Delmar police dispute: A saga too big for one state

Delmar police dispute: A saga too big for one state
A pro-police yard sign in Delmar, a town in the midst of a battle over how best to support officers in the wake of a tragedy. Photo by Tony Russo

Before Cpl. Keith Heacook was beaten to death and died alone on a housing development floor, few people cared about whether or not the Delmar police should be able to unionize. It was a question the town had toyed with on and off for more than two decades, mostly finding different ways to block the movement.

Complaints about competitive pay and safety issues seemed more like negotiation tactics than real-life problems in the sleepy town too big for one state. But something fundamental changed in the 40 minutes Heacook lay alone as the dispatcher tried to make contact and backup rushed from the far-flung corners of rural Delmarva only to discover a fallen comrade.

The political will that prevented the police from organizing crumbled, and in the ensuing days much of the outrage that had been directed at the murder turned instead to the town leadership. Seemingly overnight, what were once legislative impossibilities disappeared, political positions on police pay and safety became more nuanced and police advocates went from a marginalized few to a new political power.

One town, two sets of rules

Different states have different laws. That’s simple enough unless one town is in both states. When that happens the issues not only are more complex but mind-numbingly boring within their details. If we’re going to get a handle on how Delmar got to where it has, though, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves and dig in. For clarity, I’ll refer to each of the towns by their state.

Politics is complicated in a town in two states. Photo by Tony Russo 

Collective bargaining agreements are common in both states, but the laws that allow public employee unions don’t apply in Delaware.

When the Fraternal Order of Police sued in 1997 to be allowed to unionize in Delaware, the town successfully argued that since the police weren’t town employees, the State of Delaware Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) had no jurisdiction. Versions of this argument continued on and off for years, most recently with a failed Teamsters attempt in 2017.

By agreement, the town police officers work for Maryland with Delaware funding 40% of that cost based on population distribution. Simply put, one town bills the other for services rendered, but choosing to pay that bill is voluntary. Although the alternative has never been considered, Delaware could decide to hire their own force or rely on the state troopers and county sheriffs rather than paying.

Still, “voluntary” is the operative word, and it comes up a lot. Or at least it did before Heacook’s murder.

Although they each couch it differently, both Delaware Mayor Mike Houlihan and Maryland Mayor Karen Wells zeroed in on the agreement as the central reason the town couldn’t have a police union. If Maryland allowed a union and entered into a binding agreement with it, Delaware would have no obligation to go along.

Many of the town’s political leaders over the decades have repeated the refrain that they don’t want someone who doesn’t live in town telling them how to spend their money.

It was a position Houlihan held until recently.

“I was more of the notion that we were a family and we could work things out,” he said.

Houlihan said he has come to understand the political nature of police funding, or the lack of it, in conversations with officers. The police feel they need a union to put public safety operations beyond the fiscal whims of changing administrations.

“If someone comes in who is anti-police and wants to start cutting, there’s nothing (a non-union shop) can do about it,” he said.

It wasn’t much different for Wells.

“My main opposition to the collective bargaining in Maryland was more due to the fact that because Delaware was not legally bound to participate in collective bargaining … anything earned through those efforts would have placed the entire burden on the Maryland residents,” she wrote in an email interview. “I  also felt that it would be better to work through the issues without binding arbitration, rather than allow a third party to decide how our funds are spent.”

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A dispute over blame muddles the debate

Just as the towns don’t want to be held to the whims of a third party, the police don’t want to be held to the political whims of the traditionally thrifty towns. After nearly a quarter of a century of failed negotiation attempts, the Delmar police tried going door-to-door seeking resident support just before the COVID lockdowns began. The town made a Facebook post warning residents against signing the petition.

In the aftermath of Heacook’s murder, the mayors claimed they couldn’t have known the police needed more officers, given that Chief Ivan Barkley hadn’t requested any. Barkley was incredulous, given the town only had about 11 patrolling officers.

The mayors’ insistence that they couldn’t have known there was a problem set off a wave of protests and spawned a new political party determined to take over the Maryland Commission in the upcoming election.

The towns sent a message by their anti-union position and demonstrated commitment to keeping payroll expenses in check. Opening the door to a piecemeal staffing approach would only have strengthened the argument that no union contract was needed, placing Barkley squarely between a demoralized police force and the political leadership of both towns before the murder.

According to Wells, Barkley had submitted a request for a new investigator and a part-time dispatcher as part of his five-to-10-year staffing plan.

What can get lost in the growing public outrage and effort to pin the blame for Heacook’s murder on someone is that the police wanted more police, and they believed they needed a union to get beyond the political bickering about it.

Mayors under seige

Wells recited her bona fides as she opened the most recent town meeting. They included hours of classes, conferences and certifications about the best ways to run a town. She expressed hope that everyone could put the combative rhetoric behind them and move forward. Houlihan opened his most recent meeting with a similar statement. Each has had a long, long summer.

The mayors get along well, though each has a different management style.

Houlihan prefers to silently take abuse when he gets it, while Wells is more likely to return fire. Both have had a lot of practice since Heacook’s murder.

