Monday, March 20, 2023

From reallocating funds to instating Chief Donny Williams, a look at Wilmington protestors’ seven demands

WILMINGTON — Tensions were high at Wilmington City Council’s Tuesday night meeting as protestors took to the Wilmington Convention Center to list several demands to elected officials. Despite the request that the City Council reallocate funding from the Wilmington Police Department’s budget, local officials approved the new budget for Fiscal Year 2020–2021.

It’s not just budget concerns that have protestors and community organizers talking. The Wilmington Advocacy and Protest Organization is the group behind the demands, but just how feasible are these items and what would it take to actually get them?

The seven demands include:

  • $5 million re-allocated for restorative justice and community-led interventions
  • A Citizen’s Review Board with subpoena and budget approval power needs to be created
  • There needs to be required mental health regimen/resilience training and anonymous access to Emergency Assistance Program
  • Require cultural competency and in-depth education of local history
  • Mandatory use and activation of body cams
  • De-prioritize misdemeanor substance use offenses
  • Instate Chief Donnie Williams as permanent Chief of Police

$5 million reallocated

Marchers head north on Third Street toward 1898 Memorial Park to join other protestors who marched alongside WPD Interim Police Chief Donny Williams and other city leaders. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Marchers head north on Third Street toward 1898 Memorial Park to join other protestors who marched alongside WPD Interim Police Chief Donny Williams and other city leaders. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Planning a city budget is no small feat and as required by law, that budget must be balanced before it can be approved. This means that the amount of money the city spends must be the same amount as it brings in.

In general, city staff spends months on the annual budget typically starting in January. From that time on the City Council has multiple public hearings, budget workshops, and is presented with the draft budget during public meetings.

By the time elected leaders are expected to vote on approving the final budget, there has been ample opportunity for public input which is why asking the City Council to suddenly shift $5 million the night of a budget approval was unlikely to happen.

Activists were hoping to see that money spent on things like mental illness intervention and other things that would help limit the need for police interactions with residents.

According to the group’s Change.org petition, “There needs to be better interventions that exist for mental illness, misdemeanor substance use offenses, and issues stemming from unstable housing. We can re-allocate funding to address and solve root causes rather than temporarily ‘fixing’ issues while creating an unjust cycle of policing and incarceration in our vulnerable community.”

The City of Wilmington does provide money for some of these resources and for the most part, it is through funding to nonprofit organizations that specialize in these areas.

While the City Council did approve the budget already without reallocating funds from the police department, there are still ways the city could provide funding to groups in the upcoming fiscal year. The City of Wilmington is no stranger to budget adjustments and amendments throughout the year, and has repeatedly augmented its budget to account for ongoing projects like the Riverwalk, River Place, and the North Waterfront Park.

Citizens review board

If there is one thing the City of Wilmington has no shortage of, it is boards and committees. From the Wilmington Planning Commission to the Port, Waterway, and Beach Commission there are more than 25 boards in the city, yet, there is no board overseeing the Wilmington Police Department.

The city did have a citizen review board overseeing the WPD in the past, according to Spokeswoman Linda Thompson, however, it was disbanded several years ago.

So what would it take to create a new committee? Not much actually, a member of City Council would have to bring it up during a meeting and request a new board be formed. It’s not unheard of for this to happen, for example, the City Council created an ad hoc Affordable Housing Committee in 2017 that was later promoted to permanent status.

The request to create a police oversight board is not a new one and it has come up multiple times in the past few years, according to Councilman Neil Anderson.

“This idea keeps coming up and has been fully addressed by City Council in the last few years. We established a citizen board similar to what you are referring to in the last year or two, however it is open to hear and advocate for issues/incidents/situations that occur across all local government interaction with our citizens and not just policing,” he said. “I do not favor a panel/board that focuses solely on WPD. In our state (state law), such boards do not have any real power. I believe City Council is and has been the proper contact for any grievances, citizens should go right to the source of those most able to explore and implement changes.”

Other members of City Council did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.

Mental health training

Police do find themselves interacting with those struggling with mental health issues often. These incidents can include things like a depressed individual wanting to hurt themselves or others, or drug addicts committing crimes to provide for their habit. One of the common arguments from those advocating for police reform is that if officers had more training dealing with mental health, then many incidents that turn violent could be avoided.

Related: Medical arrest without medical professionals: How a mother’s attempt to protect her son ended violently

“Mental and emotional health should be a primary fixture in policing and a complete psychological evaluation should be done before hiring any officer. Officers should have access to an Emergency Assistance Program without having to request services through their command officer or even having them notified that such assistance was requested. Greater and more dignified accessibility to support will improve the stability and stamina of our officers and make our city a safer place to live,” according to the petition.

While some officers for the Wilmington Police Department do undergo crisis intervention training, protestors are calling for more robust training.

