The recent in-custody police death of Anton Black and inadequate civilian oversight in Baltimore reveal how the underlying imperative of policing in the U.S. is not public safety, but instead heightening the rampant inequality that continues to plague urban America
TAYA GRAHAM: As an investigative team, myself and my colleague Steven Janis not only cover policing, but try to drill down into what makes it such a destructive force in African-American communities. And yes, I use the word destructive. Consider our recent series into the death of Anton Black. Anton was a high school track and football star and a budding model. The 19-year-old Eastern Shore resident was visiting his mother when he was stopped by police officer Thomas Webster. The reason for the stop remains mysterious. Police said a white woman called 911 alleging that Anton had kidnapped his 12-year-old cousin. But surveillance video obtained by The Real News shows Anton and the boy walking together side by side just prior to being stopped. After Officer Webster spoke to Anton, he ran home while being chased by an out of uniformed police officer and a civilian on a motorcycle. Anton was chased, tasered, and placed in a chokehold that resulted in his death in front of his mother on her doorstep. So, Stephen, we’ve actually filed a public information act request, is that right?
STEPHEN JANIS: Right. Well, one of the things that this story presents that has been a theme throughout the country is the fact that these unremarkable stops, these stops that seem, you know, strangely not justified, result in the death of young African-American men. This question comes up with Anton Black case again because there is a lot of controversy over what happened before. But truthfully we do know that there was no immediate emergency.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: That no one had been shot. He hadn’t robbed a bank.
TAYA GRAHAM: There was no sign of a weapon.
STEPHEN JANIS: There was no sign of a weapon. There was no sign that he committed an act of violence. Just a 911 call saying he was kidnapping what turned out to be his 12-year-old cousin. And this is a theme we see throughout the country. You know, these unremarkable stops end up in the death of African-American men. So we have filed an MPIA request, which is a Maryland Public Information Act request, to get that call, because we want to hear it, because we want to know, why do they – as you point out, three people chase him.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: To his mother’s home, smash the car window, tase him. What’s it all about? And I think, you know, that point was really hit home by his father, Anton Black Sr., when we were covering just after–shortly before they released the autopsy results. So let’s play that clip, clip number one of Anton Black’s father talking about what was the big deal?
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
ANTON BLACK SR.: They broke in my car and tased him, for what? What is all this for? Did anybody see him beating somebody down? Did the cops see him with a chain or somebody? You see him walking up the street. Cop called, and he goes over to him, like I would. Next thing you know all these white guys are running after him. He’s standing there looking at them. They’re running towards him.
So he jukes one and gets by him, and runs. He runs home to his mother. She told me that she heard him hollering, “Mommy, help me. Janelle, help me!”
TAYA GRAHAM: We know fundamentally this is about race. But the deeper question is why do these types of encounters keep happening? Why, despite the outcry from activists and promises of reform, is American policing so resistant to change? And that’s what we’re going to discuss today. So, Stephen, there are some critical events that occurred that led to Anton Black’s death in police custody.
STEPHEN JANIS: One of the things, it’s not really been reported much or talked about. It’s something that we stumbled upon when we were covering the crisis, sort of the anger of the community. And one thing that came up during kind of an impromptu community meeting in a church was the fact that Greensboro Maryland, okay–small little town, and–we’ll put up a little few images for people to see. Greensboro, Maryland.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. It’s about 2000 people.
STEPHEN JANIS: Let’s say this is not like a big inner city. Moved to more aggressive policing specifically targeted at the African-American community.
TAYA GRAHAM: And the African-American community is what, only 17 percent of the population?
STEPHEN JANIS: 17 percent, yeah. So we’re probably talking about 200 people.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: So it was clear that somehow, for some reason, the police department decided that they were going to do, quote unquote, a crackdown. And these are the events that don’t actually get covered or fully understood because it was that crackdown and the hiring of this officer Tom Webster, right, who had been–had problems before.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: And brutality complaints there’s a video of him kicking an African-American suspect for which he was indicted for.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. He broke his jaw.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, we – at this meeting, this was something that came up. People said, you know what, when they turned to aggressive policing we kind of had a feeling this was going to happen. So let’s play a clip we have now from a community member who talks exactly about what happened.