The on-again/off-again effort to change the town’s anti-union stance before Heacook’s death exploded into nearly a full-time job after it. Several advocates, including Pam Price, who helps administer the Delmar’s Voice Behind the Badge Facebook Page, turned up the heat on the town.

Price and others, including Susan Heacook, the corporal’s widow, organized. There were protests outside when COVID restrictions packed out the council and commission meetings, and other attempts to get press attention. Plus, there was a new lobbying effort for change from Dover.

While local state representatives declined to back the move legislatively, the Teamsters Local 326 understood that the clock was ticking. Teamsters spokesperson Paul Thornburg said union leaders turned to Newark-area Democratic state senator David Sokola only after failing to convince a Republican ally to sponsor a new union bill.

With only a few weeks in the legislative session, Thornburg said, there was a sense that it would be too late if a bill didn’t pass before the summer break.

Although the bill could get no Sussex County sponsors in either the house or the senate, it passed unanimously. Earlier this month, Gov. John Carney signed into law SB 181, which removed Delmar’s collective bargaining exemption. This means that both towns negotiate with the police department and both are on the hook for whatever the contract says. And the early data indicates Maryland has a property tax increase in its near future, and Delaware may not be far behind.

Increasing Delmar's police force will require changes. Photo by Tony Russo

The cost of change

What the town leaders knew and warned about back before Heacook’s fatal beating, is that there is a difference between telling the chief to work within certain budgetary constraints and signing a contract with long-term financial commitments.

Negotiations are close to complete, according to both Wells and Thornburg. Wells projected that the town could get away with a small increase this year, but adding employees who get annual raises is not a one-time expense.

“Chief has suggested that he wants 20 sworn police officers at a rate of up to four new (officers) a year. The (likely) .71 tax rate includes two new additional positions in this budget year,” Wells wrote. “I do not think tax increase will be enough in looking toward the future.”

Maryland has traditionally followed the constant yield tax rate, which adjusts the tax rate to produce the same amount of revenue growth each year. This generally means that as revenue goes up, taxes go down.

According to Town Manager Sara Bynum-King, Maryland’s tax rate has decreased each of the last three years because the number and amount of tax assessments have gone up. So instead of using the increased assessments on town services, the town has elected to give that money back to taxpayers.

For example, Delmar’s rate was 0.7021 in fiscal 2019 on $188.5 million in assessable property and 0.6795 on $194.8 million in assessable property in fiscal 2020.

The only question now is whether the town can grow a functional police department at the suggested increase. The funding that a full police force is going to require, Wells said, could be something like 0.78, which works out to about $1,078 for a home valued at $100,000.

As the next building boom gets underway in Delmar, though, there is a chance that new home sales could put a real dent in the deficit. If no houses were built this year, the annual expected revenue for the town at 0.71 would be a little more than $138.3 million, a nearly $6 million increase over what was actually collected.

The easiest way to put it is that Maryland has likely put its policy of annual tax cuts behind it. This may shed a little more light on why the town didn’t want to commit to a full police force to protect a community that expected annual tax cuts, and a tax increase isn’t sitting well with police advocates either. Raising taxes can be a quick way to find yourself out of office.

A surge in opposition

While Price doesn’t live in Delmar (her mother is a resident and she is close to the Heacook family) several other of the pro-union advocates are residents, and three of them have decided to ride the union victory wave into what they see as a new era for Maryland.

Ben Jorden, Cory Shaffer and Jacob Boothe have announced their candidacy, with Jorden running for mayor against Wells and Shaffer and Boothe running for commission, more against the institution than a particular person. Jorden, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has said that he doesn’t believe a tax increase is necessary and that cuts would be sufficient, although given the numbers it's unclear how he could make that work.

During a recent campaign event, the candidates spoke in broad terms about efficiency. Their early platform includes getting the police department fully staffed sooner by hiring older, more experienced officers at higher pay grades rather than paying to put new recruits through the academy. Alternatively, they said they could increase the maximum hiring age and hire retired officers from elsewhere.

The death of Heacook and the fact that the mayors denied knowing there was insufficient coverage amplified a vague mistrust of the current administrations into a belief that there was something untoward with the Maryland Commission.

Part of it was an oversight that Price revealed wherein the town neglected to pass along funds that had been earmarked for officer pay. The town made restitution and issued an apology, but during a crisis of confidence (especially where money is concerned), it was damaging timing.

For her part, Wells said she will run again. She said she is open to combating further tax increases with alternatives, like a special tax zone for some new development. Mostly, though, she wants to continue her work in the community.

“There is nothing worse than being the mayor during this very difficult time,” she wrote. “This has been very emotional for all of us. I, too, am a member of this community. I felt the loss as deeply as everyone else did. But, in saying that, I had to get myself together, put my own emotions aside and tune out everyone else's vicious accusations to look for a path forward.”

On the other side of the state line, Houlihan is ambivalent about his chances for reelection should he decide to run in 2022. He attended the same church as Heacook and the anger in the wake of the killing has taken its toll. Also, unlike Maryland, Delaware already experienced a tax hike last year.

The one thing all sides claim to agree upon is the need to heal the town’s division. With rhetoric ramping up ahead of a hotly contested election, though, that might be even more difficult than staffing the police department.

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