This commentary was originally published in the Cape Gazette on May 31, 2022.

By TyRae Grier, Smart Justice Ambassador

The Delaware State University women’s lacrosse team was traveling north on I-95 in Liberty County, Ga., April 20. Their bus was stopped by Liberty County law enforcement officers. The driver was told that he was improperly traveling in the left lane. The Liberty County Sheriff's Office deputies then requested that the bus driver open the vehicle's cargo bay. The officers removed and searched the items in the cargo bay. While the officers searched the personal property of DSU student-athletes and staff, they made accusatory remarks and threatened the students that if contraband was found, they would be in trouble. After 45 minutes of searching bags and bringing in drug-sniffing K-9s, officers found nothing illegal on the bus and the team was finally permitted to leave. 

Body-worn cameras can be instrumental in finding out the truth about police interactions, and can be an effective tool in promoting police transparency and accountability. While Delaware passed body camera legislation in 2021, the governor and other elected officials have shown no sense of urgency to ensure all departments use body-worn cameras or that body-worn camera footage be made accessible to the public. 

In stark contrast, because body-worn cameras are utilized in Georgia and Georgia law allows public access to body-worn camera footage, we were able to see the truth of the situation where DSU students’ and coaches' civil rights were violated. 

Thanks to the brave students who shared their stories and the body camera footage from the officers at the scene, we saw exactly how humiliating and embarrassing this incident was for the students and coaches. We witnessed white officers making sarcastic and accusatory remarks to a bus of majority Black passengers. DSU President Tony Allen, Gov. Carney and other Delaware lawmakers expressed outrage at the incident. Carney’s statement and the outcry of Delaware elected officials are well-intended, but ring hollow. 

HB 195 was passed in Delaware over a year ago requiring all police officers to be equipped with BWCs, and we still have police departments that are not utilizing them. In fact, most police departments, including the Delaware State Police, have yet to implement body-worn cameras. To make matters worse, due to our state’s aggressively secret Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, Delaware’s BWC policy does not require police departments to make footage accessible to the public. If this incident had occurred in Delaware with Delaware police officers, any BWC footage taken during these interactions would not be publicly available unless the police officials voluntarily made it public. Until Delaware passes meaningful Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights reform, valuable documentation of police interactions will remain behind closed doors.

Situations similar to what happened to the DSU lacrosse team are everyday occurrences in Delaware. Police pull over Black people, inform the car’s occupants that they smell marijuana or are driving through a high-crime area, and then search the vehicle. That Gov. Carney recently vetoed HB 317, which would have legalized recreational marijuana and reduced these types of invasive searches during traffic stops, also belies the lack of action behind his words.

I know firsthand that officers in Delaware are sarcastic and accusatory, just like the officers captured in the video from Liberty County. The biggest differences between the Georgia video and the everyday situations in Delaware are that Delaware officers don’t use body-worn cameras and the department is not obligated or willing to share the footage. If Gov. Carney and other elected officials in Delaware think that Liberty County officers’ treatment of the DSU lacrosse team was “upsetting, concerning and disappointing,” then they need to take action to improve Delaware police officers’ use of BWCs and Delaware’s BWC policy to increase police transparency and accountability. If they think the conduct of Liberty County Sheriff's Office deputies was bad, then they need to address the attitudes, actions and accountability of many officers right here in Delaware.