Justice Department Sues Pocomoke For Violating Rights of Fired Black Police Chief
After a year long Real News investigation the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has joined a lawsuit alleging the city and state violated federal anti-discrimination laws when they fired the town’s 1st black police chief
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland.
After a year year long Real News investigation into the firing of Pocomoke’s first black police chief Kelvin Sewell amid allegations of racism and discrimination, the US Department of Justice has stepped into the fray and joined the discrimination lawsuit against Pocomoke City, Worcester County and the State of Maryland itself.
The entry of the federal government’s top law enforcement agency is both historic and groundbreaking for the small town on Maryland’s lower eastern shore. Historic in that it will bring all the resources of the federal government to bear against the city which fired its first black police chief without cause more than a year ago. Groundbreaking because it comes as the Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt prepares to try Sewell on misconduct charges in his role in an accident investigation which occurred over two years ago.
I’m here with Stephen Janis to discuss the implications of the Department of Justice joining this lawsuit and what it means for this controversy moving forward.
Stephen can you give us some background on what’s happened here in the Pocomoke and what it means if the Department of Justice joins this lawsuit.
STEPHEN JANIS, TRNN: Well a year and a half ago we came down here to cover the firing of Chief Kelvin Sewell. He was Pocomoke’s first black police chief. A former homicide detective that moved down from Baltimore City and implemented a form of community policing which was incredibly popular. Crime was reduced and he was mysteriously fired. It came out later that he was fired for what he claims that he had, the leadership in town asked him to fire to black police officers who had filed discrimination complaints against the Worcester County Task Force. From there the story just evolved into something even larger than just a firing of an African American police chief.
You know we covered the community coming into political consciousness and demanding to be heard and demanding to have Sewell rehired and from that came a lawsuit where Sewell filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city claiming that he was fired based on racial motivation, based on racial discrimination, based on retaliation for not firing these two officers. That has been the story thus far. The EEOC agreed, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said, yes indeed he was. But then State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt indicted Sewell on two counts of misconduct.
So the controversy has just continued with both sides sort of entrenched. Now the Justice Department coming in is totally different. You have to think of Pocomoke in names like Ferguson. Ferguson Missouri a place that the Justice Department intervened and sued. Now Pocomoke City. The Justice Department joining the lawsuit means it’ll be the full weight of the federal government as you said, behind the lawsuit that Sewell has, suing not just Pocomoke City, but Worcester County, the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Worcester County Sherriff’s Department, and the State’s Attorney General who’s representing the Maryland State Police in this lawsuit. So it is a momentous landmark decision.
GRAHAM: The conflict began when one of Sewell’s officers Detective Frank Savage filed a discrimination complaint against the Worcester County Drug Task Force. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
JANIS: Well very specifically, he said that he was working in a racially hostile atmosphere where they would regularly use the N word, where they took him to Klu Klux Klan way, where they put a dead deer, bloody dear on his car, where they put an Obama food stamp – it was basically a very hostile environment. This is very key because this Worcester County, he was the first African American officer on this Worcester County Task Force. And they were regularly going into Pocomoke and doing drug raids in an African American neighborhood.
So this became a point of contention. He filed an EEOC complaint and it was sustained and it was after the mediation hearing between him with Lieutenant Green who is another African American officer and the Worcester County people who’d been accused, that the demands began for Sewell to fire both the officers.
GRAHAM: Since Sewell has filed this discrimination lawsuit, what’s actually in the suit?
JANIS: Well the suit recounts constant harassment by city officials for Sewell to fire Detective Savage and Lieutenant Green. That this was an ongoing pattern and practice. It also talks about things that seem at their face, discriminatory, that Sewell never got a raise, that none of the African American officers got raises. That Sewell was told to deny African American officers promotions and overtime. That white officers did get raises, that the previous chief before him was white, got raises. That Sewell never got a contract but the previous chief got a contract. That he was excluded from meetings.
So it was sort of – the fact that the Worcester County State’s Attorney also discriminated against Detective Savage and made him feel uncomfortable and read the N word during a meeting on a case where he read the N word like 7 or 8 times, a letter from a so called suspect. So it really created a pattern and practice in Worcester County on the lower eastern shore where first there was charges of racial discrimination and then retaliation. So it’s a pretty comprehensive indictment of the county and even the state’s handling of African American police officers.
GRAHAM: In the meantime, state prosecutor Emmet Davitt has filed charges against Kelvin Sewell. What are the charges about?
JANIS: Well the charges stem from a 2014 car accident where a gentleman, a resident of Pocomoke ran into two cars. Side swiped them and called police. It was only property damage. Sewell and other officers responded. So according to Emmet Davitt, somehow Sewell and Lieutenant Green interfere with the investigation. I think they’re alleging that the person who created the accident was actually intoxicated. But of course, it’s very difficult to say. This was 2 years ago.
GRAHAM: Weren’t there other officers on the scene?
JANIS: There were other officers on the scene. From what we’re hearing, we haven’t been able to report this yet, but there was 911 call made where the officer said this person was not drunk. But never the less he was in his house. So he was home. So there wasn’t really much Sewell could do based upon the law. But the thing is for whatever we have not seen all the evidence, Emmet Davitt seems to believe that Sewell and Green somehow violated their oath as police officers.
Of course this was a very minor accident. No one was hurt. Just some car sideswipe. It’s two years after. I think one of the things that Sewell’s attorneys have been talking about is the fact that this investigation was started after Sewell’s lawsuit. Kind of contemporaneous with Sewell’s lawsuit. So it raises a lot of questions about it and if his attorneys have filled motions to dismiss governmental misconduct. We don’t know what it is but we will probably find out tomorrow.
GRAHAM: Now the Maryland FOP has actually shown a lot of support for officers that have been charged. For example, the 6 officers charged with the in custody death of Freddie Gray, the FOP has stood behind them 100%. Has the FOP supported Kelvin Sewell or Lieutenant Savage in this case?
JANIS: No, not at all. We have reached out to the state FOP continually to Vince Canales who is the president of the Maryland FOP and he has not responded. They have not show any support. Protestors in Baltimore also protested and demanded that the FOP stick up for these officers, for Sewell and Green, and they too have not. So there has been absolutely no support and I think it’s a very interesting contrast in. In the case of Freddie Gray, where a man died, the FOP was firmly behind the officers.
GRAHAM: My last question is how is this conflict effecting the town?
JANIS: Well it’s interesting because two weeks ago we came down because there’s been an uptick in crime. There’s been problems with juveniles on the street. There was a brazen bank robbery. There was a murder at the Duck Inn. The people in the community who supported Sewell say look what’s happened. All this controversy, we’ve lost a very effective police chief. We have lost someone who was really involved in the community. He was out in the streets. People knew him. People miss the engagement.
The new police chief, people say they don’t see him as much. Now there’s conflict between police and youth. We talked last week to some teens two weeks ago who were getting, you know, said the police were becoming more hostile. They miss having this sort of community policing. They miss sort of the connection to leadership and I think it’s effected the town tremendously and I think it’s effected the psychology of the town and I think it’s one of the reasons Citizens for a Better Pocomoke, which is a community organization, is going to continue to fight for change. So it has changed this town drastically.
GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland.
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