Police Reform: How to Make 150K and Rob the People who Pay You
In another installment of TRNN’s in-depth reporting on the complexity of reforming urban policing, we examine how monetizing failure creates opportunities for law enforcement to extract wealth from communities that can least afford it
STEPHEN JANIS: So, we’re here tonight to talk about a subject that pretty much consumes not only most of, a great majority of our reporting for The Real News but consumes the city of Baltimore itself, which is policing. And of course, you’d have to really be living under a rock not to know about the Baltimore Police Department at this point and the controversies that have consumed it. Previous to what happened in the death of Freddie Gray, of course, we were known for The Wire, which was supposed to be sort of an expository view of policing and thusly, we had a reputation of being a town that had a particularly troubled police department but that only has become more of a problem, since the death of Freddie Gray and police custody and the subsequent justice department investigation.
But we’re not here really to recount just some of the things that have occurred, in terms of the timeline of events but to talk about a subject in a more provocative manner that I think really needs to be discussed because part of the problem is, I think, and one of the assumptions underlying the discussion about policing and policing in Baltimore today, is actually, I think, in some ways not accurate. And that is the idea that policing in Baltimore could be reformed.
We all kind of operate under this idea and this sort of umbrella of thought that policing as an institution is something that can be tinkered with and fixed, and that if we tinker with it and fix it, it will suddenly start to become a productive institution in this city. And we’re not saying that’s impossible but we’re saying that that underlying premise is what needs to be questioned before we can really tackle the problem that we’re dealing with. And so, Taya and I have been doing a series of stories about this, under that rubric, why policing can not be reformed because we want pose that question. And one of the ways we sort of articulate this for people is by noting a couple facts.
I mean, anybody who has covered government or covered institutions in Baltimore knows that policing dominates not only the discussion, but the resources in this city. No other institution gets more money, or more leeway, or more power than the police department. And no other body of governance has more discretion. Just for example, in the past year, the Baltimore Police Department was, lives in a town that has very little money, and is always looking for money and always crying poverty, which is true. We’re a poor town, sort of went over on their budget on overtime by about 40 or 50 million dollars, 40 or 50 million dollars.
Now this was at time Taya and I were covering the fact that the city’s school system was 130 million dollars short. Now, just so people know, the Baltimore City Police Department already gets twice the amount of money the schools get, locally, from our local system. So, the fact that the city police department went over budget by 50 million, by almost the amount of money that school’s were missing, with very little controversy in government, I think is an example of why this question is so difficult to address and why it’s so difficult to look at the police department and say, “What are we gonna do?”
And I think part of the reason that people don’t, or that we can’t reform, or that we have problems with the idea of reform is that we don’t really know how to characterize the department. And I’m gonna make some controversial statements about it that I hope will elicit discussion. And one of the things and one of the reasons that I came, that we sort of working on this is because of the release of some body camera footage by the police department just recently.
There was some very controversial drug cases and the Baltimore Police, the Public Defender’s Office got a hold of body camera footage. And the body camera footage showed officers, if you listen to the police department, staging the recovery of evidence.
TAYA GRAHAM: Or reenacting it.
STEPHEN JANIS: Or reenacting it.
TAYA GRAHAM: That’s another way to describe it.
STEPHEN JANIS: Right. Right. Or if you believe the defense attorney’s, planting, right? But there was another aspect to this body camera footage, that really struck me. And I don’t know if anybody saw it but there were minutes, not minutes but hours of police officers going through lots and going through trash. And in one case, they arrested a guy who had 10 dollars on him and a little package that they went back and they wiretapped him in prison to get it, and then went out to find it. The amount of effort and time they were putting into this rummaging through trash. I mean, would have been better, I think if they cleaned up the alley for us because it would have been better for the taxpayers of the city.
And let me just say this, I mean, I’m all about serving the people of Baltimore as a reporter. I mean this is not something I do. I really believe every institution serve the people who live here. So anyway, but when I looked at it, I said, “This is really exemplary of the futility.” I mean, you’ve got a city with 300 homicides, not even half of them are solved, maybe a quarter of them solved. You got a city where, obviously, crime makes headlines every night but why would the police be searching through the trash. Why would they be spending an hour rummaging through garbage? What exactly good does that do them or the people of this city, and why did the police commissioner go up and defend this? I mean, while he was defending it, why didn’t he make a comment like, “Maybe my police officers shouldn’t be doing this. What good is this doing anybody?”