CHRISTINA ROBINSON: It wasn’t until this council came, and members of this council said things of the nature we need police that’ll be tougher on the community, tougher on the citizens. We had officers that cared, that were invested. And if those officers were here on that day and they saw those two young men, knowing the history, knowing that they were friends, it would have never been misconceived to be what it was described as.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now what’s interesting about the supposed crackdown is that there was little evidence of any crime problems in Greensboro. And this relates to the national narrative espoused by the Trump administration, the idea of American carnage, and even the Trump administration’s support for the wall.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. I mean, you know, this is a constant narrative that we hear that sort of coincides with these horrible acts of policing is fear. Right? The idea that there’s something we fear. And in this sense it’s even more critical, because instead of having an external enemy, in order to justify this kind of policing you kind of had to create an internal enemy.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right? And it justifies a lot of things. It justifies overpolicing, it justifies overtime pay, like in Baltimore. But ultimately it’s part of creating, I think, a racially divisive message, right. A racially divisive narrative. Because you have the idea that there is something, there’s some part of the community that deserves to be treated differently under the eyes of the law.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: And that’s kind of when you look at what is the sequence of events that led up to Anton being chased, that’s precisely what it was.
TAYA GRAHAM: And you’ve done a lot of reporting on this sort of monolithic idea of race that really leads to this sort of overpolicing of African-American communities.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. And you know, we have a piece of video that’s very important to this. So here’s the thing that’s really strange about this, right? So they released the body cam footage after much controversy. You remember we went down to Greensboro.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: And they all made us huddle in front of a camera, and they didn’t want to release it. And there is a horrible sequence of when Anton dies from what-
TAYA GRAHAM: Brutal.
STEPHEN JANIS: One of our experts says was compression or-
TAYA GRAHAM: Positional asphyxiation.
STEPHEN JANIS: Positional asphyxiation. Very horrible. But what was really striking to us as we watched it was at the end, right?
TAYA GRAHAM: Right.
STEPHEN JANIS: When the officers are just kind of having a casual conversation. We know at that point that Anton had died.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: We know at that point that they were responsible for it, whatever you want to say. The medical evidence is pretty overwhelming, contusions all over his body, you know. And yet they’re sitting there talking about filing paperwork. And they’re laughing.
SPEAKER: I was trying to restrain him the best I could.
SPEAKER: Yeah. Yeah. It’s ok.
SPEAKER: I just wanted to get him to the ground, that was my–that was my big thing, just get him to the ground and get him restrained.
SPEAKER: Did you call the chief?
SPEAKER: He’s already aware, he knows what’s going on. He got a call from dispatch and he got a call from me.
No, no. I’ll give you a ring a little bit later. Obviously there’s going to be some report writing.
TAYA GRAHAM: I think this moment, where they casually talk about the administrative burden of cataloguing the death of a young black man is to me a very troubling example of what you’re talking about. Policing is not indifferent to, but it’s predicated upon, color. The rational and calm demeanor of the officers reveals an attitude of the officers after Anton died. That when a black man dies, not only does it cease to influence the behavior of the officers, but it’s also just the beginning of the process of bureaucratic justification. You could heard them talk about it calmly and you could hear them laugh.
STEPHEN JANIS: I’m totally with you on it, that was, to me, one of the most stunning things. They’re saying there’s a lot of paperwork, you know. And chuckling. And it would be hard for me to understand that. But-
TAYA GRAHAM: It’s incredible.
STEPHEN JANIS: When you’re talking–we talk about how policing creates a monolithic–why would would policing–why does that happen? And the question is is because it can justify injustice. When you want to treat a community differently–in other words, have a different set of laws, different set of legal standards, different set of economics, you need a rationalization. You do. I mean, as much as you say, you know, white supremacy, you can justify anything. You still need a mechanism to justify it. And that monolithic view of race that is generated by law enforcement constantly creating this sense of criminality in the black community is the perfect vehicle for justifying injustice. And I think many times you and I talk about this it’s the particular, right, that speaks to the narrative–the national narrative, particularly that speaks to the general. And in this case listening to the officers talk like that, you know, pretty much says it all.
TAYA GRAHAM: It does. It really does. So, let’s move onto some specific examples, because this idea of another, less understood imperative policing explains quite a bit about some of the stories we encounter and report on. Among them are the efforts to reform policing in Baltimore. Now, we all know that the Baltimore City Police Department has been under intense scrutiny, along with the Department of Justice investigation and the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.
