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  August 19, 2016

Prosecutors Abruptly Cancel Arraignment of Pocomoke's First Black Police Chief

With the case set to go forward in October, more questions are being raised about the treatment of officers who feds say suffered discrimination, but state prosecutors say engaged in misconduct
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TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Towson, Maryland. I'm standing outside the state prosecutor's office, where prosecutor Emmet Davitt has just indicted Kelvin Sewell, Pocomoke City's first black police chief. But now new developments in the case have given Pocomoke City residents and Baltimore City activists common ground.

It was supposed to be the initial courtroom hearing for Pocomoke's first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell since his firing last year without cause divided the small eastern shore town along racial lines, and garnered national attention; the beginning of a series of legal clashes between State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt and Sewell after he charged the former Baltimore City homicide detective with misconduct in office. But the hearing was abruptly canceled yesterday with little explanation from prosecutors, who declined to comment; a delay in the arraignment of Sewell which has again enveloped the small eastern shore town in conflict.

Sewell says he was fired for refusing to terminate two black officers who filed discrimination complaints against a Worcester County drug task force. And now Davitt has charged Sewell for allegedly interfering with an accident investigation which occurred nearly two years ago; a mishap which damaged two parked cars.

The timing of the charges has come under intense criticism from the residents of the town, who say they still support Sewell.

RONNIE WHITE: I'm a little upset about it, because I know he's a good man. He's been a good chief of Pocomoke City. And with them doing what they're doing--and these are people who are in law enforcement, and the political arena that are doing these things. And so it's not really--they've been voted in my some of us, and you know, they're holding these positions. I think there ought to be some integrity.

GRAHAM: Particularly since the probe began shortly after Sewell filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city, and was announced just two months after the Federal Equal Opportunity Commission ruled Sewell's firing last July was illegal and retaliatory.

This week, that conflict extended to Baltimore, where protesters who rallied against the state police union also addressed Sewell and their demands the union disband. The group Baltimore Bloc said the lack of support for Sewell shows the organization is racist.

We asked the union for a response. They told us they would talk to us next week. And the continuing conflict is not without consequence.

So how did the community react when they saw officers on foot walking through this neighborhood?

SPEAKER: They loved it. I mean, we got compliments about it. People calling up to City Hall, people call up to the police department. They've never seen nothing like that before.

GRAHAM: Last year we explored how Sewell brought the different style of policing that the city's black community says gave them something lacking before he arrived: dignity.

SPEAKER: He was a man who would park his car in the church parking lot, and go and walk past here from street to street. [That man] spent a lot of time walking the street. I never thought that would ever happen. [Inaud.] never happen to me in this community. And [yesterday]. It never happened before. And he was always willing to talk to you if you had a problem to share with him.

GRAHAM: Sewell took us on a tour of the neighborhood called the backburn. Predominantly African-American, its streets and byways show evidence of neglect and poverty. But that didn't stop Sewell from ordering his officers to walk the streets. In fact, he would depart daily from the New Macedonia Baptist Church, where Sewell was a member, and walked among the people.

SPEAKER: And they'd get out of the cars and walk foot through these neighborhoods right here. And by doing that they got to know the community a little better, and it's a way to start trusting the police officers, so if a crime was committed in this neighborhood, they would call us right away and let us know who the suspect was.

GRAHAM: It was a strategy which paid dividends, and residents say connected the police with the community.

DARLENE SCHOOLFIELD: Chief Sewell has been a big inspiration, blessing, to this neighborhood. He's cleaned up a whole lot of noise, people hanging out in the streets. He's just been one great aspect to the community. And we need Chief Sewell back.

GRAHAM: And it's a far cry from the department Sewell left behind. Last week the Department of Justice concluded the Baltimore City Police Department targeted unlawful and unconstitutional policies against the city's poor and African-American population.

SPEAKER: Enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches, and arrests of African-Americans. Using excessive force and retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.

GRAHAM: For now, Davitt has not set a new date for the arraignment. The next scheduled day in court is October. Sewell's attorneys also declined to comment, but say they are prepared to defend him.

Meanwhile, the town of Pocomoke waits patiently, many residents hoping the man who changed policing for the black community can return and continue his work improving the lives of the people who want him back.

TODD NOCK: We support Chief Sewell wholeheartedly, and we know that the community still supports Chief Sewell wholeheartedly. Even the comments on Facebook and [inaud.], not too many people had bad things to say about Chief Sewell, because we know that Chief Sewell is telling the truth. And he's a good man. His family is a good family.

GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.

For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.




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