So, when we say this, Taya and I had the idea to maybe use this footage to sort of explore this idea.
TAYA GRAHAM: Just for anyone who’s not familiar with it, Zero Tolerance is a policy that, it’s based off the broken windows theory, which is that if you fix the broken windows in the neighborhood, the nuisance crimes, then you will be able to fix the larger crime issues. So, Zero Tolerance led to people being arrested for things like expectorating, which is spitting on the ground, or having an open container of beer, or being in a neighborhood and you would be asked to present your ID, and you didn’t live in that same neighborhood. And that neighborhood happened to be designated a high crime area. That could lead to you being brought into central booking. So, zero Tolerance, at its height, I think around the 2009, had over 105,000 Baltimore city residents-
STEPHEN JANIS: 2005.
TAYA GRAHAM: It was 2005?
STEPHEN JANIS: Mm-hmm.
TAYA GRAHAM: 105,000 Baltimore city residents processed, so in a city of 630,00 people, having over a hundred thousand people arrested is absolutely egregious. And what did it lead to? Well, it actually led to a lawsuit by the ACLU, saying that these arrests were unconstitutional. And later, the Department of Justice showed the same thing, which is that our Baltimore City Police Department has a practice of unconstitutional and racist policing tactics.
STEPHEN JANIS: You fast forward to 2015 and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody and that too, is very interesting because of the narrative you hear about it versus the reality of what went on. Taya and I sat in the courtroom during the entirety of the preliminary trial. And what was reported and what was reported by the mainstream media, was this sort of mysterious case, like what happened?
Taya Graham: Right. As if it was a whodunit, as if we had no idea how this young man ended up dead.
STEPHEN JANIS: And with really very little questioning of the fundamental facts of the case, which is why on earth would police stop a van six times, right? This idea that somehow they were going through this administrative orthodoxy of opening the van and not opening the van, as if there was something just normal about this, the police…
TAYA GRAHAM: And as if there was something normal about chasing a young man down the street early on a Sunday morning, as if it was perfectly normal for him to be worthy of being chased, worthy of being detained, worthy of being arrested, simply because he saw an officer and got scared. So, the actual point of the arrest itself, whether or not it was justified later, police officers said, “Well, he had a pocket knife on him.” Well, unless they have X-ray vision, there’s no way they could know this young man had a pocket knife on him. All he did was see a police officer and said, “I don’t want an interaction with them,” which I think is very understandable for a young Black man in Baltimore city to not want an interaction with Baltimore City Police.
So, even at the very point of intersection, you could see the community questioning, what was the justification, let alone, what happened to this young man? Where Stephen was talking about the six stops, we recently went to the trial board hearing for Lt. Brian Rice, as well as Officer Goodson, who was the wagon driver. And as we sat in the trial board room, we got to hear a lot of the things that we didn’t get to hear in the courtroom because he got to plead the fifth. And what we heard in the trial board room was incredibly disheartening because we heard the story of the tortuous death of a young man. When I was in the courtroom, I heard about the injury in detail and I won’t go into great detail right now about it because it is incredibly graphic, but that he slowly lost control over his body, and that he lost control over his legs, then his lungs and it was basically like he was slowly suffocating in the back of this van.
And so, hearing Officer Goodson say he didn’t remember, or he couldn’t remember the names of people, while he’s talking about why he kept on opening the back of the van, not looking in, closing the van and then driving with it, making a series of six stops. I can tell you it is very unusual for an officer to be driving on the way to central booking and check on his detainee six times. That is a highly unusual practice. So, the trial board hearing was incredibly illuminating, and of course, in a way disappointing because as we know, not only were there no criminal charges that were applied effectively, but there are no disciplinary charges. Goodson has walked away cleared completely. He will have suffered no administrative discipline. He will not lose his job and as a matter of fact, Officer Porter, who was one of the officers there, I found out that he’s a Detective now, so he actually received a promotion and I assume, a raise.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, the Justice Department comes to Baltimore to investigate after the Uprising to investigate the Baltimore City Police Department and because Stephanie Rawlings-Blake really feels like she’s run out of options, I guess at this point, and invites him into investigate. So, they come here in about 2016 and their job, they’re the Federal government. Their job is to ride along with police officers, investigate arrests, look at all the sort of statement of probable causes, sort of review everything about the department, and interview officers and everything. But what’s amazing, what we find out about a year later is that during this time, there was a special task force called the Gun Trace Task Force. It was a special unit, and you probably heard, I’m sure you’ve all heard about this in some ways, but I think, the reason we’re bringing this up is because it’s another remarkable situation. There was seven officers in this unit and their job was to target people with guns. So, they were targeting guns. That was their…
TAYA GRAHAM: Right, that was what they were supposed to be doing.
