House leadership silent on inconsistent punishments after arrests of Sen. Brown, Rep. Bennett

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Sen. Darius Brown already has faced punishment as a lawmaker in the days after being arrested and accused of punching an acquaintance and throwing a glass of water at a restaurant in Talleyville.

The Wilmington Democrat lost his role as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee after Senate leadership removed him from the position on Wednesday.

He's also facing calls from the Republican Party to resign as his own party waits for more details on the criminal investigation before deciding whether to condemn him.

The first-term senator received noticeably different treatment compared to Rep. Andria Bennett, who was charged with misdemeanor assault in December. The Dover Democrat did not face any repercussions as a lawmaker.

The House's top-ranking Democrat, as well as the Delaware Democratic Party, have not publicly addressed the inconsistency.

But others have noticed.

"We know for a fact there are different standards for different people," Delaware NAACP President Richard Smith. "Because Senator Brown is Black. Period. And the other is white."

Brown and Bennett would not comment for this story.

In a statement, NAACP Wilmington Branch President Charles Brittingham said the organization does not condone violence in any form, but pointed to how Bennett did not lose her privileges following her misdemeanor charges.

The discrepancy has "proven that everyone is not treated the same," Brittingham said, adding that his organization will "investigate this matter."

Delaware State Police say Brown, a former Wilmington city councilman, punched an acquaintance and threw a glass of water at Taverna Rustic Italian Restaurant on Sunday.

Brown was charged with offensive touching and disorderly conduct, which are both misdemeanors.

Sen. Darius Brown represents the Second District, which includes parts of Wilmington and New Castle.

On Wednesday, Delaware State Police issued a press release about Brown's arrest with a picture of his mugshot. They did not issue any release or mugshot pertaining to Bennett's arrest in December.

Because arrest reports are not public records in Delaware, releases from police are sometimes the only way the public learns of arrests.

When asked about the lack of a press release for Bennett's arrest, Delaware State Police spokesperson Gary Fournier said the agency "attempts to make provisions for consistent, timely and documented responses."

"There are and will be cases where an inquiry may precede a release based on the timing of the event and subsequent investigative steps," Fournier wrote. "Although no official press release was sent about Ms. Bennett’s arrest, the information was released to the media upon inquiry."

Rep. Andria Bennett represents the 32nd Representative District in Delaware, which covers South Dover and Magnolia.

Fournier did not respond to an inquiry about why police issued a press release about Brown's charges shortly after his arrest when they did not do the same for Bennett.

Senate President Pro Tempore David Sokola, D-Newark, removed Brown from his committee chairmanship on Wednesday. On Friday, he stood behind his decision, citing the seriousness of domestic violence allegations.

"I believe deeply in accountability. I also know there are systemic inequities in our society," Sokola said in a statement. "As troubled as I am by what Senator Brown is accused of, I am also troubled by the disparate response of law enforcement in these two recent matters."

Other lawmakers noticed this, too. In a text message, Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said he was troubled that state police issued a press release with Brown's mugshot, and included in the headline that he is a state senator.

"I’ve not seen that before in any other similar incident," Lynn said. "It caused me some alarm in that Brown has been an active reformer in the criminal justice arena."

DARIUS BROWN LOSES CHAIRMANSHIP:In wake of charges, Sen. Darius Brown loses chairmanship of Senate Judiciary Committee

In December, Bennett was arrested and charged with third-degree assault, allegedly against her husband, after police responded to a report of a dispute in Dover, according to court documents.

Bennett's charges were dropped in February — just a few weeks into the legislative session — at her husband's request, according to the state Department of Justice. Bennett did not face repercussions as a lawmaker such as losing a committee assignment.

Instead, this session she earned the chairmanship of the House Gaming and Parimutuels Committee, which is less high-profile and meets less frequently than the one that Brown chaired. Her assignment as chair was announced 10 days after her arrest.

A perimeter fence surrounds Legislative Hall in Dover Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

Unlike in Brown's case, House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, would have decided whether to punish or demote Bennett, a House member.

Schwartzkopf declined to comment. His spokesperson said they would not draw comparisons or contrasts with an active case.

Even the opposing party has treated the two lawmakers differently. Delaware Republican Party Chair Jane Brady called on Brown to resign on Thursday, but did not call on Bennett to resign following her charges.

Brady said Republican lawmakers requested she issue a statement calling on Brown to resign, but she does not remember them asking her to do the same for Bennett.

In response to an inquiry about Brady's claim, a Senate Republican spokesman wrote in an email: "I am unaware of any conversation like what was referenced."

Shortly before 8 p.m. on Friday, several hours after Delaware Online/The News Journal had reached out to the House Republican Caucus for this story, House GOP lawmakers issued what appeared to be a press release on their official Facebook page of Brown's arrest, including his mugshot. The release was titled "One Lawmaker Faces Charges, While Another is Off the Hook." It included details of Bennett's dropped charges.

The Delaware Democratic Party declined to comment for this story.

Brown's removal as chair comes during the final stretch of the legislative year. Lawmakers are in session until June 30 before going on a six-month break.

Since he was elected in 2018, the senator has become a champion in the Statehouse for criminal justice reform and racial equity by sponsoring bills to expand and automate the expungement process, write in protections for people of color in the state Constitution and prevent discrimination based on a person's hair, among other legislation.

On Thursday, in response to his removal as chair, Brown said, "This is all designed to be a distraction from the progress that has been made."

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Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.