By the way, the Gun Trace Task Force was an elite Baltimore police task force that spent years plundering the city and its residents for hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, drugs, jewels, and even overtime fraud. Eight people in the nine-member task force have been charged with crimes that amount to a huge abuse of power and repeated violations of residents’ constitutional rights. During the time of the GTTF investigation, the city entered a consent decree and the mayor pledged reform. Basically, the entire political establishment agreed to the need for serious reform of the BPD. Part of the pledge by everyone involved was more civilian control. But then, inexplicably, the city takes aim at the only remnant of that, which is the Civilian Review Board. The city’s Civilian Review Board has no power. It cannot terminate an officer. It cannot punish an officer. It can only make recommendations. That’s it. And yet city solicitor Andre Davis tried to force members to sign an extra disclosure form. And Stephen can talk about what happened after the Board refused.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, I mean, as you point out–this is a really interesting, Taya. Because as you said, there was only one small component of civilian oversight of police. And it wasn’t really oversight, because it had no power.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly.
STEPHEN JANIS: And so, the Civilian Review Board under Jill Carter, who is now state senator, was kind of trying to become more relevant and be more public in what they were doing.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. More transparent.
STEPHEN JANIS: By having their meetings on Facebook and things so people could actually watch. And at that point city solicitor, who is the city’s top lawyer, Andre Davis, decides to make them sign a second nondisclosure form. And the Board says no, because we’re already limited in what we can do.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly.
STEPHEN JANIS: Basically meaning the Board would have to operate in secrecy, which kind of obviates the whole reason for it. Because the only thing it can do is really make recommendations.
TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly.
STEPHEN JANIS: And if those aren’t public, they’re pretty much useless. And so what Andre Davis says after the Board refuses to sign is refuse to, you know, turn over any sort of police abuse cases. So-
TAYA GRAHAM: He essentially makes it impossible for them to do their job.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, that’s right.
TAYA GRAHAM: He will not give the investigative files.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. Right. I mean, he can’t – they can’t actually function. They basically shut down. This is amidst, you know, the conent degree and all the horrible things that the Baltimore Police Department has done. And, as you point out, the pledge of civilian control. Well, that’s what happens. And then of course, you know, you talk about–we have a story about that that really exemplifies that.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: With Erica Hamlett.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, the way we, of course, became more intimately involved with the Civilian Review Board was through the story of Erica Hamlett. Erica Hamlett’s son Jawone was waiting for a bus in the fall of 2017. He was approached by a man dressed in civilian clothes who asked fairly aggressively what he was doing. And from here on we’ll Erica Hamlett and her son tell the story.
JAWONE NICHOLSON: But he came up, and he never identified himself as an officer. He asked us why we was over there, asked us a few questions, and then he pulled his gun.
ERICA HAMLETT: I’m looking at him like maybe he’s a kid and he was trying to rob him. That was my thought. Like, somebody’s trying to rob my son, when I was running to him. And when we approached them he was still coming towards them. My son’s like, “Ma, don’t say nothing to him.” And I’m like, “No, what’s going on? Who are you?”
JAWONE NICHOLSON: I thought I was gonna die. Cause I didn’t know who he was. To me he was a regular dude off the street. I mean, he was dressed like me.
ERICA HAMLETT: And that man had every opportunity to kill my son. And from the lies that he’s told since the incident, he would have had no reason not to tell a lie to make it seem like my son provoked him to do what he did to him. Dead men don’t tell tales.
STEPHEN JANIS: Here we have all over again the Anton Black case, right?
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: A kid, 16-year-old kid, waiting for a bus, minding his own business, is approached by an off-duty cop in plain clothes.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Who at no time says that he is a police officer, doesn’t show a badge,.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right.
TAYA GRAHAM: But he does pull a gun.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right. He does pull a gun. He pulls a gun on him. On this poor kid. You know, his mother responds, because he calls his mom. And they actually manage to get video, which we’re showing right now, of the officer being disarmed by the Howard County Police. But we’re talking about something that could have come within an inch of-
TAYA GRAHAM: It could have easily resulted in his death. Easily.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right. So again, what? Why? Why? You know, again this question. And this is a thing that, you know, maybe as reporters we see that people–I think people know this, but we see this in a very, you know, detailed level.
TAYA GRAHAM: We see this very up close, over and over again.