STEPHEN JANIS: Again, a very interesting, like Zero Tolerance, very inhuman kind of idea, just target the gun. Don’t police within the community, just target a gun, which of course…
TAYA GRAHAM: But what it turned out was that these eight officers were not only targeting guns, but they were specifically targeting people who had money, whether it was a legitimate source of money or an illegitimate one, and this is the direct quote of one of the officers. “Taxing Baltimore City residents,” finding way to actually take the money from them, accusing them of drug dealing, even if they weren’t, and then taking that money from them.” So, they also were accused of overtime fraud, which means they were stealing directly from the taxpayers. And they were guilty of racketeering and some drug dealing themselves, as well as they were guilty of planting illegal guns on Baltimore City residents. So, it made all of their arrests suspect.
STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, I mean, yeah, they did just about everything: drug dealing, they would steal pot from someone, like six pounds of pot and they dealt it. And then just recently, we found out that they were working with another police officer in Philadelphia. But what’s amazing about this story is all of this was going on while the Justice Department was here, right?
TAYA GRAHAM: They were fearless.
STEPHEN JANIS: The Federal government was here investigating the Baltimore City Police Department and the Gun Trace Task Force was not just robbing people, and beating people up, and doing all this stuff but they were also stealing overtime. When they were on vacation, calling in. So, that overtime I just told you about, they were calling in and getting it while they were on vacation. So, they were getting paid a hundred dollars an hour to sit on a beach.
TAYA GRAHAM: Yeah, they were actually at a golf course I think in Rehoboth Beach, while one of the officers was collecting overtime. So, these officers were incredibly brazen.
STEPHEN JANIS: Brazen or you have to ask yourself again, what are we really doing here? What really is going on? I mean, after the Justice Department report came out, which was, to describe it scathing would be nice, okay? It literally said that the Baltimore City Police Department has institutionalized systemically racist and unconstitutional policing, right, as a way of life, as a culture. And yet, after this happened, not a single person from that police department was fired, not a single person walked out that headquarters as our friend Sean Yoes says, with a box of…
TAYA GRAHAM: No, with their boxes in their hands. So, I have to say, even when people talk about policing, they say, “Well, it’s just one bad apple.” Well, the Department of Justice would suggest it’s the barrel that’s bad. And it’s not just unconstitutional practices and bias practices, when it comes to arresting people, it was actually impinging on people’s freedom of speech, arresting protesters unjustly. Also, in particular with women and, in particular, Black and poor women in Baltimore City, there was the unfounding of rape reports. And when a rape report is unfounded, that means a woman comes forward to a police officer and says, “I’ve been raped.” And he writes it down on the Uniform Crime Report, which is their official chart and marks as unfounded. And that means it’s a baseless accusation or lie, which means there’s gonna be no further investigation.
Baltimore City was in the top five of police departments in the country for unfounding rape reports. Over a 10 year period, the number of rape reports in Baltimore City had dropped by almost 80% but the number of unfoundings of rapes had increased, almost in an exact inverse curve. So, you have to ask was the police department doing something amazing to prevent sexual assault in Baltimore City, or were they purposefully misclassifying the rape reports of women? Because you could make the argument that when there is a homicide, there is a body. You have to do something with it. But when there is a rape report, there is a woman that you can quiet and that seems to be rather easy.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, all this kind of brings us to the question, then if this is happening and this is systemic, what is policing really about in Baltimore? What is its true function? And that’s how we got to the idea of why policing can’t be reformed because that was the question we wanted to answer. And I think the body camera videos, as I said, were kind of, sort of, we got to see something we never saw, which is just police going about their business, what they do, when we’re not kind of watching.
TAYA GRAHAM: When they think no one’s looking.
