EEOC says the city violated the rights of Chief Kelvin Sewell and Detective Frank Savage when it fired both last year
TAYA GRAHAM, TRNN: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. It’s been nearly a year since residents of this small, Eastern Shore town waited to learn why their first Black police chief was fired, but now details are finally emerging, and what they reveal paints a picture that is both troubling and profound. BRUCE MORRISON: But as mayor of Pocomoke City, I feel that the town has been damaged. GRAHAM: This was Pocomoke Mayor Bruce Morrison’s response last summer when asked by the Citizens for a Better Pocomoke if the city’s first Black police chief, Kelvin Sewell, would return to his job after the council had fired him in secret. RONNIE WHITE: Would you work with us? We’re asking the question of you. Would you work with us, with the majority of the citizenship, in fulfilling our request to instate Kelvin D. Sewell as chief of police of Pocomoke City? MORRISON: I just don’t feel that right now we can do that. [inaud.] I [would] take Sewell back. I don’t think that happened with the right [inaud.]. I don’t. GRAHAM: At the time, Mayor Morrison was unequivocal: Sewell would not be coming back. Sewell was terminated last year in a storm of controversy. He claimed it was in retaliation for refusing to fire two Black police officers who had filed federal discrimination complaints. KELVIN SEWELL: You don’t fire a chief who have a successful crime rate, lower crime rate. You fire a chief when crime is out of control, and that’s not the case here in Pocomoke City. GRAHAM: But Mayor Morrison and City Manager Ernie Crofoot suggested it was Sewell who had done something wrong. ERNIE CROFOOT: Being popular is important, but it’s not the only criterion for being a police chief, and not being able to go into reasons, but I leave it to your conjectures what are the possible things that someone who’s well liked can be terminated for? GRAHAM: But now a recent ruling by the Federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission calls into question the statements made by city officials then. According to sources familiar with the investigation, earlier this month the EEOC, a federal agency which investigates discrimination in the workplace, found probable cause that Pocomoke City’s firing of Sewell and another Black officer, Detective Frank Savage, violated federal anti-discrimination law. The federal agency determined the evidence corroborated Sewell’s claim that he was let go for refusing to fire Savage after he alleged the Worcester County drug task force had participated in a series of racially charged incidents while he worked there. It’s a significant challenge to the city and county officials, who have intimated from the start Sewell was let go for reasons that were otherwise nefarious, a narrative that city officials touted that appears to have major holes. The Real News Network has obtained this, Pocomoke City court filings and a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by Sewell, Savage and Lieutenant [Lynell] Green. In it, city officials failed to provide a reason for firing Sewell in the first place. In fact, all they offer are nonspecific causes for letting him go. The EEOC ruling and the lack of specifics in the lawsuit trouble White, who met with the Citizens for a Better Pocomoke Wednesday. The group formed last summer to push for Sewell’s return. WHITE: We’ve been asking questions. They said we would definitely find out that Chief Sewell did something, and they say they couldn’t tell us. They said it was a personnel matter and they could not explain it to us, but we would find out. But now in the lawsuit they can’t come up with anything, so that does raise concerns for us. GRAHAM: Also on hand was Sheila Nelson, candidate for the first district council seat, who will be on the ballot May 31 after officials botched the April 5 election when a voting machine failed. She, too expressed concern over the lack of transparency. SHEILA NELSON: It troubles many of the citizens of Pocomoke, simply because we already know, or I already know, that some citizens did know why he was terminated. Well, if those citizens know, why doesn’t the other citizens know. It bothers us. Or, maybe they feel that they’ve run to a dead end. GRAHAM: For now, the EEOC has scheduled a mediation hearing in between Pocomoke City officials and Sewell, during which, sources tell us, he can legally ask for his job back. If the city declines or is a no-show, then the Justice Department could intervene and sue the city. Whatever happens next, Pocomoke City officials aren’t discussing what they plan to do. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.
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