For the second time this summer, the Rehoboth Beach Police Department is facing the need to answer questions related to issues of race.
In late June, the police department fired a seasonal officer after he made a racially based social media post while off duty. The post was made June 27. The department announced the firing June 28.
Now, the police department is on the defensive after a family of mostly Indian-Americans are raising concerns about how they were treated while on a June vacation in the resort town.
In a Facebook post, Paul Joseph, an attorney from Washington, D.C., with two decades of experience as a federal prosecutor, said his family’s last day was marred by a Rehoboth police officer after the family’s social distancing quarantine was broken because the officer demanded to see a proof of rental after the department had received a complaint. Joseph, who was down at the beach at the time, said his wife had to leave his elderly mother to watch their 1-year-old niece to hurry down to the beach and get him.
Ultimately, Joseph said, the family learned that someone who knows a Rehoboth lieutenant called the police to report “strange and bizarre behavior.”
“The only thing unusual was that we were the only people of color in this expensive resort area. This was plain and simply an attempt by someone nearby to send a message to us that we did not belong there, and the police were more than willing to deliver the message,” said Joseph.
The police department was alerted to Joseph’s post, and in a response, explained its side of the story.
After arriving at the property and realizing that no crime was occurring, said the response, the officer attempted to follow protocol and obtain the contact information of a person at the scene for inclusion in the associated report.
“The officer explained to the men that once this information was obtained they could clear the complaint and leave the residence. The men continued to ask questions and demand information, lengthening the contact and causing the incident to last much longer than necessary,” said the post from the police department.
In an email July 23, Joseph said he went public for two reasons – to find out if the Rehoboth police department has displayed a pattern and practice of harassment of people of color, especially blacks; and because, he said, he believes there needs to be more due diligence done in Rehoboth, and nationally, when anonymous callers contact the police about suspicious incidents.
“Ask specifically what is suspicious and why, and if the answer is, well we don’t get a lot of people of color around here so maybe they don’t belong, then the police should say we need more than that to respond, or if they do, they should not demand to see ID or rental agreements or any official documents,” said Joseph, adding he still doesn’t have information about a possible pattern of harassment.
Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks said this incident was in no way related to race. He said the person who called never mentioned race as a reason, only that they had overheard strange and bizarre behavior.
“Anyone who knows me knows I would not tolerate that type of behavior,” said Banks, in an interview July 23.
Banks said the department encourages the public to report incidents they think are questionable. He said it’s not uncommon for squatters to make themselves comfortable in resort towns, so the officer did a welfare check on the Hickman Street property.
Banks said the reporting officer followed protocol, but he said the incident probably could have been handled differently, especially after she learned nothing illegal was happening. Her supervisor would have questioned why the report wasn’t complete, but she could have explained the contact information was left blank to de-escalate the situation.
Joseph estimated he’s read 6,000 police reports in his career, and he said the police report of this incident is flawed. He said the report should have said the department got a call of suspicious activity; the department responded to the call and was shown proof of rental; there was no suspicious activity found; and that the officer then left.
“Instead, the police report was crafted like an advocacy paper, going on and on about how we were asking questions and talking over each other,” said Joseph. “I believe it was written that way with the city solicitor’s coordination so that they could use those facts to keep everything related to this incident confidential when faced with a public records law request.”
Joseph said no one from the police department or city has contacted him to apologize. He said he saw the department’s response after someone else pointed it out to him.
“That’s the only reason I saw it,” he said.
Banks said that this would be a learning opportunity for the officer and the department.
“On behalf of the Rehoboth Beach Police Department, I’m sorry for what happened. This family did nothing wrong,” said Banks. “We should always be learning. If we don’t, shame on us.”