STEPHEN JANIS: Let me give you just a little bit of understanding how policing works in Baltimore. For example, the members of the Gun Trace Task Force, not only did most of them with high school educations make $150,000 a year but when we did our investigation, it turns out that a certain number of the police officers in that task force had free, what’s known as take-home cars. So, the police department gives them free cars, free gas, free repairs and they can drive them anywhere. Many of them live in Pennsylvania. So, there’s a big, big financial incentive, right? I mean, where in this world can you get a job for $150,000 a year and not have any sort of education.
And then secondly, one of the things that’s not talked about too much in Baltimore City finances is that the Baltimore City Government has a 3.5 billion dollar fund. What it’s for, is for pensions, for about 4,000, well, 6,000 police officers who get pensions. So, I’m not gonna get too arcane here but I’m just wanna make it clear that this, there’s a tremendous amount of money flowing out of this city, a tremendous amount of resources that is flowing into the hands of people that don’t live here. So, how do you make that work? Why wouldn’t the people of this city, and the people of this city did rise up and say specifically, “Why are you doing this? What are you doing for us?” Any sort of civic government that’s run by the people but of course say, “This is ridiculous. We can’t afford to have three billion dollars when our schools are falling apart. We can’t afford to pay somebody $150,000 who isn’t gonna show up, who’s just gonna come up with a bunch of guns. We can’t afford to pay 40 million dollars in overtime when crime is still rising.” There’s absolutely no connection between this institution’s efficacy and the resources that it extracts from the city.
So why? How do they make that work? How would you make that work, right? If you were saying to a community, “I’m going to take 10 times more than I’m giving. And as a matter of fact, I’m not even gonna give. I’m gonna actually make your life, perhaps in most cases, more difficult.” How do you make that work? How do you do that? And I think, in part, they do it by telling a story about us. They make a story about us, a story that starts with a story of a seven year old, right, a criminal, a child, alright? The child as a criminal, is really a story. It’s a symbolic story, not just about Gerard Mungo, but about every single person in this city,because we’re a city that can’t function, right? We’re a city that can’t protect ourselves. We’re a city that can’t communicate. We’re a city that can’t be safe. We’re a city at war with itself and there’s only one thing between us and that, which is them, right?
Now that’s a difficult case to make, right, because you’re making a case that actually goes against the interest of the people that you’re taking the resources from. So, you have to be kind of trenching. You can’t stick to the same narrative. You have to construct a narrative that is compelling and convinces the people who live with it that they don’t deserve anything better. And when they ask for it, you make it quite clear that they’re asking for something that’s unrealistic, which is to be accountable, and to be responsible, and to follow the law, and to treat the people in the city as if they matter. But you can’t convince people to give up these kind of resources and give up their civic rights through rational means. You have to construct a story, and the story has to be one of failure, and one of lack of agency and one where we are complicit in our own demise.
And I think that’s what we see in these body camera videos. I mean, it’s hard to explain to a city that is going through this crisis why there’d be five people, do you know how much that costs the city? Probably 10, 20, 30 thousand dollars. 30, 30,000 dollars to make one arrest for a bag that I don’t think was in that car to begin with. Why on Earth would you be doing that if your goal was to reduce crime? Why would you be doing that? What exactly would you have in mind? And that’s why I think policing is an institution that functions on symbolism just as much as it does on anything else. And it functions on constructing narratives out of law. One great tool for that has been the drug war right, because the drug war gives you a extremely effective tool for that.
It gives you what we call a crime of the object, a proximity to the object. If someone came right now and placed 20 gel caps right here, we could all be arrested, every single one of us. I sat in cases where young men got arrested for being close to a pile of gel caps, right, put in jail for seven or eight years. But that gives you an incredible tool. You don’t have to build cases based on actions that people took. You don’t have to build cases on some intent and someone did. All you had to do was have a couple bags of weed or a couple gel caps and you’re good.
TAYA GRAHAM: And you could see that the rest of this country is slowly turning to the idea that perhaps we shouldn’t be having this war on drugs, that perhaps marijuana-
STEPHEN JANIS: Except for our current administration.
TAYA GRAHAM: Right. And A.G. Sessions.