STEPHEN JANIS: Over and over again, an unremarkable stop. But what makes this even more, I think, compelling story and more important to tell is what happened after this occurred. Because amidst all this, all this talk of reform and that they’re going to change the police department, Erica Hamlett tries to get some–I wouldn’t say justice, but wants this officer disciplined, because he’s dangerous.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: There’s no doubt he’s dangerous. He’s the next-
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. And he also has a history of problems. He had already broken someone’s jaw, and the person whose jaw he broke was awarded money. He also had personal problems where he ended up in a lawsuit with his son, and now is having his wages garnished. So this is a man with a problematic history who is now going up to young men on the street, not identifying himself as a police officer, and pulling a gun on him. There are so many ways this could have ended in tragedy.
STEPHEN JANIS: And so, you know, Erica Hamlett goes through this process that who knows how many people will be willing to do, trying to, you know, file this complaint against the officer and get somebody to say, you know what, this police officer should not have a gun and badge, should definitely not have a gun, before someone else, before something more tragic occurs and she runs up against what we’re talking about, the Civilian Review Board, being pretty much incapacitated.
TAYA GRAHAM: So here you have a city seemingly laser-focused on police reform doing everything it can to discourage a citizen from reporting. So, Stephen, maybe you can comment a little bit on some of the hypocrisy here.
STEPHEN JANIS: This illustrates more than anything how insincere the idea, or how impossible, the idea of reforming American policing is, for just the reasons we discussed before about its role in creating the sort of environment for injustice. Because if you have a city that’s spending millions of dollars on reform, that’s nationally noted for its police brutality and its unconstitutional policing, and the Justice Department does a huge report saying it is unconstitutional, and yet, in a case like Erica Hamlett, where you can’t even let–she can’t even lodge a complaint, and follow through and try to root out this officer, then, you know, you see exactly what we’re talking about. Policing is not intended to be, sort of, a force for social good at all, in many ways. In African-American communities it’s supposed to be divisive on some level. And if it weren’t, then the system would work better. And I think Erica Hamlet’s case is a perfect example of that.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely. And so one of the reasons we’re reporting on this is because the Civilian Review Board actually did something interesting, and may in a sense put the city’s commitment to reform to the test. The Board finally met to discuss her case, and here’s what Erica says happened.
ERICA HAMLETT: It would have just gone in the kid’s favor. So for them to have suggested termination, it was a great feat for us. I cried. It was the day before Jawone’s 18th birthday. And we’ve been at this for 15 months, and it’s been a battle. It’s stressful.
STEPHEN JANIS: So remember, the Civilian Review Board doesn’t have any actual power, but this is a critical juncture. I mean, this is a case we want to follow. Because the Civilian Review Board has recommended firing him. And certainly it’s clear that he’s an officer that presents a danger to people, because he’s indiscriminate in his use of a weapon.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.
STEPHEN JANIS: So we’re going to follow this case, because if the city decides or does not end up following through on this, then I think it completely undermines the idea that there is any reform going on in the department.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, we had a conversation with noted civil rights attorney and Real News board member Dwight Pettit, and it was kind of stunning. His practice focuses on police brutality cases. And he has told us, since the consent decree, the city has refused to settle brutality cases, regardless of the facts. So let’s run the next clip.
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Total disregard for the citizenry of Baltimore City. He’s in the court of appeals, on the federal courts, defending on all the actions that are being brought in terms of the Gun Task Force. Every action that we’ve had where we’ve won and been successful in the trial of those cases, or what have you, he has in fact filed appeals on technical grounds.
TAYA GRAHAM: So, in a majority black city that has been wracked by police corruption and dysfunction, the police and the city has actually decided not to settle brutality cases. Again, it seems to go against the inherent logic of politics. There’s one case that really brought that home that Mr. Pettit talks about. It’s the case of Michael Johnson Jr. So, let’s hear about that.
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: Oh, it’s more than five years old. This young man that was taken into Howard County. Shoes and socks taken from him, his phone broken, thrown out in the rain. The reason that we were able to get information about it was because of the Howard County police who brought him back to Baltimore. Police indicated they were hunting for guns and information, and what have you. We went to trial on that.
And in that trial we got a $500,000 verdict. The city appealed it in terms of the facts of the case. And the Court of Special Appeals confirmed the lower court verdict, but they reduced the verdict because of some technical reasons to like, $275,000. Came back, we tried to collect from the city, and wrote them, and told them we would negotiate the fee, even though the fee–I mean, not the fee, but even though the amount had been reduced, we were willing to negotiate it. The city still turned around an appeal in terms of the technical aspects of the case, in terms of us trying to enforce the judgment. We filed actions for collection against the city. We filed actions of collection against the police department, and the city said they weren’t responsible. The police department – And it went back upon appeal. And that’s back upon appeal on the third time.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, this policy, if it is a policy at all, has led Mr. Pettit to a pretty depressing conclusion.
STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, I was stunned because I’d known Mr. Pettit for, you know, almost over a decade. And he was one of the few civil rights lawyers who was really battling it out with the police department. And he was very optimistic when, you know, the city ended the consent decree, when the Justice Department issued its report. And, you know, he has come to a conclusion that’s incredibly depressing, because he really feels like the city is going backwards. That progress isn’t being made. Which is just, to me, stunning, but also goes back to the thing we were talking about before. Like, this–policing is not about being reformed, because its essential function is not about policing a community towards a more productive, you know, health of the community. It’s about something entirely different, so let’s listen to what Mr. Pettit said, his conclusion, which is pretty dystopian.
A. DWIGHT PETTIT: It’s just this negative mentality of the city to deny everything, regardless of–not looking at the facts. We’re not going to look at the facts, we’re not going to see what justice calls for. We’re just going to deny everything. Deny. And we can take the taxpayers’ money and spend the taxpayers’ money to retain outside counsel to pay these people to be in defiance, rather than trying to see any type of activity to make the victims whole.
No regard for the victims and the citizens of Baltimore. No regard for the consent decree. No regard for what’s happening with the task force. All the people that have been injured, no regard whatsoever, just total negativism in terms of everything that has transpired in Baltimore City.
TAYA GRAHAM: So you have a city that now has a worldwide reputation for police corruption, and it’s a majority black city, a city that the Department of Justice concluded had implemented racist and unconstitutional policing, that arrested 100,000 people, most of them African Americans, and it presided over the death of Freddie Gray and prompted the uprising. And it’s fighting to not settle brutality complaints. So, this goes even deeper, doesn’t it?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, yeah, because, here’s the thing. And we can bring it back to what we were talking about: injustice. Like, underlying injustice being sort of the main mechanism of policing.
So what this is actually doing is creating a huge flow of fees to law firms throughout the city that contribute to political leaders here in the city. So by extending these cases, it’s actually probably costing the city much more money.
TAYA GRAHAM: And it’s actually providing fiscal benefit. You could even consider it a political favor, some might argue.
STEPHEN JANIS: And it’s taking city tax dollars, coming from a city that is majority African American, and paying it out to law firms, which I’m sure are not majority African–you know, I’m sure there’s-
TAYA GRAHAM: Yes. Yes, that’s a very good point.
STEPHEN JANIS: You know, political establishment is getting paid for this, you know, really purposes. Because most of these cases, as Mr. Pettit points out, they don’t dispute the facts of the case. They don’t dispute the fact that brutality occurred. They just want to drag it out. And who benefits? Law firms. Law firms that contribute to the city. So this is a classic example of we’re talking about, you know, how policing kind of perpetuates this economic injustice.
TAYA GRAHAM: So did we get to hear Mr. Pettit talk about one of the cases that’s particularly egregious? There was a police officer who was going to the academy for training, and he was shot in the head by another police officer. Why is the city fighting a case like this?
STEPHEN JANIS: That is inexplicable. What happened was during a training exercise a cadet was shot in the head by an instructor. And the police are fighting–the police department and the city are fighting the case, not settling it.
TAYA GRAHAM: And this person has medical bills for the rest of their life. Why would you not want to give reparations to this person?
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, he’s pretty much in a near vegetative state. So he needs–his medical bills are daunting, and the city is refusing to settle, instead appealing the case. So I can only think the thing is that it generates money. You know, it generates money for law firms who donate money. And like, it’s a win-win situation for the city in that sense. They’re spending taxpayer money. And why do they care?
So, one thing I want to let everyone know is that we’re going to dig deeper into this sort of conveyor belt of lawsuits and, you know, the city and politicians. We have filed an MPIA request, which is a Maryland Public Information Act request, and we are going to get more details, and we’re going to sort of line them up and see where this money is going and who’s paying and who’s benefiting. So we’re going to follow up on this story, Taya.
TAYA GRAHAM: And we will continue to do these reports occasionally, to add depth and context to our reporting on policing and other topics. I’m your host, Taya Graham. This is my reporting partner Stephen Janis. And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.