Wilmington, DE — Today the ACLU of Delaware filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of two individuals and the NAACP-DE in federal district court against the City of Wilmington to address patterns and practices of unconstitutional policing conducted by the Wilmington Police Department (WPD). These practices, carried out primarily by the “Operation Safe Streets” (OSS) program, have included a history of Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment violations such as unreasonable stops, searches, and arrests, as well as racially-biased policing.
OSS has operated in Wilmington since 1997. The program is a partnership between the Wilmington Police Department and the Delaware Department of Corrections (DOC) that allows police and probation officers to jointly monitor Delawareans on probation. In 2022, ACLU-DE conducted an extensive investigation into the program that revealed its ineffectiveness and complete lack of reporting and oversight. Since its inception, OSS has failed to improve public safety in the city. Instead, it has largely been used as a tool to harass and terrorize Black communities in Wilmington by circumventing people’s Fourth Amendment rights.
Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers must have reasonable grounds to believe a crime or violation has been or is about to be committed in order to stop pedestrians and vehicles. Frisks and searches may only be conducted when there is reasonable suspicion that a person is armed and dangerous, or there is full probable cause. Wilmington residents have reported officers illegally entering their homes, using excessive physical force, and conducting unlawful searches - all without warrants.
The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits racially discriminatory law enforcement practices. Yet there exist large racial disparities in police conduct in Wilmington. Arrest records among a selection of OSS officers between the period of June 2019 and May 2020 showed the officers arrested 58 Black motorists and only one white motorist for traffic-related charges.
Despite OSS officers continually violating these constitutional rights, the WPD has deliberately failed to monitor these officers and discipline those who engage in unconstitutional conduct. The department has also failed to record and preserve information relating to this misconduct.
"The absolute lack of oversight combined with a blatant disregard for the rights and well-being of the public is shameful,” said Dwayne Bensing, legal director at the ACLU-DE. “This kind of policing isn't providing protection or public safety—it's an abuse of power that needs to be stopped."
NAACP-DE and its members are harmed by the WPD’s policies, and the unconstitutional practices described by the lawsuit impede the organization’s goals and directives.
“It is long past time for the WPD to be held accountable for the terror they've instilled in our communities with their racially discriminatory practices,” stated the Delaware State NAACP and Wilmington NAACP. “We're demanding justice on behalf of those who have been harmed, intimidated, and disrespected by these officers.”
ACLU-DE is joined by cooperating counsel David Rudovsky of Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing, Feinberg & Lin LLP and John Freedman of Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP. The Delaware Office of Defender Services has worked with cooperating counsel as a consulting expert.
View the full case file