STEPHEN JANIS: Which is very revealing because you’re dealing with someone who seems to be somewhat of an authoritarian. So, it’s interesting that he really loves the war on drugs, so … But anyway-
TAYA GRAHAM: But despite the fact that we’ve had multiple states decriminalize, or even legalize, marijuana, the number of drug arrests in the country has actually gone up, so we had 1.57 million drug arrests last year, which is an almost 6% increase. So, even while our country, as a whole, socially has decided, you know what, maybe we don’t wanna move forward with this drug war, the mechanisms that are at play keep moving. The wheel keeps turning and keeps grinding more people into our criminal justice system.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, and just kind of going to the last point of this, that sort of became to me, the proving ground of this idea was a case that Taya and I covered together in a small town in the Eastern Shore called Pocomoke, which is down, sort of West of Ocean City. And a friend of mine, who is a homicide detective by the name Kelvin Sewell, retired and took a job as a police chief of this town of 5,000 people, 4,000 people, half African American and half White. And Taya, you wanna tell them a little bit of-
TAYA GRAHAM: Sure, well, Pocomoke City is incredibly small. It’s about 4,300 people, split evenly, demographically between African Americans and Whites. It looks kind of like Mayberry. It really does. It’s got a little main street with tiny little shops on it. All the houses sort of look around, I guess you could say the average person there is working class. There’s not any big McMansions there. And Pocomoke City, as I spent time in there, I got to know the people, got to really like them. When Stephen got a phone call finding out that their Black police chief, who was the first black police chief this community ever had was being fired, the community showed up en masse at City Hall to ask why.
STEPHEN JANIS: He had been down there for four years. Crime had gone down. He did a real good job-
TAYA GRAHAM: By 80%.
STEPHEN JANIS: He had instituted what we all call “community policing,” although I really don’t think there’s any other way to police but with the community. Any other thing is military, right? So, he had gone down there. He got his officers to walk the streets, get to know the people. Crime had gone down. One day he gives me a call, and he says, “Stephen, they’re gonna fire me.” And I’m like, “Why are they gonna fire you? You’re doing a great job.” And Taya and I went down and started covering it and the City Council, which was all White, would not say why. But over time it became clear that this was a racial case, and it, especially because of what happened with the Worcester County Drug Task Force. You can tell them the background on that.
TAYA GRAHAM: Sure. Well, Kelvin had brought in a couple of African American officers that he had known or had recommended to him from Baltimore City. One African American officer that he had, he sent to the Worcester County Drug Task Force, which is actually somewhat of an elite job. It makes a pay raise. It’s kind of an elite unit. And he was also going to be the first Black officer ever to be placed on the Worcester County Drug Task Force, so we have a lot of firsts down there on the Eastern Shore.
Well, this young man started receiving texts from his fellow officers, saying things like, “What’s your body count my N?” Or he got food stamps with President Obama’s picture superimposed on them, things that were, I guess you could call, racial hazing, if you want to be extremely generous. But you could say it was an incredibly hostile work environment that he felt uncomfortable with, which is what he did. He said he would appreciate it if you please don’t use the N word around me at work. Please stop showing me videos using the N word. I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t do this. Well, instead they continued it and upped it. One of the officers drove him to a place that’s known as KKK Lane to point out to him that this is where lynchings used to happen. So, he filed an EEOC complaint. What happens next is he had a bloody severed deer tail placed on the windshield of his car, which I assume is the Eastern Shore version of being told you’re a rat.
So, with this EEOC complaint, he went to Kelvin who was his former police chief and said, “I need help.” Kelvin stood up for him and we believe that is why Kelvin ended up being fired.
STEPHEN JANIS: Getting fired. So, the town just basically rose up, because they loved Kelvin. They loved the way his policing was non, it was non-militaristic, it was community style policing.
TAYA GRAHAM: And it was effective.
STEPHEN JANIS: So we’re gonna show you a quick video of last video.
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham, reporting for The Real News Network in Pocomoke City. I’m here inside the City Hall in Pocomoke City, Maryland, waiting for the supporters of Mayor Bruce Morrison and former Police Chief Kevin Sewell, to square off.
It began with apologies and reconciliation.
SPEAKER: We want to see this work.
MAYOR MORRISON: I’m willing as a mayor to work with you. I appreciate all the people that’s been coming.