There have been several incidents locally that police have used force on residents suffering from mental illnesses, in one case, a teen was shot and killed by a responding officer.

Read more: Tearful deputy testifies she saw mentally ill teen’s eyes “go to death”

WPD does train its officers with the help of Trillium to deal with mental illness.

“The Wilmington Police Department will coordinate with Trillium to provide Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to officers. This training will assist officers who make contact with individuals with mental illness and teach the officers how to de-escalate situations. If available, CIT
certified officers will respond to calls that involve persons with mental illness. Sworn personnel will receive initial mental illness training in the BLET Academy as well as initial orientation at the police department. Non-sworn will receive an initial training after hire. A refresher course will be given for all employees every year. The training section will administer and track this training,” according to the WPD’s policy.

Local history and cultural competency

“Unconscious bias determines human judgment and influences our interactions with the people around us. When these biases fail to be addressed, it often means the difference between life and death for individuals in vulnerable communities. Cultural nuances exist in all of our neighborhoods. Committing to learning these nuances will ensure the success of officers as well as our community,” according to the petition.

Implicit bias is something that police departments around the nation are being forced to address.

“Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner,” according to The Ohio State University research.

By requiring police to address these biases, organizers hope to prevent future instances of race-related policing.

Body cameras

Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler is proposing funding for 60 new body cameras. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Axon Enterprise)
(Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Axon Enterprise)

The Wilmington Police Department does not require officers to utilize body cameras but many officers do, and the department has increased the number of cameras worn by officers over the past few years.

“The body camera shall be activated during any investigatory actions, serious incidents, arrests, traffic stops, or crime scenes. The equipment may be deactivated during non-enforcement activities such as protecting accident scenes from other vehicular traffic. The officer will ensure that the body camera remains activated at all times during citizen contact; the recording shall not be stopped, paused, or otherwise interfered with until the investigative action is complete,” according to WPD’s policy.

Protestors are calling for the department to require body cameras as well as for the department to make the footage from them available to the proposed citizen review board. Some protestors have also asked for ‘perpetually recording’ body and dash cams that remove any officer’s discretion over whether or not to use them. WPD has noted that this would create a major logistical difficulty in managing a large amount of video that would require storage.

“While recording police interactions is not a complete solution, monitoring and reviewing the actions of police personal is an important step towards transparency and accountability. Body and dashboard cameras should be required and should be accompanied by mandatory policies. In the event of an incident or suspected misconduct, data must be made immediately available to the Citizen’s Review Board,” according to the petition.

However, such demands are unlikely to be met since state body camera laws have made it increasingly difficult for the public to get access to body camera footage. Those laws require a petition to Superior Court, and pits the petitioner against legal counsel for any and all law enforcement agencies involved, an asymmetrical and often difficult process.

Deprioritize minor drug charges

The war on drugs has been touted as a failure for years by many, yet strict drug laws remain on the books in most states. Drug addiction also is to blame for many crimes committed and many argue that rehabilitation and addiction help would be more successful at reducing crime.

“Our nation and our community have been devastated by the opioid crisis. It’s clear we cannot arrest our way out of a public health situation. We demand that [the] Wilmington Police Department de-prioritize all misdemeanor substance use offenses. Alternatives such as treatment, community restitution, harm reduction, and restorative justice are more effective and cost-effective,” according to the petition.

When it comes to policing, however, laws are supposed to be enforced equally regardless of seriousness, and City Council does not have the power over the police to tell them what to enforce.

District Attorney Ben David does have some discretion when it comes to prosecuting and he has spoken on his view against trying to arrest our way out of a drug epidemic. David has pushed for mandatory deferred prosecution for low-level drug offenses and the use of ‘drug court’ and other treatment options.

However, it’s worth noting that ultimately the state’s general assembly writes drug laws — and sets the structured sentences for drug offenses.

Instate Donny Williams as chief

WPD Interim Police Chief Donny Williams speaks at a peace gathering at 1898 Memorial Park on Wednesday afternoon. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
WPD Interim Police Chief Donny Williams speaks at a peace gathering at 1898 Memorial Park. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

In cities from Minneapolis to Atlanta, the public has called for police chiefs to resign. However, in an interesting change of demands, Wilmington protestors are actually calling for Interim Chief Donny Williams to stay on the job, and to be instated as permanent chief.

“Chief Williams is a native Wilmingtonian and former resident of the city’s Northside. He has displayed great competence in a climate of social uncertainty during his time as Interim Chief and he possesses the trust and the respect of his officers as well as our community’s trust,” according to the petition.

This will come down to the wishes of City Council who appointed him as interim chief several months ago. State law does require that the city advertise the job opening, regardless of their desires so just because a job opening is advertised does not mean that they won’t appoint Williams.

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