• Sean Barney

Reflections on recent events

Recent days have been significant and sobering for our city. Significant, to begin with, in that City Council, under Councilman Freel’s leadership, passed a budget in the shadow of COVID-19 that preserves vital city services and will result in no layoffs or tax increases. This is the rubber-meets-the-road work of governing, and it has never been more challenging than right now. Councilman Freel and the Administration are to be commended for what they accomplished in this budget under very difficult circumstances. Recent days have also been significant and sobering, of course, as a result of the horrific killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that have ensued in Wilmington and elsewhere. These are necessarily days of reflection in Wilmington. as they are across our country Our police force in Wilmington is full of brave and dedicated community servants. In Chief Tracy and his senior leadership team, we are fortunate to have some of the best departmental leadership in the country. WPD has been making hard-won progress in reducing crime in recent years, including potentially transformational progress in reducing violent crime. At the same time, there is a trust gap between our police force and some in the community, as there is and has been for a long time in communities throughout this country. Our focus needs to be on ensuring that our police can do their vitally important work and that, at the same time, all of our residents can live their lives knowing that every individual entrusted by this City with a badge and a weapon is there to serve them in a manner that is, without exception, respectful of their dignity and human rights. Because George Floyd’s death was a national tragedy and is a source of national shame, there is a growing national conversation that Wilmington can benefit from in terms of how we go about ensuring that our police force is both fully supported and transparently accountable. We must continue to wholeheartedly support the data-driven work that the department, under Chief Tracy’s leadership, is doing to make our community safer and we must do all that we can to help them close that community-police trust gap that, while not unique to Wilmington, has historically and does presently exist in Wilmington. When it comes to reducing that trust gap, as I have listened to residents throughout our city and as I have listened to the national conversation that is going on right now, some important principles and some potential, preliminary courses of action have come into focus for me. Civilian accountability. I served a combat tour in an ambiguous operating environment in post-occupation Iraq. I am as sympathetic as they come when it comes to the difficult, time-pressured decisions that police officers have to make when their own lives, the lives of their fellow officers or the lives of innocent bystanders are potentially at stake. At the same time, a cardinal American principle when it comes to our military is that they should be accountable to civilians. The same must be true of those who are dressed in the uniform of authority in our communities and entrusted with the means to exercise deadly force. Clear rules of escalation. When I was deployed to Iraq, we had clear rules of engagement and they included a clear sequencing of acceptable escalation. As with the military, we cannot tell our police that deadly force should never be used, but the message from the top of the chain of command to the bottom should be unambiguous: deadly force is a last resort. Body cameras. My day job is as a public defender providing legal representation to the accused. I review hour upon hour of body camera footage because New Castle County police have worn body cameras for years. What I am left with reviewing all those hours of body camera footage is common sense: the camera does not lie. Quite frequently, that is to the benefit of police officers. I have seen how poorly some in the public treat officers who are doing their very best to do a hard and often thankless job. But I’ve also seen that the bad apple finds it hard to escape the camera’s gaze. Our City Council should not be divided going forward on body cameras. It is time to establish a clear and publicly-communicated plan for financing and deploying body cameras, as is done in the County. An informed us. One of the reasons WPD is making progress in reducing crime in our city is that they are using information effectively through CompStat and the Real Time Crime Center to measure their progress and to course correct when appropriate. Five years ago, the largest state in America passed legislation requiring the collection and publication of demographic information about stops, searches, arrests and uses of force in that state. We should pass a similar requirement in Wilmington. If we are not enforcing the laws equally, we the voting public should know about it. It is the only way we can act to correct it. The protests last night in Wilmington ended with police and protesters marching together in mutual recognition that none of is willing to accept what happened in Minneapolis and all of us want to ensure that nothing like it happens again, in Wilmington or elsewhere. If we can take hold of that spirit and keep it, I have hope that together we can move our city forward as a just and inclusive community.