TAYA GRAHAM: The supporter of Pocomoke City’s first Black police chief, Kelvin Sewell and the backers of Mayor Bruce Morrison, seeking to heal the racial wounds that had opened since Sewell’s firing.
MAYOR MORRISON: I don’t look at color and I do not appreciate somebody saying I don’t. I don’t. I loved every person in this room. I love every individual but I am not a racist.
TAYA GRAHAM: The mayor even apologized to the media who were kicked out of City Hall a month ago, when the divisions between the Black and White residents of this small Eastern Shore town first erupted after Sewell was let go without explanation.
MAYOR MORRISON: The taxpayers of Pocomoke wanted to speak that night. I thought they had more right to be in this room than the news media. I asked the news media to leave. I got in trouble. I’m in trouble right now with the Attorney General’s office.
TAYA GRAHAM: But as the meeting progressed, tensions mounted as the issue of whether or not Chief Sewell would return could not be resolved.
SPEAKER: He was terminated doing a job that we see as being substantially well, and we can’t find anything else out because of the attorneys, for why this happened.
TAYA GRAHAM: Supporters of the Chief withdrew the petition for the Mayor to resign.
SPEAKER: Citizens for a better Pocomoke, we will not present our position for the removal of the Mayor of Pocomoke City.
TAYA GRAHAM: But asked that Sewell be reinstated.
SPEAKER: Would you work with us? We’re asking the question of you. Would you work with us, with a majority of the citizenship in fulfilling our request to reinstate Kelvin D. Sewell as Chief Police of Pocomoke City.
TAYA GRAHAM: Mayor Bruce Morrison responded that Sewell’s return was unlikely.
MAYOR MORRISON: But as Mayor of Pocomoke City, I feel that the town has been damaged. There’s too much litigations out there. Everything that’s been said, everything’s that’s been done, my, this is only my opinion. I just don’t feel that right now we can do that, that I would take Sewell back. I don’t see that happening.
TAYA GRAHAM: And when the public finally weighed in, the underlying tensions that had engulfed the town’s African American community boiled over.
SPEAKER: Like I said, if he’s doing something underneath the covers or something, that’s his business. That is his business. I don’t think he’s done that either. Or what I’m saying is, is all we see from this man has been nothing but good.
TAYA GRAHAM: The conflict was, in part, driven by the question that still lingers and still remains unanswered, why Sewell was fired.
SPEAKER: We have not really gotten an answer to this one question. Was Chief Sewell incompetent in some way? Why was he fired? We keep getting a personnel issue, but that’s not satisfying the people. We have a right, I feel, to know the reason the man was fired.
TAYA GRAHAM: But when city officials refused to elaborate, Connie Parks, the mother of Pocomoke Police Detective, Franklin Savage, came forward.
CONNIE PARKS I’m gonna tell you, I’m gonna tell you where it all came from.
TAYA GRAHAM: Detective Savage is one of the officers Sewell’s lawyer says he refused to fire, after they filed discrimination complaints at the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office.
CONNIE PARKS: My son, a detective did an excellent job, but you know what? When he started being called nigger, there’s nobody likes that ugly word, he complained. And when he complained, he had to come back. He had to work because he felt like he was working in a hostile workplace. And who wouldn’t? Who wouldn’t? Who wants to be called nigger on the job as a police officer? Who wants that? No one. That’s what happened. Then he came here and then, I don’t know who called himself pulling Chief Sewell’s chain around and jerking him around, wanted Chief Sewell to fire my son Frank and fire Lt. Brigg, that’s what happened. That’s why Chief Sewell lost his job. Yes, Jesus.
TAYA GRAHAM: And from that point, emotions ran high, as residents vented frustration that had been building for weeks.
SPEAKER: A lot of us are upset because we don’t know what’s going on. It feels like everything’s secret. Everything’s hostile.
MAYOR MORRISON: It’s not, listen, ma’am, nothing-
SPEAKER: But that’s what it feels like. I’m not saying that’s what it is. I said that’s what it feels like.
TAYA GRAHAM: Including Second District Council Women Diane Downing, who said she had not been appraised of the details as to why Sewell was terminated.
DIANE DOWNING: You saw something that I didn’t see.
