With a week of protests already held across the state and more expected, officials say they support people in exercising their First Amendment rights, but at the same time, public safety must be upheld.
“We've had these events up and down the state, and we have received tremendous support from our community,” said Delaware State Police Superintendent Col. Nathanial McQueen during a press conference June 5. “All organizers that we've dealt with so far, their goal is to make sure Delaware citizens are safe and that they have their opportunity to exercise their rights. As we see these events moving forward at the end of the day, and now throughout the rest of next week, we hope these things occur safely.”
There were 13 protests across the state May 30-June 7, including Rehoboth Beach, Georgetown, Dover and Wilmington, McQueen said, with more held over the weekend and planned for the week of June 8-15.
“Our role in some of those protests to date has been to support local law enforcement and continue to focus on the safety and wellness of our state,” he said.
So far, only the first Wilmington protest May 30, and another held the next day in Dover resulted in looting of stores and property damage. With those exceptions, McQueen said, other protests have been a great exercise in First Amendment rights.
“They engaged the police in some cases, engaged their community leaders, and those events have been peaceful and have worked very well throughout the state,” he said.
McQueen, who was recently confirmed to serve as secretary of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said the role of the Delaware State Police is to assist local law enforcement. He said DSP and local police share information on upcoming protests so that they can work together to manage the events.
DSP also can provide manpower, help with special operations, and supply extra equipment to local law enforcement. In all situations, he said, their No. 1 goal is to protect lives and property.
During the Dover protest May 31, McQueen said he spoke with some demonstrators who had made their way down Route 13 toward the Dover Mall, and subsequently DSP headquarters, which sits next to the mall on Route 13.
“We agreed that there is work to be done. They have to have their right to have their voices heard, and law enforcement has to hear those voices,” he said. “Delaware law enforcement only works when we work with our communities.”
McQueen said he has spoken with police chiefs across the state, and they are all committed to move law enforcement forward. “The thing that makes Delaware work is that we can sit in a room with every chief in the state in one room, and get processes moving forward,” he said.
Delaware State Police have had no incidents rising to the level of the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's neck, sparking protests across the country. However, instances of excessive police force have occurred over the years.
In 2013, there were two separate officer-involved shootings in Sussex County that raised the question of excessive force. Although there was no racial component to those shootings, one man was shot in the back after leading police on a high-speed chase on Route 1 before crashing on Plantation Road. Police said the man threatened them by swinging a shovel at them.
In the second incident, a Georgetown man was tasered and shot several times inside his home after an officer went to his home in connection with a minor traffic incident a few hours earlier.
An attorney general's report cleared both officers of any wrongdoing.
McQueen said police revamped its response-to-resistance and de-escalation policy in 2015, and in 2017 DSP completely overhauled its use-of-force policy and policies in response to resistance. However, he provided no specifics on de-escalation techniques or use-of-force policies.
“We incorporated that into every aspect of what we do. Everything from weapons training to handcuffing to make that uniform across our policies to make sure all our policies are in congruence in terms of how we respond to resistance,” McQueen said.
This includes training on use of handcuffs and canines provided during inservice, elective and recruit training, he said.
After taking office in 2015, Gov. John Carney said he asked McQueen and then-DSHS Secretary Robert Coupe to train officers in de-escalation techniques. “Turns out they were already doing it. And they were doing it as an initiative under Gov. Markell,” Carney said. “It's something that we will continue to review. There needs to be transparency with respect to that, so that the community understands that and knows what's really going on.”
When the Wilmington protest devolved into looting and destruction of property – some people broke storefront windows on Market Street while Wilmington police officers watched – Carney said, there was considerable restraint exercised by police officers on the street.
Police training is not something shared publicly because it exposes methods, Carney said, but he understands that there is a history of police abuse that has resulted in anger on the streets.
“We're trying to do it differently, and agencies across the country are doing it differently, and so are most of the men and women who wear the uniform,” he said.