Rebuilding policies to bridge community divide
Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson presented a series of policy changes in a June 18 press conference, aiming to improve accountability within the department. This comes after calls for police reform across the nation, especially responding to police using excessive and lethal force against Black Americans.
“I’m going to refer back to probably the moment that brings us all here today,” Johnson said. “[It] was the message that was delivered by Mr. Floyd. And it was very brief, and it was three words. And it was, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
At that moment, Johnson was talking about expanding officer training with a focus on justice, equity, de-escalation and use of force. Johnson comes from a paramedic background, and he said officers must learn about the physiology and anatomy of a human body before they decide to use force. He said this is a top priority.
“Officers need to know about the impact on the body, so they can factor that into their decision making in a critical moment,” he said.
Other policy highlights include:
- A requirement to use de-escalation strategies as the first response. This training happens annually at the police academy and Johnson said the department is planning to expand it.
- Clarification that chokeholds are outside department policy, unless an officer is fighting for his or her life.
- Requirement to intervene if an officer sees another officer violate laws or policies.
- Creating an Office of Professional Standards. It will oversee Internal Affairs and use of force reports, prompting a departmental reorganization. Johnson promoted and appointed a new captain to lead this office.
- A reminder that an officer’s arrival and presence at a scene is the first show of force. The next steps are verbal warnings and commands.
“In most cases, there is time to consider and develop an intelligent strategy in how you’re handling any given situation. We will continue to exhaust all necessary means prior to arriving at a lethal force decision,” Johnson said. The policy needs to protect the life of officers in cases of active shooters or spontaneous violent threats, he said.
Johnson also wants to establish a Chief’s Advisory Committee. It will likely consist of around nine community members. It will not include city officials.
“I need this panel to be the biggest cross-section of my stakeholder group that I can find,” Johnson said. “I need to create more space for more individuals.”
Before the presentation, Johnson met with Central Delaware NAACP leaders for about an hour. He said the conversation focused on improving communication and trust between the police department and its community. Johnson and the NAACP recognize the need to have more Black superior officers representing the community.
Pastor Kelvin Jenkins, representing the NAACP, said representation affects the community’s relationship with police.
“It brings a level of togetherness that is important to bridge the gap and to deal with the disparity that we see in our communities with the police,” he said.
Johnson agreed. “There are not enough Black officers yet in the Dover Police Department,” he said. “We don’t have a pathway right now for them to rise through the ranks as I think everyone would like.
“There are trust challenges right now in policing. There are trust challenges right now in Dover policing, an area that I have a responsibility and an accountability for.”
In 2019, consultants Ivy Planning Group created a diversity and inclusion report that evaluated the city and police department. The results showed that white officers are promoted at a disproportionate rate.
The chief said he hopes building trust with the community will lead to continuous progress.
“We want to be that standard that everyone else wants to achieve,” Johnson said. He gave the example that he hopes people will start calling the department with questions or checking in on the chief’s progress. “But, to get to that privilege, we need to put in the work,” he said.
Johnson encouraged the community to hold him accountable and check back in to make sure changes are made. “I challenge everybody to check in on us regularly,” he said.
Mayor Robin Christiansen, Council President Bill Hare, Councilman Ralph Taylor and Councilman David Anderson were at the press conference.
Taylor said he is impressed by the new chief’s leadership since February. "He understands how to get the best out of people, and we’re just seeing the beginning. I’m encouraged,” he said.