TAYA GRAHAM: A taut encounter that embodied all of the underlying conflict in the town between race, and politics, and faith and community. Pastor Kathleen Moore confronted First District Councilman George Tasker, who was accused of referring to the city’s Black population as “you people,” at the City Council’s last meeting. Pastor Moore invoked faith and God as a path for truth.
PASTOR MOORE: I can’t see how you can sit there as a man of God and not straighten this up because what you’ve been called to do by a past, what this is, because you belong. You’re a man of God, chosen and divine, called by God.
GEORGE: Yes I am.
PASTOR MOORE: And you have to speak of truth.
GEORGE: Whether you believe it or not.
PASTOR MOORE: You have to speak truth about what-
GEORGE: He was a good man. There’s no doubt about it. Him and I were friends. But the morning we had to do it, I said, “Friend, I have to put friendship aside because I have to do what the people of Pocomoke City elected me to do,” …
TAYA GRAHAM: After the meeting, we talked to Councilwoman Downing about her concerns. She told us she often was not privy to key information and left uninformed when the council meets privately.
DIANE DOWNING: There probably are a conglomerate amount of meetings that I wasn’t invited to because they sometimes talked among themselves. And they talked before a meeting, and they might say something so all of them are privy to whatever they’re talking about and I don’t get that. And I walk in, and everybody’s quiet.
TAYA GRAHAM: Here outside of City Hall, the crowds are gone but the divisions within the community remain. The confrontation between the supporters of Mayor Bruce Morrison and the supporters of Chief Kelvin Sewell is at a deadlock. Residents say it was like watching a close-knit family be torn apart, but the question lingers, will this community ever be able to heal and will their Chief ever be able to return to his post? This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, reporting from Pocomoke City, Maryland for The Real News Network.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, Kelvin files his lawsuit and files is EEOC complaints and they’re sustained. And the Federal government joins his lawsuit against Pocomoke saying that he was indeed discriminated against. But after that lawsuit was filed, about the same time, the State Prosecutor of Maryland, Emmet Davitt, begins to investigate Kelvin. Snd what he does is he contacts Beau Oglesby, who is the State’s Attorney of Worcester County, who is a person who was the subject of the discrimination complaints. And Beau rummages through traffic cases going back three or four years and find a case in 2014, when a man drove into a parked car, and drove around the corner, and parked at his house and called police. And so, Emmet Davitt puts the full force of the State Prosecutor on this case. They investigated, and they indict Kelvin and then they convict him of failing to charge this African American man for hitting a parked car.
TAYA GRAHAM: He actually gave Pocomoke City residents his cell phone number. Now can you imagine having the Chief of Police cell phone and being able to call him? His community policing worked so well, he would joke with me that he knew about the crime before it happened because he would have had three or four people call him to tell him who was going to commit the crime. He really had that kind of connection and when Stephen talks about community policing, there were a lot of things he did. For example, on Halloween he would have the police car, put the siren on and hand out candy to the kids. He’d have groups of kids come into the police station. He said he would make a point of choosing the smallest kid in the group, putting them up at the front of the podium, putting his police chief hat on him and saying that he could be a police chief one day. He made a real point of interacting with the community, with the kids and getting to know people there.
STEPHEN JANIS: Now, we’ll leave you this final thought. So, when Kelvin was facing trial, the Fraternal Order of Police, we called them and say, “Are you gonna support him?” Because he’s a police officer facing trial. They would not call me back. They would not say a word about it. But during the trial of Freddie Gray, the FOP was there every single day and including up into the administrative trial. They were there every day. They were in the media saying these officers were innocent, and they did nothing wrong. But they wouldn’t say a work for Kelvin.
TAYA GRAHAM: And helping fund their defense.
STEPHEN JANIS: So, the basic conclusion is, I think what Kelvin did wrong in Pocomoke was that he didn’t tell the right story, right? He didn’t have the Worcester County Drug Task Force going in there creating failure. He wanted to work with the people there and make their lives better. And because of that, he ends up getting charged as a criminal. So, what does that tell you about the criminal justice system, the way it’s formulated and what it’s about? There’s no other conclusion you can reach. This is not like the bias of the reporter. This is the story that happened. All of this is true. This isn’t The Wire which is a bunch of B.S. This is what happened to people and their lives. So anyway, we appreciate your time.
TAYA GRAHAM: Absolutely.
STEPHEN JANIS: If you have any questions or anything, thank you. And that’s it.