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In the decade since a Dover police officer was captured on video kicking a suspect and breaking his jaw, the city’s force has made steady strides in rebuilding relationships with the 39,000 residents living in the state capital.
Steps the department has taken to improve relationships include: a community policing unit that interacts with people in their neighborhoods; police leaders meeting regularly with civic and clergy groups; police officers working with youngsters to dissuade them from getting involved in the gang activity that has fueled a rise in gun violence; and partnering with a mental health counseling agency in an effort to keep people out of the criminal justice system.
Any bonds forged by those efforts are now being tested.
The catalyst was the recent arrest of a 50-year-old man who suffered a skull fracture and other injuries when he fell to the pavement after an officer used what police say was a “leg sweep” to subdue him.
Accusations of police brutality have surfaced, and religious leaders have held a prayer vigil for Michael Jarrett, who spent several days in the hospital. Police say Jarrett was hurt when he struggled with an officer trying to handcuff him at 3 a.m. on Oct. 20 for trespassing and resisting arrest.
The Rev. Rita Paige, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, says she suspects “excessive force’’ by the unidentified officer led to Jarrett’s injuries.
“We’ve been trying to build positive relationships with the police for several years, and so to have something like this incident that happened starts tearing down the trust,” Paige said.
“The police have done some good things in the community and a lot of times when I call them they come, but we cannot have a police force using excessive force. I think they need to try more de-escalation tactics.”
The Rev. Rita Paige, a member of Dover’s Human Rights Commission, suspects excessive force was used when Jarrett suffered a head injury. (City of Dover)
Chief Thomas Johnson Jr. told WHYY News that his preliminary review, which included checking out the officer’s body-worn camera, has satisfied him that the officer did not act improperly. “I do not believe we had a misconduct situation,’’ he said.
Johnson said the officer, who has more than one year on the force, remains on regular patrol duty.
The chief stressed, however, that the final determination of whether the officer acted properly will be made after an internal department review and a separate one by the state attorney general’s Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust.
Overall, Johnson said the force of more than 100 officers has been working well with the community in recent years.
“I think we have positive momentum,’’ he said. “This incident, while it might temporarily be viewed as a setback, I think in the long term, when the facts come out, there might be some room here for people to have confidence that we do the right thing when incidents or events are called into question.”
Chief Johnson said he welcomes the outside scrutiny. (City of Dover)
“That’s going to lead to better momentum and a better outcome as we continue to establish, maintain, and develop our relationship with all of the segments of the Dover community. That’s the right thing to do while we’re going about our business as a public safety entity.”
Paige told WHYY News earlier this week that she was disappointed that no one from the city administration had made a public statement, even after some residents raised questions about the encounter and she and other clergy members held the prayer vigil.
But Mayor Robin Christiansen, who has held office since 2014, did just that on Thursday, and said he welcomed the dual probes. Those reviews will “ensure transparency and a pristine and impartial review of the procedures and processes during that encounter,’’ Christiansen said.