ACLU Says Prosecution of Pocomoke’s 1st Black Police Chief ‘Retaliatory’
The civil rights group says fired chief Kelvin Sewell’s conviction for misconduct was payback for filing a discrimination complaint after his dismissal
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
Today the ACLU is weighing in on the recent misconduct conviction of Pocomoke City’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell. The civil rights group is accusing Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt of racial retaliation. He prosecuted Sewell for mishandling an accident investigation in 2014 for the small town on Maryland’s lower eastern shore.
Sewell was let go over a year ago for refusing to fire two black police officers who filed discrimination complaints against the Worcester County Drug Task Force. Sewell has since filed a lawsuit claiming his firing was retaliation, which has been joined by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
I’m here with Real News reporter Stephen Janis to discuss these new developments. Stephen, can you give us some background, and tell me what the ACLU is claiming?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the ACLU is saying that this total investigation, from beginning to end, was retaliation for Sewell filing a lawsuit. They are saying that the Worcester County officials and the State’s Attorney’s Office conspired with the State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt to investigate Sewell and later charge him in this accident, and that all of this is based solely upon the fact that he alleged discrimination and filed discrimination complaints against the Worcester County, Pocomoke and other Maryland government — that this totally is a result of retaliation.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, they’ve filed a public information request. What is the request and why did they file it?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the MPIA request is basically seeking other investigations of police officers for misconduct coming out of the State Prosecutor’s Office. Usually the State Prosecutor of Maryland does mostly exclusively investigate political corruption — you know, whether it be campaign finance law violations, things having to do with elected officials. So the MPIA request is basically to obtain that information and to find out what it means.
TAYA GRAHAM: Now, you’ve spoken to Prosecutor Emmet Davitt several times. What has he said to you about the investigation?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, he has said quite clearly that this was not retaliation, that they were asked by the interim police chief–
TAYA GRAHAM: Lieutenant Starner, right?
STEPHEN JANIS: Lieutenant Starner, yes, excuse me. Lieutenant Starner, and he was asked by him to investigate this, had nothing to do with anything to do with the retaliation or the lawsuits, and that his office did this solely because they wanted to hold police officers accountable.
TAYA GRAHAM: Finally, the Citizens for a Better Pocomoke travelled to Baltimore to join with the ACLU. What did they have to say?
STEPHEN JANIS: Well, they said they still support Sewell and that they believe that the ACLU is right. That this investigation, this prosecution, was purely political and purely based upon the fact that Sewell had filed these allegations of racial discrimination.
MONNA VANESS: I came here today to support the Chief, Chief Sewell. He will always be the Chief, as far as I’m concerned — whether he is on this side of the Bay, our side of the Bay — I will always call him Chief. I can’t help it. I feel like he should be reinstated, and that’s the main reason I’m here — to support him in his reinstatement.
STEPHEN JANIS: What do you think about the prosecution of the State Prosecutor? Do you think it was fair?
MONNA VANESS: Oh, it was unjust.
STEPHEN JANIS: Do you still support the Chief?
CURTIS MELBOURNE: I still support the Chief always. Yeah, I always have to support him. Yeah, because I notice now, like, when my wife would tell me that when she was riding down the road there, two of them kids, like, they’re on bikes on one wheel, they look back and say they never heard — they just stayed in a row, kept the main highway. They don’t care nothing about you, they ain’t gotta move. If you call the cops, you got to go right down the highway like your state trooper and find one of them, ’cause that’s all they’re good at. Like, they try and run somebody down when they’re needed in the town.
WYNDALL WHITE: Yeah. I’m a long-time resident of Pocomoke City, been there for 55 years. And I came to be supportive for what is right. It’s… we’re at the point in our life now, and that crossroads in our city, that we need to stand up for social equality. We need to stand up for truth. And truth is not limited to just the color of your skin. It’s not limited to your race, or your background. Truth is truth. And we need to stand up for what is right. And whoever that is in place to help bring forth these truths, we need to leave him there. We know what Chief done when he came to our city. I’m under the impression whatever is not broken, don’t try to fix it. It wasn’t broken, so why are we trying to fix it? But we’re to that point now, we’ve got to do something to bring him back.
REV. JAMES JONES: Because it is important that we continue to stand, even when we don’t understand, to make a difference in what’s going on in our community. And we talk strongly about K.D. Sewell, well there’s also the person of Lynell Green, and Frank Savage. I had constant contact with these gentlemen. I was in their presence quite a bit — excluding Savage, because most of his work was undercover. But with Green and Sewell, I was in constant contact with these gentlemen, because they were concerned about what more could they do in our town and our city to help enhance the growth of the city. And what we witnessed, what I witnessed from those guys is integrity, loyalty, commitment, conviction. And what our county administration, for a better term, has tried to do in total is to damage that, to wipe that out. You ask questions, and you can’t get answers. You have your gut feeling that certain people are involved in this – i.e., the State’s Attorney, etcetera — and you cannot get direct answers. Yet you see their presence, and what’s being said and done, and we’ve had enough of that.
MARLENE MILBOURNE: My name is Marlene Milbourne and I’ve been a citizen of Pocomoke for 63 years, and I have seen a lot of corruption there. But this one takes the cake. Chief Sewell is a man that shows how he… he showed us how he loved Pocomoke. He was not just a Police Chief. He was everybody’s friend. He would stop, talk to you. If he saw you walking, he would stop and ask, “How are things going today, Miss Marlene?” And then I would tell him. If I needed him to come on the street, he would be there. If he was not there, then he would send one of his officers. So we didn’t just look at Chief Sewell as the Chief. We looked at him as a person that was willing and able to get along with every citizen of Pocomoke. If they were able to get… they would allow him to do that. So I just say I’m here today in support of Chief Sewell.
