"I was 10 when Tamir Rice was killed; I was 10 when my parents had to explain to me that my skin scared people; I was 10 when people told me I can't run in and out of stores because your skin says you're stealing something. I was 10 when I realized that my skin is a threat...I am sick with having to plead with people that my life matters...I'm sick of getting a new list of things I can't do while being black because, at this point, I can't do anything."
State Rep. Kendra Johnson read an excerpt from a poem written by her now 16-year-old daughter, painting the picture of what it's like to be black in America.
But the systemic racism depicted in that poem that's devastated communities may finally be addressed in the wake of civil unrest stemming from the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
On the steps of Legislative Hall, in the sweltering heat, Governor John Carney, Attorney General Kathy Jennings, and Democrat and Republican legislators stood alongside members of the Delaware Black Legislative Caucus as they revealed the Justice for All Agenda, which seeks to implement reforms aimed at stopping police brutality and halting systemic racism.
"We will be able to seize the moment and make a change that's needed in our state for generations," Carney said. "We don't get a chance to choose the times in which we live, but ultimately, some day we'll be measured by how we lived them and the stances that we took and the actions that we took as well, and all of us will be measured to how we respond to the pain, the agony in the hearts of our fellow citizens in Delaware."
A top goal for the caucus is passing Senate Bill 191, the first leg of a constitutional amendment that would add protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin. The bill will begin the lengthy process of passage in a virtual session to be convened by the state Senate next week.
"There are no words to capture the true pain that the black community has endured for centuries and continues to endure as they watch the replays of George Floyd's death and bare witness to instances of brutality across our nation," said Senate President Pro Tempore David McBride, who called for the pillars of injustice to fall.
State Senator Darius Brown also called for significant investments in African American communities to lift them up.
"Studies show that by 2050, the net worth of African Americans will be zero dollars. That's right: zero dollars," Brown said. "These investments include education, state contracting, home ownership, infrastructure, and employment. These are needed economic opportunities to provide African Americans upward mobility."
State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker told the story of her 4-year-old nephew asking: "Did that cop really do that to Mr. Floyd?"
"And I said: 'Yes.' And he said: 'But Aunt Sherry my momma...said cops are good people.' I said: 'Baby, cops are good people--that was a bad act. Not all cops should be judged by this one particular action.' And a lot of times we're sitting and talking about the broken windows, but I'm concerned about the shattered innocence; I'm concerned about the broken dreams, the broken promises."
In hopes of repairing that trust, she's calling for across-the-board implementation of police body cameras.
"2020 is a year of clarity, perfect vision, and the cameras will give us just that...the lens will be able to shift the conversation that we will be able to protect both the community and the police simultaneously," she said.
The caucus is also calling for amendments to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights to allow criminal defendants or their legal counsel to access internal affairs investigation records of law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing. Currently, police misconduct records are shielded.
"This information could be vital in preparing a defense and vetting the truthfulness of an officer's testimony related to an arrest, search, or conduct of a defendant," said Rep. Johnson.
State Senator Elizabeth "Tizzy" Lockman is co-sponsoring that measure, which aims to let the sunshine in.
"Those disciplinary records...there is beyond the police brutality that we see and it's brought us all to this moment, there's a continuum of law enforcement, and that factor has played a role in folks losing their lives in other ways, through over-incarceration, and we believe that by taking this step to increase transparency and access for our legal system to those records, we can do it," said Lockman. "It's past time for us to engage with that part of our statute."
Brendan O'Neill, the state's chief public defender, said the majority of his clients are African American, who face an uphill battle with odds stacked against them.
"Our experience in defending these people over the years has been that oftentimes the Delaware criminal justice system is racist, is unfair, and unbalanced," he said. "We have been fighting for our clients year-in and year-out, case-in and case-out, client by client because it's their right to be so represented."
He called the introductions "baby steps" in a long journey toward meaningful criminal justice reform.
"Our lawyers have seen that people of color are often at a big disadvantage the moment they experience police contact, and that disadvantage often persists throughout the entire shelf-life of that case and that client's journey through the criminal courts system," he said. "Now is a moment where we can change some of these rules that are slanted in favor of the prosecution. We can change some of these rules that have resulted in a disproportionate impact on poor people and communities of color."
State Rep. Franklin Cooke was a New Castle County police officer, who at one time served as the department's grievance chair.
"When cops get in trouble, they come to me," he said. "What happened, we need police officers, all the unions...FOP come out strong, get on television, CNN...and say it's wrong...I know you know good cops. Support them. Those in our communities, support them. This apple has made it all bad in this basket for all police officers--Hispanic, black, white, women, men--it makes it bad."
But now's he flipping the script and said transparency is the best remedy.
"The days of hiding policies, directives, it's over....for all departments," he said. "It's over. It's done...this is going to last in the books for a long, long time...your great-great-grand kids are going to see this."
Cooke will chair the Law Enforcement Accountability Task Force the caucus seeks to establish.
"I got a big thing to do, and I'm going to need a Superman cape, but I'm going to fight it," he said. "I'm going to take it on; it's going to be a fight, and I'm going to fight them, but we're going to take it on, and I need each and everyone of you."
Attorney General Kathy Jennings, who issued her own set of similar reforms, strongly backs the move to amend the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights and other reforms on the agenda.
"We have to do the tough stuff. We have to change the things that haven't been changed in this state for decades," she said, "We need to change the Law Enforcement Officer Bill of Rights that has been so sacrosanct, and will no longer be if we're going to make meaningful change. We have to have the uncomfortable conversations, and we have to have it with each other. People say I'm the chief law enforcement officer of this state--I have met with the police. I have said the things that I need to say to them about the things we need to do. It ain't gonna be easy. It ain't gonna be easy, not one step of the way, but we are going to do it together."
"I want the police to be trusted by every citizen in this state," she added. "I want them to understand what police officers go through, but I want police officers to understand what our citizens go through, and the pain that they feel and the injustice that they feel."
She also called for a statewide policy on use of force that shows the best practices to every officer in the state.
State House Speaker Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, who's a former Delaware State Police police officer, also pledged his support.
"I wore that uniform proudly, and I did my best to help people and protect the public. When police put on a badge and a uniform, we as a society give them tremendous power, but it is supposed to be limited, and it is not supposed to be abused. I know the way that law enforcement officers should always act, and I'm here to acknowledge that that is not happening today across our country. I put on the uniform to help people--not hurt them or kill them."
Schwartzkopf called for an end to the Us vs. Them mentality and an end to the lip service too long paid to systemic racism that's allowed history to repeat itself.
"This right here is the moment. This is the movement. This is a time like no other in our lifetimes...we are at an inflection point and have an opportunity to seize this moment and turn these recent tragedies into transformative change. We cannot squander it; we cannot afford to do that."
He had a strong message for his colleagues:
"When you look at our House leadership on the Dem's side, you see two former cops and the executive director of the PAL center; you probably think the deck is stacked against any change in law enforcement. I want to rest your consciences and tell you--we will do the right thing; we will not excuse what is wrong and unjust; we will not hide behind a badge. We, as legislators, are instruments of change, we are here to do the right thing for the residents we represent throughout this state. We have your back."