Black Police Chief Makes Community Policing Work…Then Gets Fired
Despite record low crime, Lawyers for Kelvin Sewell says top cop was fired for refusing to terminate officers who filed discrimination complaints against Pocomoke City.
SPEAKER: No justice, no peace. No racist police.
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: Policing and race have been a flashpoint for conflict across the country. Particularly in Baltimore, where the death of Freddie Gray in police custody has led to protests and public outcry.
At the heart of the problem is a simple premise: that violent crime can only be stopped with aggressive policing in African-American neighborhoods. It’s a strategy that led to Freddie Gray’s encounter with police, and ultimately his death. It has done little to quell the violence in a city that recently established a war room after a record surge in murders.
KELVIN SEWELL: My goal was to have the officers get out of the cars and walk foot patrols, and get to know the communities.
GRAHAM: But there’s another side to this story about policing. And it begins with this man, a former Baltimore homicide detective named Kelvin Sewell. Four years ago he left Baltimore and its aggressive policing behind and came to this sleepy town on the Eastern shore called Pocomoke City that was having its own problems with violent crime.
But he didn’t create a war room and run dug raids in black neighborhoods. Instead, he took an entirely different approach. He got out of his car and walked. It was a simple move that connected him to the community.
SEWELL: Talking to these individuals who are living day by day, they accepted me into the community because they see a sense of I’m caring about them.
GRAHAM: And marked the beginnings of a strategy that reduced the crime rate to historic lows in only four years.
SEWELL: Even the local community here on these streets, these local streets here, have improved a great deal as far as–coming a long way far as crime. You can walk these streets anytime or the hour of the day or the night and know you’ll be safe.
GRAHAM: But his success has now been marred by what appears to be racial politics. Two weeks ago, Sewell was fired during a closed-door session with the city council and the mayor.
Policing in America has always involved race. But here in Pocomoke City people love their black police chief. It is his firing that has caused controversy and raised uncomfortable questions. Residents believe his termination is in part due to race.
SPEAKER: I don’t see any other reason why they would fire him. I mean, what–to me this is Pocomoke City as a racist–[anyway].
GRAHAM: A conclusion buttressed by Sewell’s attorney, who issued a statement saying Sewell was let go for refusing to terminate two officers who filed discrimination complaints against the city.
SPEAKER: Someone they don’t like it, or he stepped on somebody’s toes, or something.
GRAHAM: Seeking answers, hundreds turned out at city hall Monday in a show of support.
SPEAKER: I want him to be reinstated and I want him to tell us why they took him out.
GRAHAM: But even in front of a packed crowd, city officials refused to offer an explanation and barred the media from recording the confrontation. The at times contentious hearing revealed that Sewell’s firing is not the only racially fraught decision made by city leaders in a community equally split in population between whites and African-Americans.
During the meeting, council admitted they had appointed a white resident to a council seat behind closed doors to represent a majority black district without the opportunity for the public to have input.
[SEWELL]: It would be good, it would be nice. I would like to see equal balance. If you have a number of whites, come on, let’s match it with another nationality.
GRAHAM: After the meeting we contacted the mayor and requested an interview, but he did not call back. So we went to the neighborhood called [Backburn], where Sewell’s crime strategy began.
It’s a predominantly black neighborhood tucked behind the town’s wealthier enclave of white picket fences and rolling lawns. It was here at one of the city’s most troubled corners where he first stepped out of his patrol car. And it was in this nondescript church parking lot where Sewell ordered his officers to park their cars and do the same.
SEWELL: A lot of people were out on the corners. At any given time you could see, like, 50 or 60 people around here just walking around, and there was drugs, a lot of drugs here. And then so what I did–the first thing I did was had this, this parking lot right here in front of the New Macedonian Church as a base-type location. And that would put, our officers come here and park their cars on this lot. And then get out of their cars and walk on foot through these neighborhoods right here.
GRAHAM: It’s an approach he said that could work elsewhere, even in Baltimore, where aggressive policing in black neighborhoods has been the approach for decades.
SEWELL: Well, I always thought that being a police chief don’t mean–it’s not all just about the police department. It’s about the community. And you got to help the–my goal was, what can I do for you to get you to stop using drugs? To get you to stop drinking? To take better care of your family, get you a job. Whatever you need, let me know, and I’ll make it happen.
GRAHAM: For now the question looming over the city is if Chief Sewell will ever walk these streets again, and if the lessons he learned in this small community about policing will be lost in the town’s inability to come to terms with its intractable racial divide.
For full disclosure Stephen Janis, who contributed to this report, co-wrote a book with Kelvin Sewell about policing.
Reporting from Pocomoke City, Taya Graham for the Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.