STEPHEN JANIS: Is there any fear amongst the community that they’ll come after you next?
PASTOR RONNIE WHITE: No.
MARLENE MILBOURNE: No.
PASTOR RONNIE WHITE: I don’t fear ’em.
MARLENE MILBOURNE: No, I don’t.
STEPHEN JANIS: Why not?
PASTOR RONNIE WHITE: Well, my thinking is God has not given me the spirit of fear — it’s love and power of the … so I hold onto my Scripture and I’m not worried about anyone coming after me. I’m gonna do what’s right. I’m going to stand up for what’s right. And I’m not gonna let anybody challenge me when it comes up to doing right. Because right is right and wrong is wrong. So, I’m definitely going to… I’m going to stand up for what’s right — and I don’t fear the people. I don’t fear any prosecuting, no State Prosecutors — none of them. I’m going to tell the truth, and they’re not going to make me get on the stand and tell a lie.
What we’re hoping that us being here today and working with the ACLU and working with the members of our community that somehow these charges will be overturned, and someone needs to hold the State Prosecutor accountable for what he did. I don’t think he should get away with it. I think he should be held accountable for what he did, because what he did was unlawful. This man did a good job in our city — and anyone else that had anything to do with it, they need to be held accountable for.
STEPHEN JANIS: How much do you think this has to do with race?
PASTOR RONNIE WHITE: Quite a bit. We’ve been… I’ve been in the city, be about all my life, but what we’re seeing now, huh, is just unbelievable. I mean, we’ve… if anybody can really say we’ve never seen anything like this now — not played out like it is, it may have been racial undertone — but now it’s, like, wide open.
MARLENE MILBOURNE: Yeah.
PASTOR RONNIE WHITE: You know. And because when we first started this thing, even with the Citizens for a Better Pocomoke, the first meeting we had and I made the statement that I felt that there was some racial undertone to all this that was going on, and I was told that, “No, I don’t… I don’t…” A lot of people were saying, “I don’t feel it’s about race. I don’t feel like it’s about race,” but there are some aspects of this whole scenario is about race. It’s unjustness, and the police department and the State’s Attorney’s Office, all these… and the mayor, the council office, but there is some racial undertone to this, and I really do believe that.
CURTIS MELBOURNE: Well… I guess I was asked to get on the election board, be an election judge, and they begged me to get on it. A few years ago, I ran for Councilman 3, for District 3, and I said, “Nah, I don’t think I want to do it,” you know. But I let ’em talk me into being elected, until now and I found out why — because they need somebody that at least come round and checkin’ the districts and stuff. The gentleman we have now, you never see him — not unless you go to one of the council meetings and everything, you know?
WOMAN: Now you can’t run for Council.
CURTIS MELBOURNE: I can’t run for Councilman now, but no big deal. It’s not the end of the world. But I just found out that they just decided if we have a run-off, they’re not going to do it like we did last time: revote and do a counting vote. They’re going to use a deck of cards like a gambler and whoever pulls the highest card wins. I never heard no crap like that in my life. But, you know, when they had their meeting, it was all just council — council members. There was only one African-American on that, the rest of them white. So automatically they voted on something like that. Like you’re a gambler.
It’s really sad, because it’s not the first incident that happened down there, but they’re to the point they just do what they please. They don’t care what the public says. And a lot of the public is not going to come out, anyway. They don’t get involved, you know. ‘Cause then they play their little nasty game — want to harass you on different ways that you wouldn’t believe, and everything, you know? But we get used to it, you know? But it’s going to stay that way. It’s not going to change. Somebody else gonna have to change it.
STEPHEN JANIS: How have they harassed you?
CURTIS MELBOURNE: Well, different little games. Just like that one with the voting thing. They didn’t tell us about that meeting that night, when they had the meeting and it came out, the supervisor of the election judge called me personally on my phone and told me they changed it now when it’s a tie vote — they’re going to go buy… get a fresh deck of cards, and the highest number wins. I said, well, there ain’t nothing I can do about it. They’re going to do what they want to do, anyway. But just the way they do little simple things, you know? They’re worse than first-graders, you know?
WYNDALL WHITE: I asked the Mayor and the Council, I said, “Since you did not let us know that you were going to have this meeting, and you were going to come up with this thing to change the Charter…” ’cause they’re actually gonna put this in the Charter now. inaudible
MARLENE MILBOURNE: With the deck of cards?
WYNDALL WHITE: With the deck of cards.
MARLENE MILBOURNE: indistinct
WYNDALL WHITE: I asked them, I said, “Well, this is what you should do. I said the proper thing to do is…” I said, “First of all, you’ve got to recognize, everybody that’s up here was elected. The council members were elected.” I said, “So you’re up here at the will of the people. So what you should do is have another meeting, invite the people to come out, let the people speak on it, and get an input from the people before you make a decision.” Reverend Tasker says, “No! No! Let’s just go forward with it.”
MARLENE MILBOURNE: Hm!
WYNDALL WHITE: “We said we were going to it, and let’s just do it.” So, they said they’ve… that’s what they did. So the Mayor hit his gavel down on the table, guess that was on me to be quiet…
GROUP: chuckling, indistinct
WYNDALL WHITE: So I just, you know, yeah, stopped talking and let them take over so then Right Reverend Tasker said, “We’re just gonna do it,” and then Trotter(?) started saying something, “Now, we… we got the vote. Let’s just do it!”
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.