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During unannounced, secret meetings with the mayor, the council’s only black member was pressured to support the dismissal of Kelvin Sewell despite what she says was lack of evidence

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TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: It was a Facebook posting by a Pocomoke City police officer that has caused more concern about the racial divide that has torn the small Eastern Shore town apart since the council fired its first black police chief a month ago. MICHELLE LUCAS: It’s just like, now you’re looking at everything. Now it’s just like what I said at the meeting, how come the only African-American that you have on the city council is the only one that didn’t know what was going on? GRAHAM: A fake Monopoly game piece called the race card, which characterizes any introduction of race into a discussion as a ploy to discount the facts. A posting which the police department says does not violate their policies. But it’s the facts which are beginning to emerge about how city officials fired Kelvin Sewell that appear to bolster the arguments of his supporters, that race was indeed a factor in his dismissal. Facts that point to a secretive process behind closed doors in which the city’s only black elected official was pressured to support Sewell’s termination out of view from the population of the town, which is evenly divided between blacks and whites. COUNCILWOMAN DIANE DOWNING: But since the firing there is some racial tension there. And even though some people don’t want to acknowledge it, it is there. GRAHAM: In an exclusive interview with the Real News, 2nd District Councilwoman Diane Downing discusses for the first time in detail what happened leading up to Sewell’s controversial termination. DOWNING: The city attorney read some letter from the ACLU, and then they started talking about, this is regarding the chief. GRAHAM: A recounting that reveals a series of secret meetings of the full council without public notice, a potential violation of the state’s Open Meetings act, during which she was pressured to vote to fire him despite what she described as shaky evidence. DOWNING: I got a call about 2:00 to say that the mayor would like to have an emergency meeting. At 3:00 he called me himself. GRAHAM: It started for Downing on June 26, when she received a frantic car from Mayor Bruce Morrison that morning. He told her an emergency council meeting was scheduled. DOWNING: And I said, well, I’m going to try to see if I can make it. GRAHAM: Once she arrived the pressure was on. DOWNING: So I got there, and I was the first one to arrive. And the mayor, I met the mayor and I said, what’s going on? Because when he said emergency I’m like, God, did somebody die? Because–I wasn’t even thinking along the lines of Chief Sewell. So anyway, in the progress of the meeting when everybody gets there, he and the city manager, the mayor and the city attorney excuse me, not the manager, the city attorney just look at each other like this. And I’m like–I’m the only one saying what, what is it? So they start talking about, well, we’re going to have to let the chief go. And I’m like, let him go for what? I mean, why? And so, well, I don’t think we can really talk about–I was like, you’re going to tell me something if you had me leaving my full-time job coming here. And it’s all regarding the relationship between the CET and Pocomoke City, and the raid that happened back in March. And so, and they said the chief made a call or something. And then I said, well, can this be proven, that he, you think he said what you said he said? You know, make an anonymous call. GRAHAM: Downing says the council proceeded to the police station in order to listen to a recording the mayor insisted showed Sewell had made an anonymous phone call prior to a raid by the Worcester County drug unit. The same squad that was at the center of allegations of racism by their assigned Pocomoke City police officer. But after listening to the tape with the mayor and council, she says the evidence presented was not convincing. DOWNING: So I said, well, let’s get to the tape. Chief Sewell, do you have a tape from the March raid so we can hear what you said. And so the lady finally got the tape pulled up. We all go into that little room, I don’t know what you call it. But we all get in there. She plays the tape. Everything that Chief Sewell said he said was on that tape. I said, now that’s evidence right there. Well, okay. We’ll just let it go. I want you to start coming to the council meetings, keeping us apprised to–. GRAHAM: But just a few days later on June 29, Downing received this text message. Again, Mayor Morrison wanted yet another secret meeting, and this time even more pressure was applied as the council summoned Sewell, and then dismissed him. Downing refused to say yes. DOWNING: And they fired him. And I was like, this is crazy. It’s crazy. I don’t get it. GRAHAM: We contacted the mayor and city attorney for comment, but they have yet to get back to us. It is the same type of back room politics that Downing calls into question, but that John Taylor, publisher of the lower Eastern Shore news, says is not atypical for Pocomoke. JOHN TAYLOR: I think that it’s a very deep-seated, going back a long time with the police force and the politics involved in Pocomoke. It’s very deep-seated there, with a lot of just backstory that goes back way back before Chief Kelvin Sewell ever got there. GRAHAM: Taylor’s site has been instrumental in revealing behind-the-scenes details, including breaking the story about the race card. TAYLOR: And the people in Pocomoke, especially those officers on that task force, in today’s age they know better than to be using the n-word, calling names, [sending] KKK and [inaud.] they know better than that. I mean, this is 2015, here. GRAHAM: Adding intrigue to the ongoing conflict over Sewell’s dismissal is the fact that Downing’s house was burglarized shortly after she dissented in public. The thieves passed over her iPad and phone, and even her checkbook. DOWNING: Then I went to another bureau, and they had poured out my checks, my extra checks, and some more papers that I had there. And I just thought that, you know, maybe my son was looking for something. GRAHAM: Walking away only with her son’s clothing. DOWNING: But my iPad, my computer, everything was in my bedroom. They didn’t touch that. GRAHAM: Still, despite her suspicions, Downing says she hopes the town will heal and that Chief Sewell will be back, can again walk the streets of the town that remains divided. DOWNING: Since Chief Sewell has been here it’s totally different, because he changed the whole dynamics of the police department, and you have the policemen actually out in the neighborhood, walking the beat. They didn’t do that before. GRAHAM: We contacted the mayor and city attorney for comment, but they have yet to get back to us. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns. Follow her on Twitter.