their lives.

“The jury heard more facts and details about the case than I have and they made their decision, to the best of their ability, based on the information presented to them,” Chief Bryson said.

“They obviously took their time in their deliberation before reaching their verdict. We all need to accept their decision and respect them for their service to our criminal justice system.

“Having been in Delaware law enforcement for over 36 years, I have learned that you cannot predict how a jury will decide a case regardless of how in-depth your involvement in the case. The verdict of every jury pleases some and disappoints others.

“It is very difficult to prosecute a case without a victim (present).”

Heavily scrutinized trial

The not-guilty verdict at trial came after 15 hours of presentation by prosecution and defense, and 16 hours of deliberations conducted over six days.

Both sides presented expert witnesses for testimony, along with Dover Police Department officers and a Delaware State Police trooper who teaches defensive tactics at the police academy.

The state’s expert witness on use of force — Dr. Ron Martinelli — was needed because of the defense’s assertions about use of force and the defense’s use of an expert, according to the Delaware Department of Justice. He will be paid approximately $11,000 for his analysis and preparation prior to the trial and his travel and time spent testifying at trial, the DOJ said.

The defense presented former FBI agent Dr. Philip Hayden as an expert witness. Attempts on Friday afternoon to get information on his possible compensation for appearing were not immediately successful.

According to the DOJ, Mr. Dickerson is scheduled for trial in January on two counts of possession of a firearm by a person prohibited, two counts of receiving a stolen firearm, and one count of conspiracy.

Mr. Dickerson is also being sought on four warrants — three from the Middletown Police Department regarding alleged burglaries on Sept. 15 and 16, and failure to re-register as a sex offender after changing residences. Kent County Superior Court has a warrant with a capias for violation of probation, according to the DOJ.

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