Reinventing the Wilmington Delaware Police: We Need to Build Community

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James J. Nolan

Current efforts to reform American police rarely acknowledge the law enforcement mandate as a source of police violence and discrimination. Policing as law enforcement seems so natural that metrics like the number of arrests, charges, and drug and gun seizures indicate that officers are doing what it is necessary. The paradox of modern policing is that these things don’t really work in the long run. Decades of strict law enforcement in Wilmington targeting poor and struggling neighborhoods has not resulted in safer communities and has actually made things worse for many.

Police as law enforcement means that a police response to a community problem is a law enforcement response. Community engagement and “real partnerships” are aimed at law enforcement. Trust, transparency and accountability are about law enforcement, not community safety. The law enforcement approach focuses almost entirely on officer “results” rather than community “results”. It also limits the full range of solutions to crime and social problems to only the most violent and harmful acts, i.e. locking them up.

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To change policing in ways that make communities and police safer, the law enforcement and crime fighting mandate must change. In Wilmington, the city code establishes the function of the police as follows:

The police service has the power and its duty is to carry out the following function or functions:

(a) Law enforcement. It must preserve the public peace, prevent and detect crime, police streets, highways and parks, and enforce traffic laws, ordinances and regulations. The department shall at all times assist in the administration and enforcement of Delaware state statutes and city ordinances (Wilmington City Code 5-200).

At some point, this legislative mandate was translated into an organizational mission statement. In Wilmington, the police department’s mission is to “…work in true partnership with our fellow citizens and to enhance the level of public safety through law enforcement and thereby reduce fear and the incidence of crime” (emphasis added).

Reinventing policing in a way that prioritizes community safety and social justice over law enforcement and crime control requires transformation. This also requires legislative change.

I propose such a change to the Wilmington City Code that promises to set a new direction for the Wilmington Police Department.

It begins with a preamble:

WHILE, Delaware police departments are sometimes referred to as “law enforcement”, creating a language trap that focuses on law enforcement “results”, such as number of arrests, tickets or amount of guns and illegal drugs seized as measures of success; and,

WHILE, the current approach to law enforcement has a limited ability to create strong and safe places in the city, discriminating on the basis of race and creating an atmosphere of oppression; and,

WHILE, a community atmosphere of equity, inclusion and justice is a more effective way to keep communities safe, a redesigned role of the policing profession should aim to create these conditions; and,

WHILE, the intent of the proposed legislative changes below is to refocus policing on creating safe and strong community outcomes;

SO, Be it resolved that the recommended amendments to the Wilmington City Code on the Function of the Police Department, Chapter 2. a, b (as applicable) be enacted.

The police department has the power and duty to perform the following functions:

(a) Community safety and social justice. The police will create safe and strong neighborhoods and communities throughout the city. This involves building relationships between community members and between residents and the police. Police must use law enforcement as one of many tools in their efforts to make communities safe and strong.

(b) Law enforcement. The responsibility to enforce laws provides a tool for police to help communities become strong and safe and seek justice.

This legislative change would require a new police mission, perhaps something like this:

“The Wilmington Police Department’s mission is to work in true partnership with residents, businesses and all stakeholders to create safe, strong and vibrant communities. Within neighborhoods, police will provide tools and resources to work collaboratively to strengthen bonds, solve problems and reduce crime with empathy, understanding and preferably through non-violent means.

Wilmington Police are investigating the scene where three Wilmington police officers were shot in the 2400 block of Market Street on Thursday, June 3, 2021.

Policing in Wilmington, as in other cities across the country, is tied to the identity of law enforcement. This limits the pool of police candidates, shapes the dispositions and worldviews of officers, and informs what counts as a “good deed” and what counts as an indicator of success. The current law enforcement mandate creates an atmosphere in communities that ensures crime and violence are likely to thrive. In order to ensure the safety of citizens and police officers, to broaden and enrich the police career and to attract a wider pool of candidates, the mandate of the police must change.

James J. Nolan is a former Wilmington police lieutenant and is currently a professor and chair of the sociology and anthropology department at West Virginia University.

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